On workfare: 'I don't feel like a charity case anymore'

Robin Merrill thinks workfare is a good idea. At least, it has been for her. Through the workfare program in Nashua, N.H., the only one in the New England area, Robin has obtained her first job since dropping out of seventh grade eight years ago. The 38 hours a month she puts in as a receptionist at the Senior Citizens Center "pays" for the $127 monthly food-stamp allotment that she and her mother receive. In addition, the four-month work experience has given her the skills and confidence she needs to get a real job.

"Before, I was real shy," she says, "but now I'm more confident. I think I can get a real job soon. Besides, I don't feel like a charity case anymore."

Robin's success in a workfare program is just what Congress wants to see. Some 14 such pilot programs dot the country from California to New England and Florida. The programs, operating on one-year federal grants, are scheduled to end Sept. 30. But the farm bill coming before Congress next month contains provisions for the optional continuance and establishment of such programs at the local level.

The pilot programs require all able-bodied food-stamp recipients between the ages of 18 and 60 to pay off their benefits with public-service work. Exemptions are made for those already working, receiving unemployment compensation, or caring for a child under 12 as a single parent. Such restrictions currently allow only a small percentage of food-stamp participants to become eligible for workfare. But pending legislation would tighten those exemptions.

After an initial 30-day work-search period, participants are subject to assignment to local public and nonprofit agencies. Recipients are credited with the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour and must work a sufficient number of hours to offset their monthly food-stamp allotments. Thus, an individual receiving the $70 maximum in food stamps must work approximately 20 hours a month. Refusal to work without good cause results in a one-month sanction or forfeiture of food-stamp benefits.

In Nashua, N.H., more than 3,000 people receive food stamps. But only 200 so far have been eligible for workfare. Statistics are available for only 127 of those participants, but 99 of them are no longer on the stamp rolls, having either found employment or been dropped from the program. The savings to the city has been $7,000 to $11,000, making the program relatively cost-efficient.

Many participants, like Robin Merrill, find it logical to slip from the workfare/food-stamp rolls to paying jobs.

"It's a great incentive program," says city welfare director Jean Field, who administers it. "But it's ridiculous to have to add yet another layer of bureaucracy just to get people jobs."

The motivating factor, according to Mrs. Field, is not just the possible loss of food stamps, but also the feeling that if one must work for the stamps, one might as well work for real wages. One Nashua couple, unemployed for more than 18 months, found paying jobs only one day after being on workfare, she says.

Nashua, she concedes, is a relatively easy place to find work. With a jobless rate of 2.7 percent, the city has the lowest unemployment of any workfare program in the country.

Several types of jobs are available at the various human service agencies in Nashua. Someone may be clerking at the library or raking leaves at the high school. But an effort is made to fit the job to the person. One unemployed chef recently was put to work teaching cooking at a local girls club.

Not everyone is positive about the program. "Quite a few resent being made to work for something they used to get free," says assistant administrator Carole Preston. One young man, she says, broke the door of the welfare office in anger and dropped out of the program. Now he is letting his parents feed him rather than work for his stamps. The penalty for refusing a workfare assignment is a one-month "sanction" or forfeiture of food stamps.

Executive director Robert Gross of New Hampshire Legal Assistance says his agency is watching the Nashua program for violations and complaints. Such projects, he says, often cause more resentment than intended. But he admitted there had been no problems so far.

The oldest and largest workfare program is in San Diego, which has 45,000 households eligible for food stamps and has received a $528,000 federal grant. But, as in Nashua, only a small percentage of recipients are actually required to work.

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