AUGUST 13, 1997
It's been a year since President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, and recipients are pleased with the results. Paul Solman talks with two people that have different perspectives about the workforce, and discusses the benefits.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, the workfare story. We begin with this backgrounder from Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: It's been a year since President Clinton signed welfare reform into law, fulfilling, he said, his longstanding pledge to end welfare as we know it. Yesterday, while touring Midtech, a St. Louis company that teaches welfare recipients skills they need to find and keep jobs, the President said welfare reform is succeeding. He noted that 1.4 million Americans have left the welfare rolls in the last year.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I heard all the reasons that people said it wouldn't work, but a year later I think it's fair to say the debate is over. We know now that welfare reform works.
KWAME HOLMAN: The new welfare law mandated that half the people on public assistance be working by the year 2002. Welfare benefits have a lifetime limit of five years, and recipients may get benefits for only two years consecutively.
The federal guidelines also require single parent welfare recipients to work at least 20 hours a week. Recipients in two-parent households must work at least 35 hours a week. But states were allowed to design their own welfare programs as long as they meet those minimum federal requirements. In California, which has nearly a quarter of the nation's welfare recipients, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Monday that mirrors the federal statute.
It also calls for a billion dollars in child care money for welfare recipients and $1/2 billion for job training. As in other states, California recipients will be required to work in community service or participate in job searches or job training programs. And they must actively look for work and accept any valid job offer.
SPOKESPERSON: And what are your plans to become economically independent? In other words, what are your plans to support yourself?
KWAME HOLMAN: Wisconsin was one of the first states to impose new stricter rules, and in the last year Wisconsin's welfare rolls have shrunk nearly 25 percent. Recipients who don't find work are assigned jobs by a state agency and soon most of them will be required to work 40 hours a week. New York City started requiring welfare recipients to work three years ago. Today, 35,000 of the city's 400,000 welfare recipients report to so-called workfare jobs, such as helping the city clean the streets.
RICHARD SCHWARTZ, Senior Adviser to the Mayor: Workfare provides people the opportunity to reciprocate, to discharge a responsibility in exchange for the benefit that they receive. There's also dignity in work. It gives people something to do every day and brings them back into the mainstream.
KWAME HOLMAN: There has, however, been considerable criticism of workfare. For example, fare participant Shawn Whorton earns only about a third of what unionized city workers are paid for the same job.
SHAWN WHORTON, Welfare Recipient: It's exploitive. We're doing their jobs but not getting their wages.
KWAME HOLMAN: And union officials complain the program threatens New York's municipal employees.
ARTHUR CHELIOTES, Communications Workers of America: It's taking away jobs that used to be held by city workers and filling them with people at really sub-minimum wage.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last month, New York City's workfare program came under fire from a coalition of local religious groups. They called the program "unfair" and compared it to slavery.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul Solman takes it from there.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay now. Two views of workfare. Lawrence Mead is a professor of politics at New York University and author of the "New Politics of Poverty." Peter Cicchino, a former priest, is a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center in New York City. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Professor Mead, in general, what's so good about workfare? What do you like about it?
LAWRENCE MEAD, New York University: (New York) Well, workfare is a way to be sure that some people on welfare actually work. New York City has a special problem in getting any important share of the caseload actually involved in welfare work activities, and, therefore, in New York, a rationale for providing people these government jobs. In general, it would be better to stress private sector job placement. And that's what most programs do. But in the New York context I think it's wise to begin in this way. One should work towards a system, I think, where more people are looking for jobs in the private sector, with--rather, with the workfare jobs as a backup.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Cicchino, what's wrong with workfare, again, sort of in general? I guess we'll get down to each argument case by case, but please.
PETER CICCHINO, Urban Justice Center: (New York) I think the problem with workfare is that it's a way of reducing the welfare rolls by throwing otherwise eligible people out of the program. And it does that first by placing people in jobs that have none of the safety or health or legal protections that ordinary workers have, and then compensating them at levels far beneath the poverty level.
And besides it has a bad effect, as your reporter noted, on full-time workers and the wages they earn. And I should note that the sanction rate--that is, people who are terminated for various workfare violations in New York--approaches 61 percent. And that's by the city's own estimates.
PAUL SOLMAN: That's people getting fired, you mean, or kicked off?
PETER CICCHINO: Fired really isn't the word, because they're not in the job. What it means is that you are terminated. You get a letter saying that in some way you've not complied with workfare and, therefore, your Medicaid, your food stamps, and whatever cash assistance you get is terminated. And, by the way, those benefits are very meager--about half the poverty level.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, let's start with your first one. Too little money. Prof. Mead, are these workers being exploited? Slavery is, after all, what's being alleged by some activists in New York City.
PETER CICCHINO: Well, I disagree with that. They're working in response to their welfare. They are recompensing society for what they're getting. They're getting less than regular workers, but they, themselves, are not regular workers. These are people who were not working at the time when they were required to participate in this program. They have not yet gone out and gotten their own job. But when they do that, they would certainly be entitled to the same reward as any other worker.
For these workers this is a first step. This is a way to get organized, to understand that being on welfare is an obligation to society. The next step is to get a regular job. And at that point you certainly should get all that any other worker gets.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, so, Mr. Cicchino, shouldn't they have to work? We'll get to your other points in a moment, but shouldn't they have to work as a moral issue?
PETER CICCHINO: I think this. I think we should have a society where every person who is able-bodied and willing to work, has a decent job at decent wages, and we should assist people in getting such jobs, or providing the training and education required to get such jobs. But workfare does not do that.
These people work, as any other worker does. And they don't receive the compensation or protections or dignity that other workers receive. But let me be clear--and here I very strongly disagree with Prof. Mead--workfare workers work. And you have only to spend a few days on the job with them, as I and my colleagues have, to know that.
PAUL SOLMAN: I have too, and they certainly do work. You wouldn't disagree with that, would you, Prof. Mead?
LAWRENCE MEAD: No. No. They're working, and most of them like their jobs. From what we can tell, most of them think these jobs are dignified, and they're happier to be in these jobs than just being on welfare. So the opposition to workfare doesn't really come from the recipients. It comes from people outside welfare who think it's a bad idea. But the public thinks it's a very good idea.
In fact, over three quarters of New Yorkers think that it's fair to expect people on welfare to work in these community service positions. And, in fact, 3/4 of the recipients, themselves, say that it's fair. They think it's a good idea. So it's not clear who the opponents are really speaking for. They're entitled to their own opinion, but the notion that this system is unpopular with the recipients is simply false.
PAUL SOLMAN: So who are you speaking for, Mr. Cicchino?
PETER CICCHINO: I think Prof. Mead has completely mischaracterized the data. When people are asked the question in the abstract, should people work for benefits, yes, generally, you get overwhelming support from the public and even from poor people on public assistance. But when you get more specific and talk about the program, itself, and, as they say, both God and the devil are in the details--
PAUL SOLMAN: Right.
PETER CICCHINO: --then you get vastly different responses. And, as an example perhaps against what Prof. Mead said, remember, nearly 60 percent of people are thrown out for non-compliance. And the agency for which I work alone handles thousands, literally thousands of fare hearings where people involved in workfare go before an administrative law judge and dispute the conditions of their work.
To me, that is hardly, hardly a sign of widespread satisfaction. And in this I will invoke my own experience. I don't think that people who defend this program are the sorts of people who have daily contact with actual human beings in real workfare assignments.
PAUL SOLMAN: What about these terminations, Prof. Mead? This is now the second time they've been alluded to.
LAWRENCE MEAD: The New York system has led to a large number of fare hearings on the part of people who feel they've been unjustly terminated. That's correct. But the majority of those who leave the program do so simply because they don't show up for their jobs. And they're terminated simply for non-compliance with the requirement.
I don't mean there aren't cases in dispute, but the majority of cases are not in dispute. People simply don't show up. That's the usual reason why people are sanctioned for most work programs, including workfare in New York City. It doesn't mean that they've been thrown out of welfare. It's, rather, that they haven't shown up for their assignment.
PAUL SOLMAN: But he means that it's not a particularly attractive thing to do if that many people are not doing it, or don't continue.
LAWRENCE MEAD: We don't know why they've left. Maybe they've got a better job outside the welfare system, which would be desirable. Maybe they find some other way to support themselves. Surveys have been done by people in workfare jobs in a number of other states--not in New York--but including California, Chicago, and a number of other localities.
And in the majority of cases most of the recipients involved in these very jobs thought they were a good idea, and they felt that they were well treated. They thought the job made them feel better about being on welfare. They thought it was just that they should have to work. In other words, they didn't dispute the jobs in the way that the advocates are doing. So, again, they're speaking for themselves.
PAUL SOLMAN: Don't people like to work? When I've interviewed people, Mr. Cicchino, certainly who have been on welfare, many of them say, "I'd rather work than be on welfare, even though the money is the same, even if the money is the same."
PETER CICCHINO: I agree that people do want to work, but, no, I find a growing resentment for the fact that people are doing jobs at a pittance of what other workers were formerly paid. And one of the areas in which you see this is when workfare workers are being supervised by or working with ordinary line workers and are meeting incredible resentment.
I also want to say, to return to an earlier point, I disagree with Prof. Mead. We don't know why people leave workfare assignments. The city records sanction letters saying people walked off. And I should say, again, what I think is good probative evidence to contradict Prof. Mead in more than 90 percent of the cases in which a workfare worker is represented--and I want to stress that--is represented--the administrative law judges have ruled in favor of the workfare worker and against the city. So that tells you something about the kind of abuses that are going on in workfare.
PAUL SOLMAN: What did you mean earlier when you talked about driving down wages? Could you just make that case quickly?
PETER CICCHINO: The case is a simple one. It's basic supply and demand. By forcing enormous numbers of people into the low-wage labor market you are naturally--by increasing that supply, you are driving down the demand. And when it comes to municipal workers, by replacing unionized, full-time, paid municipal workers with workfare workers--and by the way, New York City has replaced about 21,000 workers in the past two years--you're naturally depressing the number of jobs and the wages of people. And that hurts American families. It hurts everyone.
PAUL SOLMAN: Prof. Mead, that's a frequently-made criticism. What's your response to that?
LAWRENCE MEAD: Well, there might be a basis for saying that the use of workfare workers would cast question on the salaries earned by public sector employees in New York City. That's possible. They, after all, are among the highest paid public employees in the country. But, in general, I know of no evidence that programs like this have produced a depressing effect on wages in the labor market generally.
On the contrary, I really--it just simply isn't true. There's so much employment available of this sort--low wage employment in the economy--that the welfare work programs that exist so far have not had any perceptible effect on wages that I know of. A lot of people are concerned about displacement under the new federal law, which does require much higher work levels. But, to date, we haven't seen anything like this.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Cicchino, finally, slavery. I mean, would you really call this slavery, as many groups have signed a petition suggesting it is?
PETER CICCHINO: Well, I should say the Urban Justice Center for which I work is one of the organizers of that. And I think we have to be fair rhetoric, a little bit of hyperbole and overstatement. I think we have to give all of us a certain margin for that in political debate.
But this I do believe--I do believe that workfare is in a kind of involuntary servitude; that people are threatened with literally being thrown into the street--they and their children. Because if your case is closed, your children's case is closed. And that means no Medicaid, no medical care, no food stamps, no shelter, no cash.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much. I appreciate it.