April 12, 1998

Evidence Is Scant That Workfare Leads to Full-Time Jobs


NEW YORK -- Three years ago, when a national overhaul of welfare was still a Republican dream in Washington, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began his own ambitious experiment. At its heart was a vast expansion of workfare -- sending tens of thousands of New Yorkers into parks, city offices and hospital wards to work for their welfare checks.

First of four articles.
Since then, 200,000 people have passed through what has become by far the largest workfare program in the nation: more than 34,000 are enrolled today. Giuliani often hails workfare as a keystone of his mayoralty and a national model for rousting people from a culture of dependency.

When he does so, he can point out that the city's welfare rolls have shrunk by nearly a third, in part because workfare has forced out people who used to work secretly while getting public assistance.

Workfare, the mayor often says, has also taught some welfare recipients lessons about the ennobling value of work and the responsibility of contributing to society.

But an extensive examination by The New York Times found scant evidence that workfare has accomplished one of its central goals -- moving a significant number of people from welfare to full-time work.

Workfare has provided limited job training for many of the poorly skilled, poorly educated New Yorkers on public assistance. Much of the work is so menial that it offers few, if any, skills that employers demand. Participants receive little help looking for a permanent job; half of them get none at all.

And there is no indication that many people have been able to use workfare as a springboard to a real job: a recent state survey, the first of its kind, found that after three months off the rolls, fewer than a third of those who left welfare in New York City found full- or part-time jobs on the books.

Where workfare leads is a matter of growing urgency as welfare recipients for the first time face being cut off the rolls under new state and federal laws. The federal law, enacted two years ago, places a five-year limit on single mothers; adults without young children, supported by the city and state program formerly called Home Relief, are under a two-year limit on cash benefits.

But many workfare participants say they already knew how to push a broom or pick up trash and are mystified at how workfare will lead them to a permanent job.

Mark Cummings, who is 46 and used to be a handyman and plumber, has picked up trash and done odd jobs in Brooklyn's Prospect Park since 1995 in return for public assistance. He enjoys the work, is treated well by his supervisors and has only one real complaint: "I just wish this led somewhere."

The mayor and his senior aides declined to be interviewed for this article and for most of the others in this series of articles. They would not discuss the history of workfare or even some basic questions of fact. Nor would they talk about its future, although the city has quietly made some recent adjustments, and the mayor's new social service commissioner has hinted of more to come.

"The feeling here now is they would rather not sit down and discuss these issues," said Giuliani's deputy press secretary, Jack Deacy. "They feel the program's well known."

Some aspects of workfare have indeed been reported before. But to understand in far greater detail how workfare works, and to assess its effectiveness, four Times reporters visited more than 50 work sites over the last four months and spoke with hundreds of participants and supervisors.

The inquiry showed that workfare had failed to live up to a number of promises:

The mayor says workfare participants have not taken the places of regular city employees. But, in seeming violation of state welfare law, many participants, especially those cleaning city office buildings or working as clerks and receptionists, are doing work once performed by civil servants. In some cases, they are working side by side with civil servants, doing the same tasks.
There is a severe shortage of child care for mothers called to workfare. Although state law requires the city to find safe child care for those mothers, the shortage has left some caseworkers unable -- or unwilling -- to give women the help they need. And while mothers without proper care are supposed to be excused from workfare, caseworkers sometimes threaten to cut off their welfare benefits, pushing them into leaving their children in substandard care.
Picayune or technical work rules are sometimes rigidly enforced, pushing people off welfare whether it is warranted or not. These punishments have created a sizeable churning in which thousands of people are cut off the welfare rolls each month, only to return later. When welfare recipients challenge these sanctions in administrative hearings, they are successful two-thirds of the time.
Working conditions have improved, but workfare participants are still sometimes denied access to toilets and drinking water or lack basic equipment like raincoats and boots. Some, like Clara Chalk, who sweeps the streets of Brooklyn, have not even been issued winter coats.

Even with such problems, many workfare participants said they were happy to be working, were usually treated fairly and found most supervisors empathetic. "This is better," said Celena Vargas, who was raking leaves at a Bronx housing project. "I didn't do anything in my home."

But critics of workfare, and some proponents as well, argue that if people are to find real jobs, most need to know more than how to report to work on time -- especially in a city where the unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, nearly double the national average. They point out that the welfare population is hardly a model labor pool: many recipients have limited skills and educations, a significant number are addicted to drugs or alcohol and some resist the idea of working.

Officials Reluctant to Answer Workfare Inquiries

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the senior aides who oversee the city's vast workfare program often praise it as one of the administration's hallmark achievements. But neither the Mayor nor his aides would discuss workfare with the New York Times reporters preparing this series of articles on the program.

And while spokesmen for the Mayor and for several city agencies initially answered statistical and other factual questions, most of them stopped answering questions in the latter stages of preparation of the articles. Some even ceased to return telephone calls from reporters, on orders from City Hall, according to several municipal officials.

On Jan. 29, a reporter spoke with Jack Deacy, Mr. Giuliani's deputy press secretary, and asked for interviews with the Mayor and other officials: Anthony P. Coles, a senior adviser to the Mayor who is in charge of overhauling welfare; Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who stepped down recently as the head of the Human Resources Administration, the city's social services agency, and Jason A. Turner, who succeeded Ms.

The critics of workfare are hardly limited to liberal Democrats and advocates for the poor. Across the country, where the welfare caseload has dropped by about a third, local officials rethinking welfare have largely shunned workfare as an expensive program that has not been notably successful at getting people into real jobs. Instead, they have pushed people directly into the private job market, especially in areas where unemployment is much lower than in New York.

New York is the only city to move large numbers of single mothers into workfare. By contrast, Los Angeles County, with the nation's largest welfare caseload and second-largest workfare program, hopes to keep most mothers out of workfare. Officials plan to spend the next two years helping mothers look for jobs, improve their basic education and hone their vocational skills. Only mothers who do not find jobs after two years will end up in workfare.

Giuliani, though, often does not use jobs as a measure of workfare's success. He emphasizes instead the 31 percent decline in the welfare rolls, from 1.16 million in 1995 to 797,000 last month. The core of that decline, he said in a speech in February, "is the workfare program, which continues to be controversial, but it's something that I think is probably the best thing that we've done."

But many participants said the public debate had ignored many daily realities of what is formally called the Work Experience Program. Some said there was often not enough work to fill a shift. Parks workers are often sent home early, especially in winter. Some WEP workers who sweep streets or clean outside housing projects said they finished in an hour or two, then spent their shifts hanging out.

Sometimes, supervisors just make work.

At the Sedgwick Houses, a housing project in the Bronx, a workfare crew finished raking leaves by 10:30 one morning, recalled Yolanda Green, a member of the crew. The supervisor grabbed the plastic bags into which the leaves had been swept, dumped the leaves back out and told the workers to sweep them up again. Ms. Green refused, but before the dispute could be resolved, rain began to fall and the workers and their supervisor went inside.

The Mission: A Shift From Training To the 'Work Ethic'

Workfare in New York dates back to the administration of Mayor Ed Koch in the mid-1980s, when the city began requiring some welfare recipients to choose from a mix of training programs, high school equivalency classes or work experience in city agencies.

Early in 1995, the Giuliani administration started to expand workfare dramatically and to narrow the choices. What it created were essentially two programs.

The first participants were adults on Home Relief, who are required to stay on workfare until they find full-time jobs. Participants typically work 25 to 35 hours every two weeks -- in six- or seven-hour shifts -- most of them for the Sanitation or Parks Departments.

There are no training or educational programs available for WEP workers on Home Relief. The mayor says he is convinced that most participants need only learn basic work skills to get a job in the private sector.

"In welfare, I think one of the prime mistakes that we made was we put training first and work second," Giuliani said in an interview with Times reporters and editors four days before his re-election last November. "And therefore when they did that institutionally, millions of people lost the work ethic. Work is hard. Getting up every day, making sure you get to a job, getting yourself cleaned and ready to do it -- there's a certain discipline that's required for everybody in that. And what we were doing in welfare was training, training, training, training."

In 1996, the city expanded workfare again, to single mothers on welfare. Some were forced to leave college or other school programs. By last January, the last month for which complete data were available, there were 17,000 single mothers in workfare, along with 16,000 adults on Home Relief.

Most mothers work five days a week from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., usually filing papers or doing general cleaning in city offices. After six months, they spend a month in a basic job-search class and are sent out to look for work. Those who do not get a job -- and they are the vast majority -- usually return to workfare.

Today, despite the expansion, the 34,100 people in workfare represent fewer than 10 percent of the adults on welfare. An additional 130,000 adults have been deemed eligible for workfare but have yet to be put to work. City officials declined to explain why.

From the start, the city essentially took a one-size-fits-all approach to workfare. Participants were generally given low-skill jobs, whether or not they had work experience.

For 14 years, Eustacia Ojeda had worked as a cashier in a Brooklyn liquor store. A year ago, the owner retired and the store shut down. She was making $140 a week at the time. Now, she finds herself picking up trash in the parks and feeling bitter that the city is not helping her find a job.

Ms. Ojeda went on Home Relief when her unemployment benefits ran out. She gets food stamps, a rent allowance and $101 a month in cash. In return, she sweeps and rakes five days every two weeks at the Parade Grounds, a complex of baseball diamonds and tennis courts next to Prospect Park.

"We don't learn anything here," she said. "The program says you come here for training, but all we do is pick up paper."

Ms. Ojeda said she had been answering newspaper ads in hope of finding work. Nothing has come through, and she suspects it has to do with her age. "It's hard to find a job now for me, because I'm 56," she said.

Critics of workfare say her predicament shows the futility of the one-size-fits-all approach. Since she already knows basic work skills, they say, the city should be teaching her new skills to make her more marketable.

"It's one thing if all you want to do is to create a permanent workfare work force," said City Councilman Stephen DiBrienza, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the General Welfare Committee. "But the fact is that we are supposed to go from welfare to work, not from welfare to workfare."

Of course, many, if not most, people in workfare do not have Ms. Ojeda's long grounding in work. But whether the stain on someone's resume involves time in prison or an interrupted education, even proponents of workfare say that kind of personal history is precisely why people need to learn more than basic work habits to get a job.

"Workfare is an essential first component in any welfare reform program," said Suzanne Strickland, a supporter of the WEP program who as a private consultant created a city program on linking welfare recipients with private companies.

Ms. Strickland said it was an important administrative achievement just to have reviewed everyone in Home Relief to determine who was capable of enrolling in workfare and to strip the rolls of people who had used welfare to supplement off-the-books jobs.

But because more than half of those on welfare do not have high school diplomas, she said, work experience has to be combined with education, training and experience in private companies to move people permanently off welfare. Also, many companies require applicants to pass a drug test, "and that's a problem," she said.

"Work experience in a workfare program," Ms. Strickland said, "just is not a credential to get you in the private sector."

THE NUMBERS: Hard to Determine Program's Success

Whether many people ever reach the private sector is a central mystery of workfare.

City officials take two approaches when talking about welfare to work. Giuliani often says work experience is valuable in itself -- whether or not it leads to a real job.

"They clean the parks, they clean the streets, they clean the buses and they clean the sanitation trucks, and they contribute back to the rest of society," he said in a speech in February. "Now what's wrong with that? That is exactly what the social contract is all about."

At other times, though, Giuliani and his aides say workfare has moved a large number of New Yorkers into real jobs. Asked how many WEP workers had found permanent jobs, Deacy, the deputy press secretary, said there were 130,000 "documented job placements" between 1994 and 1997.

But neither he nor the mayor's press secretary, Colleen Roche, would respond to questions about whether these placements involved only people in workfare or in welfare over all.

The number of WEP workers specifically known to have obtained permanent jobs is much smaller. Since 1995, about 1,000 have been hired full time by city agencies: 300 by the city's Housing Authority, 200 by the Parks Department, 97 by the Health Department and 451 by the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs the city hospitals.

The Parks Department says it helped 750 WEP workers get jobs in private companies over the last three years. An additional 640 found jobs through the city's Businesslink program, created to connect welfare recipients with jobs, during the fiscal year that ended last June, a mayoral spokesman said.

The first broad statistical insights into the question came from the recent state survey, and it found that of those who came off the rolls in New York City from July 1996 through March 1997, 29 percent made at least $100 on the books in the first three months after leaving welfare.

The survey used computer databases to compare lists of people whose benefits had ended against records of wages reported to the state by employers over the following three months. The survey did not distinguish between full-time jobs and part-time or occasional work; nor did it take into account people who were working off the books, were self-employed or had moved out of the state.

Giuliani highlighted those flaws in publicly criticizing the state study. But the city has not surveyed people leaving welfare or workfare, and has blocked independent attempts to survey former welfare recipients, including those working off the books.

An attempt by professors at Columbia University's School of Social Work broke down in part because the city wanted to review and respond to any report before publication.

And The Times sued the city last fall, seeking the names and addresses of those leaving welfare so it could create a random sample for a scientific survey.

City lawyers contended that the information was confidential under state law. Lawyers for The Times argued that state law requires the city to furnish the information, provided the newspaper does not publish recipients' names and other personal information. The newspaper has promised in writing not to do so.

On Friday, state Supreme Court Justice Bernard Fried of ruled that The Times was entitled to the information. City officials said they would appeal.

In recent months, while Giuliani has continued to hail workfare as a great success, the city has quietly begun to make some changes that seem to acknowledge that work experience, by itself, is often not enough to move people from welfare to work.

Six months ago, the city started tailoring programs toward some single mothers' educational and work histories. Those with recent job experience were sent immediately for a four-week job search, instead of first spending six months in workfare.

Many single mothers who lack a high school diploma or English-language skills have been enrolled in programs in which they alternate between a week in workfare and a week of studying. About a quarter of the mothers in workfare are now enrolled in work-study, city officials said.

The mayor and his new human resources commissioner, Jason Turner -- who arrived from Wisconsin in February with a reputation for reconfiguring welfare -- have not said much publicly about other changes in workfare. But there have been hints that they may shift direction.

Speaking to state legislators in Albany last month, Turner said his highest priority would be to route welfare recipients directly into private jobs and into temporary, subsidized jobs in private companies. Workfare should be considered a useful alternative for those who cannot get permanent or temporary employment, he said.

For now, though, three-quarters of the mothers in workfare are still left working in city agencies with occasional breaks for a job search. As for childless adults, they must still figure out on their own how to make the journey from workfare to work.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company