NYC's Workfare Shell Game: An Interview with Heidi Dorow

— The Editors

HEIDI DOROW IS director of the Urban Justice Center Organizing Project in New York City. In ATC 73 (March-April 1998) she spoke with Dianne Feeley and David Finkel about New York's “Work Experience Program” (WEP), and her organization's campaign to convince non-profit organizations to refuse to participate in this workfare program. We spoke to her again in February, 1999 to learn about developments in the past year.

Against the Current: Workfare in New York City is being hailed nationally as a model “solution” to welfare. What's your own analysis of how workfare is working?

Heidi Dorow: I don't think workfare solves anything—it's simply a punitive requirement forcing people to work off their welfare benefits, benefits which in New York City are twenty-seven percent below the poverty line.

It doesn't give someone a job, it doesn't improve their chances for employment, it doesn't create more jobs. Nor does it stop the time limit on benefit.

In addition, WEP eliminates city jobs. There are close to 45,000 welfare recipients in workfare right now. Many of the WEP assignments were previously in real jobs, with benefits—nobody knows how many, but since the implementation of WEP in 1995, 22,000 city jobs have been eliminated.

ATC: In what departments?

HD: We don't have the exact breakdown. Only the city knows, and they don't give out that information. But in the recreation and sanitation departments, workfare workers outnumber the city work force by four- and five- to-one respectively.

ATC: Has there been any change on the part of unions affected by job loss and workfare?

HD: Basically nothing was done until Stanley Hill was ousted. [Hill, the head of the American Federation of City, State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in New York, was found to have carried out a massive criminal vote-rigging scheme to ratify an unpopular contract with the city—ed.]

AFSCME District Council 37 is going to sue the city over the replacement of city workers by workfare recipients. So that's some hope, and I would like to think it's the beginning of a new approach. But the unions haven't done much up to this point, so I have a wait-and-see attitude.

ATC: How has the workfare situation changed over the past year?

HD: In some respects workfare isn't the biggest threat to welfare recipients anymore. We are now facing in New York City a massive diversion program in our welfare application process, which makes it difficult or impossible to get on welfare at all. So it can be argued, in a sick way, that people on workfare are in a better position because at least they're getting benefits.

ATC: Can you explain this “diversion” a little bit?

HD: Last year the city began “diverting” the welfare centers into what they call “job centers.” The Job Centers have a very elaborate process of applying for welfare. Whereas previously you could go in and apply, now you have to go back two or three days in a row to even get an application.

Then there's a “job search” requirement in the 35-50-day waiting period while your application is being processed, during which you must report every day to the center between nine and five. If you miss one day, your application is thrown out and you have to start over.

ATC: Are you also worried about the time limits cutting off welfare completely?

HD: That situation is a little different here in New York state. Article 17 of the State constitution actually guarantee assistance to the poor. So after people run out of their federal benefits, they'll be able to get some reduced state benefits.

This will probably take the form of some kind of voucher or electronic benefit card to use at grocery stores—you'll never see any cash—so unless the state constitution changes there will be some kind of assistance.

Our state is unique in that sense. The benefits will be greatly reduced and inadequate for survival, but not an absolute cutoff. Still, it will be very difficult to get on.

ATC: Last year when we spoke, you mentioned that unemployment remained high in New York City.

HD: Yes, it's still almost double the national average.

ATC: How has your organization's campaign, the “Pledge of Resistance” aimed at non-profit organizations(to refuse participation in WEP), developed over the past year?

HD: As it turned out, the non-profit sector didn't really bite on the city administration's bait. While there are several thousand workfare recipients working for non-profits, that's a quite small percentage of the overall workfare force.

I'd love to say that our campaign was responsible, but that's not really the case. Our educational work helped, but mainly it just became clear to the non-profits that it was a hassle, that they would be the welfare department's police. So that influx of workfare into non-profits didn't happen the way some people had thought, myself included.

In our other work, I think that slowly but surely, welfare reform in New York and workfare have become a little more questioned. These policies were incredibly popular among the middle class and partly the working-class voting public. Now, I think it's fair to say that there's a bit more skepticism.

We had to shift a lot of our focus to the city's diversion and work centers. Along with other non-profit organizations in New York, we've done a lot of work to monitor what goes on there.

The Legal Aid Society brought a lawsuit in federal court against the job centers. The federal USDA has an ongoing investigation, because federal law may be violated by the new application process. The Health Care Finance Administration is investigating access to Medicaid, because the new procedures in the job centers are denying access to benefits to which people are entitled.

ATC: Apparently, researchers are noting that governments aren't very cooperative with their efforts to gather statistics. Do you find that true?

HD: Yes. If the city government believes that its policies are working, it seems to me that they would want to really prove it by tracking the results. In fact they do no tracking at all, and it's very clear that it's because they know these programs are not working, except to artificially cut the welfare rolls.

Over 400,000 people have left the welfare rolls in New York City since 1995. Our case load has dropped by one-third.

ATC: You estimate that they're falling through the cracks in various ways. Are there methods for you to track this?

HD: The one study by the New York Coalition Against Hunger showed a twenty-four percent increase last year in people seeking emergency food assistance, at food pantries and the like. There's no comparable study in terms of housing.

We aren't the Labor Department. Only the city can properly track people's progress leaving welfare to get jobs—and they refuse to do it.

ATC: If you were in charge of welfare in New York City what would you do?

HD: The most logical thing to look at is that there aren't enough jobs in New York for people who want to get off welfare. We need more jobs, and we need to recognize that there will always be people out of work who need a safety net. So it's about guaranteeing income for people who don't have work, and massive job creation. Until you have that, you can't deal with the problem of poverty in New York or anywhere else.

I think that as the post-1996 Welfare Reform years pass, it will become more and more clear that punishment for poverty doesn't solve the poverty problem. Middle-class people may feel better that they've “sent a message” about work, but the point is that we have to move from an agenda of ending welfare to an agenda of ending poverty.

ATC 79, March-April 1999

Action is needed!

A new mobilization on Washington by the "nouveau poor" is needed to drive the point home--that workfare is legalized slavery, and that these back-to-work programs for those with education and work experience, do NOT work! People in these programs are not merely exploited, they are imprisoned at the whim of the prime contractors who get bounties for placing their shiploads of slaves into minimum-wage, dead-end jobs that will end after a couple of months. Once those victims are back in the system, if they are fortunate enough to get their cases reopened, the privatized contractors begin the cycle all over again and get paid two or three times for the same slaves.

There should also be class-action lawsuits placed by such victims of the system and the contractors, both against the human-resources bureaus and other responsible branches of the government on all levels (federal, state, and local), and against these humiliating private contractors.

Thanks to all the organizations who have begun the fight and carry it on--like this one, and Community Voices Heard (CVH), for their studies and efforts in demonstrating in New York City.

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