WELFARE REFORMS - (Work requirements for government benefit recipients emerged as a major issue in the debt ceiling negotiations, and will be a major issue going forward. It’s time to listen to those who know best the impact of these requirements: former benefit recipients and the community groups that have assisted them.)
In the recent debt ceiling negotiations, work requirements for TANF (welfare) recipients and SNAP (food stamp) recipients became one the most contentious items. Democratic legislators denounced these requirements as “cruel”, “heartless”, and “senseless”, and vowed to continue to oppose them.
One need not romanticize or oversell the 1996 federal welfare reforms and current work requirements to recognize the value that work requirements have come to play over the past twenty-five years. These work requirements have changed the culture and practice of welfare offices in better assisting welfare recipients into employment. This point is made repeatedly by those who should know best: former welfare recipients and the workforce groups that have assisted them. Let’s listen to one of the major nationwide workforce groups involved today in implementing work requirements.
Since its founding in 1984 by Peter Cove and Lee Bowes, America Works has provided job preparation, placement and retention for unemployed welfare recipients, ex-offenders, workers with disabilities, the homeless and veterans. Over the years, it has grown to one of the largest such agencies in the nation, with offices in 27 cities, serving nearly 40,000 clients per year.
“What we do in job placement is not rocket science,” notes America Works Chief Operating Officer David Aguado. That’s true. America Works has always been about doing the basics most effectively. It has fine-tuned training, placement and retention processes over the years, and its growth has been driven by results. It provides individualized services of assessment, placement, on-going support following placement, and on-going skills upgrading for mobility. It has a library of over 1000 in-person and virtual training curricula, and ties with both major national employers and local employers in each of its service areas.
In the early years of America Works, Cove and Bowles helped spread the “strengths-based” model for employment. Whereas others in the welfare and social work systems looked at welfare recipients and saw mainly weaknesses and dysfunction, America Works emphasized the strengths that these persons brought to the job market. Whereas others talked of why welfare recipients were not ready for employment, America Works embraced direct job placement, and an advancement process of “a job, a better job, a career.”
As Bowes recalls, work requirements significantly improved the employment prospects of welfare recipients, especially after the federal welfare reform of 1996. They did so in two important ways. First, work requirements changed the culture of welfare offices. After welfare reform, welfare offices developed from a culture of benefit-distribution, suspicion, and paperwork to one of employment and action. Bowes explains:
“When we began in the 1980s, welfare caseworkers were only telling clients ways to increase benefits. With welfare reform the culture changed to an employment focus. Though caseworkers initially felt threatened that they would lose their jobs, they came to find their new roles much more gratifying.”
Second, work requirements helped move forward a portion of the welfare population who had become stuck in their lives—due to depression or inability to identify resources, or a hundred other different reasons. The work requirements helped them to get “unstuck”.
“At the beginning people were so afraid because many believed no one would ever hire them. As they saw their friends get jobs and keep jobs their motivation increased. I remember one woman who saw a neighbor, walking down the city streets, dressed at eight in the morning. She was told that her neighbor obtained a job and here’s where you should go to get a job. Word of mouth and the efforts on the government totally transformed the nature of the lives of those on public assistance.”
Today, America Works collaborates in job placement with social services departments and local workforce boards throughout the nation, including in Fresno County, California. Blake Konczal, the Executive Director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board, has been active in the public workforce system since the 1990s. In Fresno County, the years since the welfare reform of 1996 have resulted in a heightened job placement orientation at the social services department, and partnership with the workforce board. Additional supports and supportive services have accompanied the work requirements, to aid the transition of TANF recipients into jobs. Konczal explains:
“Welfare reform in 1996 and the work requirements brought new and logical partnerships between local workforce boards and social service offices. Logical in that we had a common goal of assisting public welfare recipients into unsubsidized employment. Welfare offices came to see themselves in a new way, as job placement agents. This was of immense benefit to the entire workforce system and more importantly to our common (and now employed) clients.”
America Works provides employment preparation and job search assistance as part of the County’s Job Readiness program (JobWISE). Nuvia Varela, the program manager for America Works in Fresno, adds:
“It can be challenging for many of our participants to find and keep a job due to coping with many obstacles such as substance abuse, domestic violence, child support, or mental health issues. JobWISE allows us to meet the needs of the participant and assist them in achieving financial independence in our community.”
Marsha Netus, Vice President and Regional Director of America Works in the Baltimore-Washington DC area, has been involved in placement efforts for TANF recipients and also ex-offenders since the late 1990s. Today, one of her main projects is a bail diversion initiative for non-violent offenders in Baltimore, that incorporates strong work requirements. She highlights the structure that work requirements have provided for ex-offenders as well as TANF recipients:
“Individuals not accustomed to a formalized system like a basic work schedule often struggle adapting into employment. Getting a job is not the issue; learning to sustain a routine can be daunting for those reentering into the workplace. A formalized system like work requirements can be the stepping stone for this training.”
Netus further notes that in practice welfare departments make wide allowance for recipients who have significant mental or physical health illnesses or other serious impediments to employment. These recipients are exempted from work requirements. There remains wide discretion in the program administration, that is utilized by individual case managers.
“America Works is not oblivious to the challenges that affect families into complying with regulations. We pride our ourselves in fostering relationships that provide comprehensive services for those transitioning into employment. Our collaboration with local agencies ensure customers have the adequate support for success. There are cases where exemptions may be the best course of action, and provisions are already available to support them.”
America Works is only one of hundreds of workforce providers throughout the nation that daily interact with benefit recipients. I urge critics of work requirements to talk to these providers as well as former recipients of TANF, food stamps or bail diversion programs.
No one in the workforce system regards the work requirements as the full answer. Other policies remain to be developed, particularly policies that can improve low wage jobs for all workers. But the work requirements are one element in an effective workforce system.
Meanwhile, America Works itself evolves with the evolving job market, updating training curricula, adding new programs for workers with disabilities as well as refugees, introducing a Fellows program for aspiring workforce professionals. Cove and Bowles continue to be at the center of America Works, not at all beaten down, even after nearly a half century of battling the social welfare and political establishments.
(Michael Bernick served as California Employment Development Department director, and today is Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and Fellow with Burning Glass Institute, and research director with the California Workforce Association. His newest book is The Autism Full Employment Act (2021) This article was first featured in Forbes.com.)