Activists Speak Out: The Poverty of Welfare Reform

interview with Heidi Dorow

HEIDI DOROW IS the director of the Urban Justice Center Organizing Project in New York City. She was interviewed by Dianne Feeley and David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

ATC: What are the state and city workfare programs that you’re confronting?

Heidi Dorow: As you know, in 1996 the federal law was changed regarding welfare monies for the states. The states must now apply for block grant funding; part of the requirement is to place more and more recipients into “work-related activities.” Most states have interpreted this mean “workfare,” or work-for-benefits programs.

At the state level there are in turn various municipal programs. Our New York City administration beat the federal government to the punch by creating WEP—Work Experience Program.

WEP is a work-for-benefits program. But the work assignments people get aren’t jobs; they are unpaid labor that people perform to work off their benefits.

For example: If you’re a single adult in New York City receiving public assistance, you’re entitled to a monthly $215 rent allowance—if you can find a place to live for $215 a month, Welfare will pay your landlord—and in addition you’re entitled to $105 in food stamps and approximately $137 cash.

This all adds up to $457 per month. WEP takes that total amount, divides it by the minimum wage, and that’s the number of hours you have to work at your assignment every month to get those benefits.

Most of the roughly 40,000 participants in the WEP program here are placed in city agencies, meaning they’re working for Parks, Sanitation, the Board of Education, Human Resources Administration, welfare offices—any city agency you can name. Several thousand more are working for non-profits or religious institutions.

The program originally targeted single adults and has since expanded to adults with children, former ADC recipients (they only work twenty hours a week).

Some of the organizing that’s going on around this issue includes attempts to organize these WEP workers at their work sites. I won’t go into that, since my organization’s not working on that.

What we’re doing is the WEP Pledge of Resistance. We created a Pledge, targeting non-profits and religious organizations, to promise that they will not become placement centers for WEP. We are trying to shut down that avenue for the city to expand the WEP program.

Our appeal is that WEP is not a just program—it’s not something that people of conscience should engage in. Rather, we argue, we should be demanding the creation of living wage jobs.

ATC: How are you working on your Pledge?

HD: We contact congregations and non-profits, we phone and mail them information and follow up by phone again, we try to have a meeting with the congregation or a committee in the church. We do staff meetings, teach-ins, all the tactics of grassroots organizing—anything to get people educated on the issue.

While it’s important to get people and institutions to sign the Pledge—right now we have about 170 signed on—the main goal is education around the issue. In addition, we’re working with folks who have signed the Pledge to get more involved.

We’re co-sponsoring a demonstration next Thursday (February 12) with Riverside Church. The target is HS Systems, a for-profit agency with an $18 million contract to give medical and psychiatric evaluations to people going into the WEP program.

They see over 700 people per day, and they have a notorious reputation for giving “evaluations” without even examining people. In one case, they found someone “able to work” when she had a —-year history of heart disease. She went to her WEP assignment and died of a heart attack.

ATC: So this kind of action is one of your tactics for going public? What would be other possible targets?

HD: It’s a public campaign anyway—we had a press conference to launch it in June `97 and got front-page coverage in the New York Times. What’s new about this demonstration is that it’s church-initiated, the first time a congregation came forward and said it wanted to do an action.

It’s really up to them to determine the targets. For example, there’s a place here called the Office of Employment Services, part of the city’s welfare agency, who administer the workfare program.

ATC: We spoke with someone working on welfare issues in Milwaukee, who mentioned that the experience there was not as disastrous as had been expected, because there are actually job openings in manufacturing and construction. How does that compare with the New York City experience.

HD: The official unemployment rate here is slightly under ten percent, but in the outer boroughs where recipients are concentrated, like the Bronx, it’s eleven percent. Furthermore, since implementing WEP the city has eliminated 22,000 municipal jobs through attrition and buyouts.

Municipal employment, in New York as in other cities, historically has been a stepping stone for minorities to move out of poverty. Now WEP removes that possibility—this program is systematically eliminating the possibility of any city jobs.

Why would the city do anything but decrease its work force, when there’s an unlimited supply of welfare recipients who can be forced into them as WEP assignments?

ATC: What about the response of the city unions—presumably it’s primarily AFSCME that’s affected?

HD: Some unions have been very vocal in opposing workfare, but unfortunately not the ones most directly affected. CWA Local 1180 has been outspoken, as well as the UAW, which represents legal aid attorneys, and also the carpenters’ union.

But while some of these unions are affected in small ways, it is AFSCME that’s most directly affected, and in my personal opinion they haven’t been strong on this issue. Their presidents will tell you “there are no official layoffs,” but they won’t tell you that those jobs lost by attrition or buyout won’t be filled.

The District Council of AFSCME endorsed Rudy Guliani, the mayor who’s the mastermind of workfare.

ATC: Are there programs to put people into training?

HD: There’s lots of training and “jobs readiness” programs in New York City—to learn how to do cold calling, preparing your resume and so on. There’s good programs and there’s bad ones. But the plain fact is that there simply aren’t jobs for the numbers of welfare recipients who need them.

Sure, some people get jobs. But without some kind of large-scale job creation program, all this talk about welfare-to- work programs won’t do the trick.

If people can’t get living wage jobs to improve their income, workfare and WEP can’t do what they’re supposed to do, which is to move people into real work.

ATC: It strikes me also that people are taken out of circulation doing all this unpaid work, when they could be looking for or getting prepared for real jobs.

HD: That’s correct.

ATC: So essentially you’re calling for an end to WEP, and for a massive jobs creation program.

HD: I don’t see any other way to solve the problem—yes.

ATC 73, March-April 1998