N.Y.'s Workfare Shrinks Welfare Rolls
Opponents contend participants take jobs from civil servants
NEW YORK — NO one can call them lazy.
Manhattanite Anthony Crawford is up at 5:30 in the morning. Brooklyn resident Cynthia Jordan, faced with more than an hour's commute on the subway, is up at 4:30 a.m.
What makes Mr. Crawford and Ms. Jordan different from other early-rising New Yorkers is that they are on welfare. But to collect their government checks they must clean the city's parks.
The two are part of the country's largest experiment in "workfare," which requires able-bodied welfare recipients to push a broom or scrub a floor.
Because of its sheer size and its politically ambitious Republican champion, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, this workfare program is being closely watched. After six months, it is already generating controversial results.
In combination with fraud detection and a tougher screening process, the Work Experience Program (WEP) is shrinking the welfare rolls for New York. Since January, the number of home-relief recipients has shrunk from 250,000 to 215,000 people.
This month the ranks of the city's broom pushers have swelled to 25,000 people. By the end of the year, the city expects it could have an army of 50,000 welfare recipients cleaning, scrubbing, and performing menial office work.
City officials maintain that the nascent program is a success. "It's working far better than anyone ever dreamed," says Richard Schwartz, senior policy adviser to Mayor Giuliani, who started the program.
But critics contend that the program has its price. "I don't know what Richard Schwartz dreams at night - is he thrilled he has closed 45,000 Home Reliefcases between January and now?" retorts Liz Krueger, associate director the Community Food Resource Center, a social-services group.
This debate over the concept of workfare has been raging for decades. Former presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and President Clinton have all suggested some form of workfare. Supporters claim the work prepares recipients for the labor market and makes them work for something that has traditionally been given away. Opponents question whether the recipients actually get meaningful jobs or just take away jobs from civil servants.
In 1981, Congress permitted states to set workfare requirements for individuals receiving welfare from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Since then, at least eight cities or states have tried some sort of program. The Big Apple's program, which deals with Home Relief (state welfare), not AFDC, is the largest program to date.
In a 1993 study of some of the programs, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit social research organization, found little evidence that the workfare experience led to consistent employment. And it wasn't clear that workfare leads to lower welfare payments.
"Evidence it saves money is not clear," says Judith Gueron, president of Manpower.
New York's program, for example, costs $500 to $1,200 per workfare job per year. By years end, the administrative cost could total $40 million annually.
THE city believes workfare is also cutting down on fraud and abuse of the system. Schwartz says the work requirement means that welfare recipients can't earn money on the black market and still put in their 20 to 26 hours of work per week.
"It's an old rule of physics you can't be in two places at once," he explains.
Mr. Schwartz says he believes that many of the individuals who have dropped out, which amounts to about 30 percent of those in the program, have found a job.
"It is our anecdotal understanding that these people make an economic calculation that they are better off finding a job in the private sector instead of working 23 hours a week at minimum wage. They can work 40 hours at $1 above minimum wage," Schwartz says.
If this shift is taking place, it has yet to show up in New York's employment numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both job growth and employment in the city have been flat over the past six months.
Instead, welfare workers believe many of the people are dropping out of the system and sleeping in shelters and subway tunnels. "The shelters are filled," says Ms. Krueger.
Some of the city's unions are suspicious that the WEP workers are taking their jobs. In 1991, the painter's union filed a lawsuit against the city for using home relief recipients to paint the homeless shelters. Today, Stephen Melish Jr., president of the Local 1969, Civil Service Painters, says "I am sure they [the WEP workers] are doing the jobs of other city workers as well."
But city agencies have welcomed the additional workers. Parks & Recreation Commissioner Henry Stern calls the WEP program "terrific." Since the agency has lost nearly 50 percent of its work force since 1986, an additional 3,700 WEP workers have helped clean up the area, he says. The part-time WEPs, who work 22 to 25 hours per week, now outnumber the full-time Parks employees. "We believe we treat them with a lot of dignity," he says.
The workers say they don't mind working for the city. "I'm tired of people saying welfare recipients are lazy - we want to work; we just can't find work," says Juan Gonzalez, a Brooklyn resident.
And even though the job is often menial, the WEP workers say they believe it is valuable experience. "You learn to be on time and be responsible," says Marta Gonzalez. "I've never missed a day," Mr. Crawford says proudly. He has participated in the program since January and works 25 hours a week. He will soon begin a city-funded training program designed to place people in the private sector.
Their WEP supervisor, Reggie Washington, tries to help them maintain a positive attitude. "I am always drilling into them that there will be a better day," he says. Mr. Washington's enthusiasm is catching. At 7 a.m. he surveys the group and asks, "Are we going to do that work today?" He gets back a snappy, "Yes." "That's a beautiful attitude," he concludes.