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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