How She Got a Job

Miriam Rodriguez lived the welfare life, 15 empty years of soaps
and snacks and midday walks to nowhere. Every day she changed
the diapers, cleaned the apartment, washed the dishes, cleaned
the apartment again, and every day she knew tomorrow would not
be another day, but the same day. Still, the routine had its charms:
$1,018 a month in cash and food stamps, complete health benefits
for her and her four kids, affordable public housing. She had
grown up with nothing, no money and no plumbing, sharing a single
dingy bedroom with both her parents and all six of her siblings.
Now she had a family's best friend: steady money. And an absurdly
clean apartment.

But Rodriguez left that life behind. She now works full-time as
a records clerk for Coopers & Lybrand in downtown Boston,
processing forms, answering phones, entering tax data into computers.
It is her first job since 1981, when she was fired from a textile
factory, after quitting a job as a nurse's aide. So far, it's
working out fine. "Miriam does a great job," says her
supervisor, Ella Orrigo. "We overload her, but she handles
it all." Even Rodriguez is amazed how utterly her life has
changed at age 38. "I never used to think of myself as having
a future," she says. "I figured I'd stay on welfare
the rest of my life. Now I feel like I can do anything."

Miriam's makeover sounds like a welfare reform success story,
and in a way it is. But it is more of a job training success story,
the result of eight months she spent with a Boston nonprofit agency
called One With One. For 40 hours a week, the program helps foreign-born
and Puerto Rican women learn English as a second language, teaches
them office skills, drills them in corporate culture, guides them
through two internships—and sends them into jobs.

The program's record is staggering: Last year, all 29 members
of Rodriguez's class, including 18 welfare mothers, found jobs
after graduation—from Yuliya Babsiyeva of Azerbaijan, an $8.90-an-hour
claims clerk at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, to Min Zhou of China,
a $9.89-an-hour loan clerk at the Education Resources Institute.
The year before, all 19 One With One graduates got jobs; the year
before that, all 48. And a recent follow-up survey indicated that
most graduates are staying employed, often with modest increases
in pay.

With states scrambling to move welfare mothers into work, you
might think intensive training programs like One With One would
be all the rage. Think again. The prevailing attitude of the federal
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,
and of most state-level welfare reforms, is "work first."
Despite its roots in the rhetoric of dependency, welfare reform
assumes that anyone on the dole can get and keep a job; it sets
a time limit, then leaves recipients to find their way out of
the welfare culture on their own. The top priority is steering
recipients directly into paid or unpaid jobs, or at least job
search and job placement programs. Training is a much lower priority,
and long-term training is almost out of the question. The programs
are not a quick fix, they are not cheap, and they do not always
work.



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It is worth noting that One With One does not accept unmotivated
applicants, and this selectivity helps explain its unusual success.
Still, its record shows that with enough time and money, job training
can bridge the gap between at least some unskilled workers with
"underclass" values and a high-skill economy that demands
"middle-class" values. One With One works precisely
because it accepts the ugly truth that many welfare mothers, unpleasant
as it sounds, are simply not ready for the mainstream workforce.
And the workforce is not ready for them. "These women come
to us with absolutely no idea what a job would require of them,''
says Margaret Van Duyne, the founder and director of One With
One. "They think the workforce is nurses chatting at the
nurses' station on General Hospital. They don't get concepts
like punctuality or reliability or customer service. Why would
anyone want to hire them?"

It is 8 a.m., and 30 trainees are about to find out whether
anyone would want to hire them. They've faced war, repression,
and famine in their homelands. They've struggled with violent
boyfriends, disabled kids, drugs, depression, day care crises,
and decrepit housing in America. Some of them came to One With
One at second-grade reading levels; several were sexually or physically
abused as children. But all that is secondary today, because today
is the Jobs Fair. Twenty-seven companies are here, and there is
work to be found.

The women wear no-nonsense business suits and sensible shoes,
hair up in buns and braids. They remember to smile, stand up straight,
make eye contact, shake hands like they mean it. They use proper
English, no slang, no double negatives. At One With One, professional
behavior is a crucial part of the curriculum, and after six months
of intensive drilling, it begins to come almost naturally. "It's
a hard program, but it's worth it," says 24-year-old Clotilde
Rosario, a third-generation welfare recipient. "It's changed
the way I talk, the way I dress, the way I answer the phone. And
my attitude. Now I know I'm getting off welfare, and my son won't
have to grow up with it."

For two hours, the room buzzes with earnest chitchat, as trainees
glide from table to table. Marie Denise Chery, a tiny Haitian
woman living in a homeless shelter, proudly informs American Personnel
that her typing has improved from 30 to 45 words per minute in
just three months. "I'll reach 55 soon,'' she says with a
confident smile. Ana Flamenco, a 32-year-old Salvadoran refugee,
reminds Tufts Health Plan that she was a popular intern there:
"They gave me a party when I left!" Mai Doan, a shy
immigrant from Vietnam, answers the Boston Company's questions
with heartfelt résuméspeak: "I am seeking an
entry-level clerical position which offers increasingly challenging
responsibilities."

The trainees do come off a bit, well, trained, but the recruiters
are clearly impressed. Many met these same trainees in November,
before their internships began, and the change is dramatic. "They
were incredibly nervous last time, but now they're so much more
comfortable," says Maryanne Edwards, a recruiter for a department
store chain. Ron Porter hands out applications for American Personnel
with an air of near desperation. "They've got great attitudes,
and they're all well-trained," he says. "I'd like to
hire 20 of them."

By now, these women have learned to file and fax, run WordPerfect
and Excel, write business letters and purchasing orders. But more
important, they've learned to adapt to the culture of the workforce:
how to manage their time, work on a team, handle a job interview,
follow directions, even make small talk. "Anyone can teach
people how to type, but that's not enough," Van Duyne says.
The premise is that moving from welfare to work is like immigration,
a disorienting process of shedding lifelong habits and adjusting
to a brave new world. Time can be unimportant to the unemployed.
Not to a boss. Skintight jeans may be appropriate on the streets.
Not in the office. For those of us who work, who grew up seeing
parents work, it is hard to comprehend the depth of this cultural
chasm. "Before the program, I didn't know how to turn a computer
on and off, or how to use a staple remover," Miriam Rodriguez
says. "I didn't even know what that thing was." She
is pointing to a paper clip.

It would be nice if welfare recipients just needed a little
prodding from the government to find stable work, but here are
the facts: Half of them are high school dropouts. More than half
report a history of domestic abuse, and more than a quarter say
they are depressed. Two-thirds test in the bottom fourth for job
skills. One-third have never held a job. And to restate the obvious,
almost all are single moms, and all are poor. Research by the
Urban Institute concluded that only one-fifth of them can find
jobs on their own, and about one-third need only modest job search
assistance. That means nearly half will need serious help, and
welfare reform is not going to provide it.

In Massachusetts, Governor William Weld's welfare aides publicly
boast that their caseload has decreased 44 months in a row, but
they privately expect it to flatline soon. With unemployment low,
just about every welfare recipient with any skills has already
found work. Because Massachusetts has a two-year limit on benefits,
even stricter than the five-year federal limit, the stage is set
for a major crisis come December 1998. "The big question
is what happens after two years are up," says Dolores Lewis,
who used to coordinate education and training for Weld's welfare
department but now focuses on child care. "Obviously, not
everyone is going to be working. . . . Some of them need a lot
of hand-holding."

Given these widespread concerns about job readiness, you might
think Congress would want to spend some money to try to move 4
million women into work, and provide child care for their 7.5
million kids. Wrong again. The new welfare law actually cuts federal
spending by $55 billion over the next six years, and allows states
to spend the money however they choose. In fact, as Christopher
Jencks recently pointed out in these pages ["The Hidden Paradox
of Welfare Reform
," May-June 1997], the new block grant system
gives states strong incentives to spend even less on the poor.
And while critics have focused on the implications for low-income
children, who have lost their entitlement to cash benefits, the
switch to block grants also means federal dollars will no longer
be earmarked for job training. Not surprisingly, many states are
already cutting back on those programs. In Massachusetts, where
job training now accounts for only $10 million of a $1.1 billion
welfare budget, the number of recipients in education and training
programs has dropped more than 20 percent since the state's welfare
overhaul began in November 1995.

That is bad news for programs like One With One, which runs up
onetime costs of more than $8,000 per trainee, with the government
paying about one-third of the bill. It's very expensive, and it
would be worse if One With One did not recruit volunteer mentors
who help each trainee with English, parenting, and just about
anything else. Still, when a trainee leaves welfare, gets a job,
starts paying taxes, and requires a smaller housing subsidy, the
government savings can be as high as $15,000 a year. What's more,
her children are much less likely to land in foster care or juvenile
detention. And wasn't welfare reform supposed to have something
to do with breaking cycles of dependency?

Van Duyne, a stern Miss Grundy type who wears librarian
glasses and speaks Total Quality Management jargon, runs One With
One like a factory: Her product is reliable employees, and her
68 corporate partners are her customers. She makes potential trainees
prove their ambition by requiring them to check out three other
programs, spend several days filling out paperwork, and write
several book reports before they even apply. Her program itself
is a simulated workplace in which punctuality is a given, English
is the only language spoken, and a fifth absence is grounds for
termination. "We get these women out of Fantasyland,"
she says. "We make it clear they need to take responsibility
for their lives now, because their employers won't have time for
their problems."

On Miriam Rodriguez's fourth day of training, her 15-year-old
daughter Jessica dropped out of school and ran away with a drug-dealer
boyfriend. Van Duyne was sympathetic but firm: Rodriguez had to
solve her problem immediately so she could concentrate on her
training. So Rodriguez signed a warrant for her daughter's arrest
and then skipped class the next day to ask a judge to place Jessica
in a foster home. Jessica begged for another chance, but Rodriguez
refused to take her back for two months. Jessica has learned her
lesson: She ditched the dealer, returned to school, and is now
almost a surrogate mother for her three younger siblings, stepping
in whenever Mom needs to work. "I had never been tough with
Jessica before, but they showed me how," Rodriguez says.

Job training is not a panacea, and several studies have shown
that not every job training program works nearly as well as One
With One. Massachusetts actually had the nation's most intensive
and most acclaimed education and training effort for welfare mothers
under former Governor Michael Dukakis, but subsequent research
suggested that the "ET Choices" program produced only
meager gains in income, which were quickly wiped out by a horrid
recession. More recently, a study by Manpower Development found
that programs focusing primarily on "human capital development"
instead of the immediate job market produced no gains in income.
The fuzzier the connection between learning and earning, the easier
it is for trainees to lose interest.

But while the well-known failures have convinced some critics
that long-term training doesn't work, the literature actually
provides a pretty clear picture of what successful programs need
to do:


  • Make sure clients are truly committed to training and getting
    a job.
  • Help them overcome barriers to employment, from abusive boyfriends
    to health problems to unruly children.
  • Teach "soft" skills like punctuality and time management
    as well as "hard" skills like word processing and database
    management.
  • Link training as closely as possible to the job market.

As a recent General Accounting Office study found, those "best
practices" create results. Two days after the job fair, Clotilde
Rosario became the first member of this year's class to find a
job, as a $10-an-hour data entry clerk in Harvard University's
gifts office. "I want to go to college someday, to be a nurse
or maybe a pediatrician," she says. "My mother grew
up on welfare, and she raised me on welfare. I want a better life
than that for my little boy."

Looking at the numbers, her chances might seem good. One
With One recently sent surveys to its 174 graduates from the last
six years; 112 responded, and 110 of them are still employed.
(One was laid off in a bank merger; another quit her job because
of a serious illness.) The median starting salary was $8.35 an
hour; the median current salary was $10. But as encouraging as
those numbers are, here is a more important one: 3.9 percent.
That is the current unemployment rate in Massachusetts. In this
labor market, firms are eager to hire, and even workers with limited
skills have a range of opportunities.

So what happens when the business cycle turns? This job glut cannot
last forever, and in the coming years, the flood of welfare recipients
pushed off the rolls is sure to crowd the labor market. The danger
is that as more applicants compete for fewer jobs, wages and living
standards at the bottom end of that market will decline even further.
President Clinton can plead with employers and churches and even
federal agencies to hire welfare recipients, but he cannot erase
supply and demand pressures. And historically, former welfare
recipients have been the first workers laid off during downturns.
"The problem is not just getting a job, which is hard enough,"
says Lewis, the Massachusetts official. "It's keeping a job."

Miriam Rodriguez understands this dilemma all too well. She now
makes $8.94 an hour, or $18,000 a year, 50 percent more than she
used to collect in welfare and food stamps. And now she can accept
help from her boyfriend, a hotel housekeeper, without fear of
losing benefits. But because of her higher income, her public
housing rent has jumped $163 a month, and her health benefits
at Coopers & Lybrand are nowhere near as generous as Medicaid.
Most ominously, Massachusetts only guarantees free day care for
one year after a family leaves welfare. (It also provides only
one year of Medicaid for former recipients who remain uninsured.)
Rodriguez is on several waiting lists for subsidized day care
vouchers, but she has no idea how she would be able to afford
child care without help from the government. "In a way, my
life was a lot easier on welfare,'' she says. "But I don't
ever want to go back and be a loser again. I'll work something
out."

Of course, programs like One With One have more immediate concerns.
President Clinton, eager to "fix" the welfare law he
signed last August, has requested an extra $3 billion for training
for welfare mothers. But the administration is still wedded to
the work-first model, and the national trend increasingly favors
ten-week or even five-week training programs. In Massachusetts,
recipients with school-age children (one-fifth of the caseload)
have only 60 days to start work or community service before their
benefits are terminated, hardly enough time for anything resembling
long-term training. "We've always recognized that larger
investments in training are needed to make welfare reform work,"
says Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Kharfen. "But
I think it's fair to say the emphasis is on getting a job quickly."

Last year, the city of Boston asked Van Duyne to run a three-month
program for harder-to-serve welfare recipients—instead of the
applicants coming to her, she would have to recruit the applicants.
She decided that three months was not enough time to teach office
skills, so she set up a retail training program, and sent invitations
to the 800 women on her list. Twenty-five replied; ten actually
came. In the end, Van Duyne halted the experiment before classes
even began. "We just couldn't guarantee that these women
could get a job and keep a job after three months," she says.
"I'm sorry, but it would take longer than that just to restore
their self-respect."

As a nod to the climate, Van Duyne is cutting next year's program
from eight to six months, but she says that for her troubled clientele,
any shorter would be an invitation to failure. The research of
David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane revealed that most welfare mothers
at any time are long-term recipients; the work of One With One
suggests they need long-term help. "Miriam Rodriguez was
on welfare for 15 years," Van Duyne says. "Can you get
her a stable job in six weeks? Then tell me how, because I would
like to know."

In some ways, women like Rodriguez represent the promise
of welfare reform. Even she admits that after 15 years on the
rolls, she probably would have stayed on indefinitely without
a time limit forcing her to seek self-sufficiency. Her daughter
Jessica, who had threatened to get pregnant and go on welfare
herself, now wants to be a hairdresser. The father of three of
Rodriguez's children—who could not even live with her under the
old system without endangering her benefits—recently proposed
marriage, and she accepted.

Still, One With One is not exactly proof that anyone can be saved.
Rodriguez and her classmates were obviously ill equipped for the
workforce, but they were also unusually motivated to get equipped.
Compared to the hard core identified by Ellwood and Bane, they
were the elite. Rodriguez—the only one of her seven siblings to
finish high school—checked out 14 programs before deciding on
One With One; she read 43 books to prepare for her training. "I
figured if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right,"
she says. "My whole life had been a failure. I wasn't willing
to fail again."

This year, 300 people inquired about One With One; only 30 jumped
through the requisite hoops to get accepted. In an era of time
limits, what will happen to the other 270? And what will happen
to those who never even bothered to ask about the program? The
welfare reformers are right: The old system created an entitlement
mentality, and encouraged dysfunctional behaviors. But if graduates
of programs like One With One are immigrants to the world of work,
no one has figured out what to do about families stuck in the
old country.




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