From the pages of February 1996

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“Welfare reform” reveals its true face

By Neil de Mause

 

On March 22, 1995, Congressman Bill Archer (R-Texas) introduced the Personal Responsibility Act, one of the planks of the Contract With America, into the House of Representatives. Contained in the PRA are a five-year limit on welfare benefits, conversion of welfare from an entitlement to capped “block grants” to the states, strict workfare requirements and elimination of aid to teen mothers, children born to women already receiving welfare, and all immigrants, documented or otherwise.

“This bill will reverse the decades-long federal policy of rewarding unacceptable and self-destructive behavior,” says Rep. Archer. “We will no longer reward for doing the wrong thing.”

Driving east on the Long Island Expressway, I keep an eye out for the bright-orange uniforms of “Suffolk Works!” that Terri Scofield has told me about. A “workfare” program started in March 1994, Suffolk Works! (exclamation point mandatory) requires people getting welfare benefits in this eastern Long Island county to receive “job training” by working in unpaid county jobs 20 to 35 hours a week.

There being no real jobs to train for, the county instead sets them to work at such tasks as cleaning highway roadsides, where their uniforms, marked “Suffolk Works!” on the back, make them look like members of a chain gang.

This trip to Suffolk County is for a visit with Terri, the organizer for Suffolk Welfare Warriors, one of several groups nationwide to spring up in emulation of the original Welfare Warriors, formed by a group of activist welfare mothers in Madison, Wisconsin. Members use their accumulated knowledge to help people navigate the welfare bureaucracy; they also have been known to crash meetings of the county legislature to air their grievances.

As I pull up, Terri is waiting for me outside her low-rise motel-style apartment complex in the town of Coram. We head through a section of Suffolk that Terri describes as “Ozark-y,” with broad stretches of farmland tended by decaying shacks. “We'll be passing Calverton Grumman, which closed down,” she says. “That put shitloads of people out of work. Grumman in Bethpage has been cut back by about 8,000 people in the last five years. Fairchild Republic, on the Nassau/Suffolk border, in Melville, has been severely cut back in the last five to eight years.

“The economy on Long Island sucks. Over the last ten years, hordes of companies moved down south and out west to unionless states where there are no strict environmental laws, and where it's much easier to exploit the workforce.”

Terri tells me about Beth Alaimo, the woman whose call set us off on this 20-mile sojourn to Riverhead, where Long Island's north and south forks meet. Beth first went on welfare four years ago, after the breakup of her relationship left her with two toddler-age kids, no job, and no child support. Since then, she has held several jobs -- up to three at once at times -- but has recently been forced to turn again to welfare to support her family.

It's a scenario Terri knows only too well. Several years ago, she was a sales rep for a local business consultant until her abusive ex-partner began harassing her and her co-workers, getting her fired six times in an 18-month period. After he firebombed her landlord's van, leaving her not only jobless but evicted, she went down to the welfare office to open her first welfare case. It's a story that (sans explosives) Terri says she's heard all too often -- she speculates that most women on welfare have left some sort of abusive situation, though no one keeps the statistics to prove it.

The Riverhead welfare office has recently moved to a new site on the other side of town that, Terri points out, is well off the major bus routes, providing another obstacle to people seeking aid. This is illustrative of what is known, in welfare newspeak, as “churning” -- throwing enough obstacles in the path of poor people that they drop off the welfare rolls as fast as they sign up.

“What they do,” Terri tells me, “is make the process so onerous that people find another way. Or they become homeless and it's a different office's problem.”

Workfare, while not shown to be of any use at moving people from welfare to work, has proven to be very, very good at churning.

March 24, 1995: “What a glorious day!” proclaims Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, as the House of Representatives passes the Personal Responsibility Act, 234 to 199. During the course of debate, Florida Republican John Mica holds up a “Don't Feed the Alligators” sign on the House floor. “We post these warnings because unnatural feeding and artificial care create dependency,” says Mica. “When dependency sets in, these otherwise able alligators can no longer survive on their own.”

The Riverhead welfare center has the atmosphere of a bus terminal crossed with a post office: uncomfortable plastic seats and long, slow-moving lines at the few windows open for business. Screaming, cranky kids are everywhere, bored by the endless waiting; a few entertain themselves by playing with the ST-2000, an ATM-like machine that runs clients through a series of questions before revealing what benefits, if any, they can apply for once they finally make it to the head of the line.

Beth Alaimo, her seven-year-old son Luke, and her boarder John Lorenzo greet us at the door. John is recovering from rheumatic fever and open-heart surgery; he is here to apply for food stamps and rent assistance while he is unable to work.

Beth is trying to get emergency food stamps for herself and her three kids. “I took my kids to work with me, because I was told while I was on welfare they wouldn't help me pay for daycare," she says. “So I took them with me, so I could afford to get off of welfare.”

Finally, after about a year of this, she landed a job as a private investigator. “But I just lost that job, so once again I need food stamps,” Beth says. “You're supposed to get a reply within 10 days; it's now been 15. I called up to see why I haven't gotten a reply -- Thanksgiving's coming, no food. They told me when the worker gets a chance, he'll look at it, and there's 500 other cases. I was told to go to a church if I didn't have food.”

Until recently, explains Terri, each welfare worker's caseload was between 300-400 individuals, but that was before a state-instituted hiring freeze and two early retirement packages. “There are a lot of people leaving because they're afraid if they don't leave now, when the federal and the state budget cuts come down, they could be out of a job with no retirement.”

“But what I don't understand,” asks Beth, “is if there's 500 cases to each worker, why do you have so many workers to each case?”

This, Terri relates, is the most maddening aspect to the welfare system: at a time when benefit levels are being scaled back and caseloads are soaring, every day seems to bring more and more layers of workers to each case. “These people that you see at the window, they're screeners,” she says. “They look at all your paperwork, and they try to discourage you on the front end -- it's called front end grant diversion.” If you pass the screeners' scrutiny, you're given an eligibility appointment, which by law is required to take place within five business days, but is typically not for another six weeks. “But in that six weeks, you have to do workfare while you're even waiting to see whether or not you're going to be helped.

“Then you have the eligibility worker, who looks at all your documentation, and determines, yes, you're eligible. After that, your case goes to a four-person `income maintenance team,' who determine your level of benefits. Then, before it's stamped approved and goes into the computer, there are six auditors. Six. Our feeling is if you don't believe numbers one through five, fire them, and believe number six.

“Beyond the six auditors, there's also a food stamp worker and a Medicaid worker. Behind each of those, there's two additional auditors, one for the states, one for the feds. And now that we have workfare, you have two additional people: a jobs liaison unit worker at the Department of Social Services, and a jobs liaison unit worker at the Department of Labor. We haven't gotten back our FOIA requests; we don't know the auditing behind that.

“Behind those people, you then have trainers: Job Readiness Training, which is a totally useless, 20-hour class that everybody” -- everybody deemed “employable” by the state, that is -- “is required to go through. Regardless of the fact that John just had open-heart surgery and was just let out of the hospital last night, they may deem him employable until such time as he can come back with the documentation that says he's recuperating.”

John interrupts, saying that the hospital told him he would need to wait at least two months before going back to work.

“So what they might make you do is just go to Job Readiness Training, job search -- “

“I have a job,” says John.

“Doesn't matter,” Beth tells him. “They're going to find conditions.”

“We're going to work with you,” Terri reassures John, “and say, `Well, excuse me, I'm a little unclear on that, could you please tell me the statute or regulation that authorizes this action?' Very respectful, very low-key, very polite. But yeah, they may give you a tremendous hassle.”

These workers -- we figure we're up to at least 20, not counting the unknown numbers of workfare auditors -- are supposedly there for one reason: to catch fraud. But, as Terri points out, “welfare fraud” is measured at only 4 percent of total expenditures. “If we had 4 percent fraud in the savings and loan industry,” she notes, “we'd be jumping for joy.”

“I was found guilty of fraud,” Beth interjects. “Because my mother bought my kid diapers, and I didn't tell them. They added up $12 a week -- I'm not kidding you -- times 12 months of the year, and they figured out I had to pay them back $1,800 for my phone bill that she paid and the diapers she bought my baby.” A friend of hers, she adds, was denied benefits because investigators went to the wrong address, decided he didn't live there, and charged him with fraud.

September 19, 1995: The Senate passes its version of the welfare reform bill by a vote of 87 to 12. This bill maintains the block grants and time limits of the PRA; restrictions on aid to teen mothers and legal immigrants are to be left up to the individual states. Voting for the bill are 35 Democrats, including 4 women: Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Mikulski, and Patty Murray.

Two days before the vote, President Clinton has indicated his willingness to sign this version of the bill, saying it puts the nation “within striking distance” of true welfare reform.

Finally, John's name is called, and we're admitted into the inner sanctum of the client interview area. Of the 19 desks, less than half show any signs of being in use, and only two or three actual workers are on view at any given time.

John's eligibility worker arrives, and her eyebrows immediately shoot skywards. “Who are all these people? We can't have all these people in here.”

Terri introduces herself as from Suffolk Welfare Warriors, and indicates that I'm writing an article on welfare centers and would like to sit in on John's interview. “I'll have to go talk to a supervisor about this,” the worker says, and dashes off.

Ten minutes later, she returns with a slip of paper. “You want to do interviews, you have to call this number,” she says, hustling me out the door.

Back in the waiting room, I strike up a conversation with a man named Tom DiGiantomasso, who's trying to get heating oil assistance. Disabled for five years with a permanent back injury and other medical problems, he supports four children on his $665 a month in social security income. “They won't give me financial aid because I have a van -- 1987 Plymouth Voyager -- that they say is book valued at $3,500,” he says. The engine, he explains, is shot. But to prove that to the welfare center, Tom would need to bring in not one, but three estimates showing that it didn't run -- and since the van won't run, he has no way of getting estimates. “So I say, how about if I just give the van away? Well, you can't do that, because you show $3,500 income.”

A security guard approaches us. “Excuse me,” he says. “Are you with the press? You can't be interviewing people in here.”

Isn't this a public space? I ask. “Well, no, not exactly,” says the guard unconvincingly, handing me another slip of paper inscribed with the same phone number.

Tom and I continue our conversation outside. After three or four trips to the welfare center, Tom says, he gave up. “I don't want to go through it. Due to my heart condition, due to my anxiety attacks, I don't need that. My health is more important.” Instead, today he's hoping for a drop-in appointment for emergency fuel oil assistance.

We go back into the warmth of the center to wait, Tom for his name to be called, me for a likely interview candidate to volunteer. My wait, at least, isn't long -- within five minutes, a man is screaming at the worker behind the window. “What do you mean, I have to wait till Monday? I could be dead by Monday!” He storms out, followed by a security guard, who stops at the door and yells, “And don't come back!”

His name is Nathan Williams, and he is homeless. “I've been sleeping in the woods for four months. I come down here, I need emergency housing.” He shows me his papers, including a Speedy Request form, which look in order. “They said the housing worker that'll help the homeless people, they don't come in till Monday,” he says. “I could be dead sleeping in the woods Monday morning.”

Nathan, whose last regular job was killing ducks at a duck farm, has been homeless for two years. The previous winter, he survived by getting nine blankets from the Salvation Army to bundle himself in. As he prepares to scrounge enough bedding to let him survive the weekend outdoors, he gives one final angry look back at the welfare center. “If social services can't help the people who need help like I do, a homeless person,” he says, “this damn place ain't got no business being here.”

On December 7, Quinnipiac College releases a poll of New York state registered voters on the subject of welfare. Fifty-six percent of New Yorkers, it reveals, believe it would be good if welfare cuts encouraged poor people to move “somewhere else.”

I go back inside. It's too cold, and the monotony of the stories I'm hearing, combined with the ever-vigilant rent-a-cops, is starting to numb me. I'm ready to churn myself.

Beth dashes into the waiting room. John's case is taking longer than expected; would I mind filing her Speedy Request form for her? Be sure to ask that it go directly to her assigned worker, she instructs me, or it could again disappear into the system.

Once on line, I notice that the woman in front of me is deep in conversation with a woman wielding a clipboard. I peer over her shoulder to catch the name: HealthFirst, a so-called “Medicaid managed care” company developed to enroll Medicaid clients in HMO medical plans. Last summer, New York City banned Medicaid managed care companies, including HealthFirst, from recruiting in welfare centers, after they had been caught misinforming people that they would be forced to enroll (enrollment is supposed to be voluntary) and that their plans would provide increased benefits (coverage is the same as under regular Medicaid); some companies even gave away stuffed animals to coerce people into signing up. All this was done without regard for whether the HMOs' doctors could handle the new influx of patients.

This, however, is Suffolk County, where in-center recruitment is still allowed. The woman signs the form on the clipboard.

I hand Beth's form to the screener at the window, asking that it go directly to her worker since Beth is now five days overdue for her food stamps. The screener assures me, none too convincingly, that she'll “put it on his desk.”

Back to the plastic chairs, where two women are discussing the impossibility of navigating the system. “You just go around and around and around,” says one.

The conversation grows more heated as the women continue discussing how things should be run. “Raise the minimum wage!” cries one. “If you made more money working than on welfare, there'd be some incentive.”

She doesn't mention -- doesn't need to mention -- that the opposite is also true: Lower the welfare grant, and people will have to work at whatever wage is offered. When the Economic Policy Institute crunched the numbers, it discovered that forcing all welfare recipients into the workforce would cause low-wage workers' income to drop 11 percent nationwide; in states with high welfare caseloads (like New York), the drop in wages would be as high as 17 percent.

It's nearing mid-afternoon by the time Beth, John, Terri, and Luke emerge from the inside offices. John has his temporary benefit card and $81 in food stamps; he also has a long list of forms to fill out before his next appointment: his discharge papers from the air force, records of his VA disability benefits, an application for disability SSI, his last six bank statements, his car title, and a statement from his doctor on state paperwork.

Beth still hasn't heard any news on her Speedy Request, but it's getting late, and she's ready to give up for the day. “I have to go look for a job,” she says, gathering John and Luke to go home.

Heading back to Coram, Terri ponders the likely impact of the federal welfare bill. “Let me tell you why it'll be devastating. At the point that welfare ceases to be an entitlement, we lose two process rights: bye-bye fair hearing, bye-bye conciliation...They do a business bill, they talk to businessmen. They do an environmental bill, they talk to environmentalists. Why, when they write a poverty bill, don't they talk to poor people? We are the experts on poverty. We can tell you exactly what we need. And it ain't services. The only thing keeping us from a decent life is money, income. We don't need parenting classes, we don't need supervision, we don't need training in self-esteem. What we need is education, what we need is jobs -- we need access to the primary labor market.”

We pull up to our last stop, the Coram welfare center, which sits in the midst of a huge sand pile that locals use for dirt-bike racing. There we meet Carmen, who has full-blown AIDS, and she has just had her Medicaid cut off for missing a child support hearing. She failed to respond to the first notice of the hearing, she says, because she is illiterate and had no one to read it to her. In any case, she didn't understand why she needed to attend the hearing, since she had already told the state that her child's father was in jail, and unable to pay any child support at all.

“They took all my money, my Medicaid, food stamps, AFDC,” she says. Only her daughter's case remains open. “Without my daughter, I'd be in the street.”

In December, as the federal government grinds to a halt, state budget planners are busy plotting how to implement the expected federal changes in welfare. On December 15, New York Governor George Pataki reveals his plan: a five-year lifetime limit, 60-day cutoff for childless adults, 17 percent cut in benefit levels, and a “family cap” that denies additional aid for additional children. “The current welfare system offers counterfeit compassion and strangles its recipients in a web of dependency,” says Gov. Pataki. “It is a tragedy when a hard-working New Yorker who earns $8 or $10 an hour is worse off than someone who refuses to work at all and is on welfare. This must stop, and it will stop.”

The week before my visit, Terri Scofield traveled to Washington to protest at the White House withwelfare participants and their supporters, calling on President Clinton to veto the federal welfare bill. Two other Suffolk Welfare Warriors who had been scheduled to make the trip were forced to cancel when they were unable to get daycare for their children. But welfare mothers from 16 states did show up, forming a 200-person-strong crowd that picketed the White House for two hours, and staged a press conference at which both women on welfare and elected representatives spoke out against the Congressional bill.

That night, the demonstrators eagerly watched for themselves on TV, but none of the networks used the footage of the welfare rally. Instead, every channel carried a different demonstration on Capitol Hill: a “Save Our Jobs” rally by waitresses for the Hooters restaurant chain, flown in at company expense to protest EEOC sex-discrimination charges for refusing to hire men.

“It might be politically correct to hire Hooters Guys,” said one “Hooter Girl,” who earns $2.13 an hour, plus tips, for serving hamburgers while dressed in a tank top and shorts. “But Hooters wouldn't be Hooters if they did.”

Suffolk Welfare Warriors can be reached at 1105A Kingsley Place, Coram, NY 11727; 516-732-0525.