Under fluorescent lights in a sparsely decorated basement classroom on Chicago’s Southeast Side, three women begin their day with an affirmation: “I am better every day, in every way.” Their teacher, Juhnna Hardin, hopes the words will convince the women, who have been on state assistance for years, that they can leave the welfare rolls and make better lives for themselves.
The four-week job readiness class, held at the South Chicago Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 9055 S. Houston Ave., is run by the Chicago Commons Association, a nonprofit social service organization. Programs like Hardin’s teach self-esteem, show aid recipients how to interview for jobs, what to wear–”even how to fix their hair and apply their makeup.
Hardin concedes the program pales in comparison to what these welfare recipients really need: help overcoming barriers such as drug addiction and illiteracy, and vocational skills and education that will land them good jobs at wages that make them self sufficient.
One of the women, Sonya Carter, a tiny 37-year-old mother of two teenagers, hasn’t worked since quitting her job as a cashier at McDonald’s in 1986. She also is battling drug and alcohol addiction. When asked what she needs from the program, Carter answered in a scratchy, pleading voice: “Prepare me. Give me the right means. Show me the way.”
State officials say Illinois’ 2-year-old welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is doing just that.
They point to the decline in the state’s welfare rolls–”from 191,127 in June 1997 to 110,970 in June 1999, as evidence recipients are ending their dependence on government aid.
“The goals that have been established for this program and the expectations have been far exceeded,” said Howard A. Peters III, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
But the state’s welfare effort is working better for whites than minorities, The Chicago Reporter found. A higher percentage of white aid recipients leave the system with jobs, while many more minority recipients are removed because they fail to comply with state rules, according to the Reporter’s analysis of data from the human services department.
Off the Rolls
Less than one-third of public aid recipients who left the welfare rolls in the last two fiscal years earned enough money to no longer qualify for benefits. The rest were removed because they failed to comply with state rules, or for other reasons.
Among whites on welfare, 40.1 percent left the rolls because they earned enough money to become independent, compared to 27.4 percent of minorities. However, 54.3 percent of cases involving minorities closed because recipients did not comply with state welfare rules. Among whites, 39.1 percent fell into this category.
For those who remain on the rolls, the state’s job placement program has produced few successes, the Reporter found.
And this caseload is growing increasingly African American, state records show. In July 1997, blacks accounted for 61.6 percent of aid recipients. Whites were 26.6 percent and Latinos were 10.7 percent of recipients. By June, the welfare caseload was 69.2 percent black, 19.3 percent white and 10.4 percent Latino.
While the state’s welfare caseload is dropping, aid recipients cycle in and out of the system each month. In fiscal years 1998 and 1999, the state opened 259,303 welfare cases and closed 340,958.
Of the closed cases, only 106,341–”about 31 percent–”were recipients who made enough money to no longer need welfare benefits, according to data from the human services department.
About 40 percent of white recipients whose cases closed left because they earned enough income, compared to 27.4 percent of minority closings.
The state provided detailed racial data on the total caseload but only defined those who enter and leave the rolls as “whites” or “non-whites.”
When minorities with few skills go into the work force, “they are more likely to be discriminated against,” said Eddie S. Read, an employment consultant with United Services of Chicago, a social service organization at 330 E. 37th St.
The state removed another 169,561 people from the rolls–”about half–”because they failed to comply with welfare rules, such as missing an appointment or not submitting required paperwork.
Minorities made up about three of every four recipients in this category, the Reporter found. More than 96 percent of the minority recipients were later reinstated in the system, compared with less than 1 percent of whites, the analysis shows.
Peters said he is not bothered by the number of people who leave the system because they do not comply with the rules. “If you are supposed to be involved and you are not, then that is your decision.”
While state officials say they try to reinstate people quickly, “our experience is that it takes months,” said Wendy Pollack, staff attorney at the Chicago-based National Center on Poverty Law and chairwoman of the center’s public benefits hotline, which fields calls from disgruntled aid recipients. “Also, many people are told they cannot reapply.”
Some recipients suffer behavior or substance abuse problems that result in them not complying with the rules, Read said. The state “has neglected this population in terms of getting them job ready.”
Of the remaining closings, 14,126 people left because they received other forms of income, such as social security or child support. And 50,930 people moved away or disappeared from the system.
For those who remain on the rolls, the department has doled out $120.1 million to 117 profit and non-profit agencies statewide. Their mission is to teach basic job preparation skills and connect welfare recipients to jobs, vocational training and other “work activities” within four weeks, said Jim T. Dimas, acting director of the department’s Division of Community Operations.
The agencies are paid based on the number of people they place in jobs for at least three months at a wage of $6.50 per hour or better, Dimas said.
Many welfare recipients need to “work first, gain experience and deal with other issues later,” said B.J. Walker, the former community operations director, who left the post in November.
State officials cannot say how many welfare recipients they refer to job preparation programs, but they estimate that more than 35,000 people a month participated in these programs in fiscal year 1999. Yet just 8,275 recipients found and kept jobs for at least three months.
“You can’t just look at one slice of a good pie,” Peters said. “You should not focus on people who get jobs through the job training courses. We care about people who get jobs working with their caseworker or on their own.”
Those who don’t last at work can be assigned to another job program or referred to social services and education programs. Still, finding work is the primary goal, Dimas said. “We believe children are always better off when a responsible adult is working,” he said.
But the job preparation programs only “offer soft skills training,” Pollack said. “They are kind of an attitude check. … What is difficult is to get the department to approve any kind of skills training that goes beyond four to six weeks.”
And as aid recipients cycle through this system, their welfare clocks continue to tick. Under the 1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, no person can get more than 60 months of welfare benefits in a lifetime. Those with children over 13 only qualify for 24 months of benefits. Under the state’s welfare program, adults with children receive cash assistance, food stamps and medical benefits.
For Carter, the job readiness program is her last chance at getting help from the system. Because her children are teenagers and she has been on welfare since Illinois’ new program went into effect, in three months she will lose her benefits forever.
“I have got [children] and I have got to find a way to support myself. I am not going to go out and trick,” she said.
As welfare recipients enter the system, caseworkers assess their skills and needs. Robert Kennedy, an intake worker at the state welfare office in the city’s North Side Uptown neighborhood, said he typically spends two hours with each woman seeking cash assistance. “We try to find out if she is homeless or mentally retarded or fleeing an abusive husband,” he said.
On average, about 25 percent of Illinois welfare recipients are considered not available to work, state records show. These include children and pregnant women. On July 1, 1999, about 26,000 welfare cases fell into this category.
Of the remaining 75 percent, those judged to have few or no barriers typically must make at least five contacts with potential employers during their first month on welfare to remain eligible for benefits. They can review job listings at state welfare offices and attend seminars on how to find jobs. Those who fail to find work are then referred to job programs.
Recipients with more serious problems–”including substance abuse, limited English, a history of domestic abuse–”are sent directly to job preparation programs, where contractors place them in jobs or refer them to social service agencies.
Brenda Allen, who lives in Rogers Park on the city’s North Side, has spent the past two years cycling though job preparation programs. A year ago, at her caseworker’s urging, the 41-year-old Allen got a job at a Target Greatland store in Evanston and applied for subsidized day care for her three children, ages 12, 7 and 6.
Three months later, Allen’s day care provider still had not been paid and the woman said she would no longer watch the children. Allen missed work and eventually lost her job and got back on welfare.
Through STRIVE/Chicago Employment Service Inc., a rigorous job readiness workshop, Allen got and lost a kitchen job at Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster Ave. She also attended a job preparation program at the Howard Area Community Center, 7648 N. Paulina St., and still stops there to see what jobs are available.
But she has become discouraged. “The workshops were good because they told me things I didn’t know. … But they didn’t prepare me for the real world.”
The Reporter surveyed 46 of the 66 Chicago agencies that received job preparation funds since 1997. Of the 26 agencies that provided job placement data, 20 said recipients usually earn between $6 and $8 per hour in hospitality, janitorial, retail and other service-oriented positions.
The agencies include large, for-profit companies like Employment & Employer Services Inc., 200 W. Adams St., whose $6.9 million state contract pays for 150 staff members to counsel job seekers.
On the other end of the scale, the vice president at the for-profit William Moorhead and Associates, a North Side property management firm, calls businesses to ask about job openings. The state pays the company $169,000.
Adrian B. Cooper directs the welfare-to-work program at the non-profit LePenseur Youth Services Inc., located in a renovated single-family home in the city’s South Chicago neighborhood. Under the organization’s $162,936 state contract, an instructor works weekends and Wednesday evenings with recipients. Cooper said his clients average $6 an hour.
This may not be enough. In her job readiness classes, Juhnna Hardin asks the women to list their monthly expenses, including rent and clothing. Most of the time, they add up to more than $2,000.
“With a $7 an hour job, you are only bringing home [about] $1,200,” Hardin said she tells the women. “I ask them, `What are you going to do?'”
Hardin said she hopes her students will press for wages of at least $8.50 to $9 an hour. “Maybe you have to take a part-time job, but you have to continue to try to get the skills to get a better job.”
Human service department staff visit the job preparation programs regularly, said Walker, the former community operations director. “Employment and training is more of an art than a science,” she said. “We can not measure it scientifically. … We can feel when the program is good.”
It’s the outcome that matters, Walker said. “I would give money to the devil if it would produce results,” added Bill Holland, the department’s director of transitional services.
But the state no longer will allow recipients to stay in the job programs for months without some meaningful results, he said.
“We are no longer going to pay for five, six, eight or nine months worth of training just so someone can go work at McDonald’s,” he said. “The people in Illinois are no longer going to be suckers.”
But contractors say some caseworkers don’t want to send welfare recipients to programs that emphasize training and job quality over quick placement.
Tipawan Reed, executive director of the Office of Applied Innovations, DePaul University’s welfare-to-work program, said she struggles to get aid recipients because caseworkers believe “that collecting experience is better than collecting training.”
And caseworkers are under intense pressure to cut the rolls, said Kennedy of the state’s Uptown welfare office. “Everything long term is seen as bad. … The attitude is this needs to be done now.”
Getting state money for vocational skills training is difficult, said William Leavy, executive director of the Greater West Town Community Development Project, a non-profit job training center at 790 N. Milwaukee Ave. “They [state officials] want it short, they want it cheap … they want it over as quick as possible,” he said.
About two years ago, Greater West Town returned most of its state contract for job preparation. Leavy said it did not sufficiently provide for his clients’ needs and he felt uncomfortable just handing them a list of jobs and telling them to find work.
“The agencies get paid for the winners and forget about the losers,” he said.
Greater West Town now targets welfare recipients facing the greatest barriers to work under an approximately $300,000 contract with the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development. Beyond the four-week class and job preparation, case managers track the participants for a year, helping them deal with problems on the job.
Robert Newton, director of employment and training at The Woodlawn Organization, 6040 S. Harper Ave., said his staff are forced to market their programs to caseworkers to get referrals. “Certain contractors are labeled as not able to place people quickly and they are not treated well. You can get blacklisted.
“It puts pressure on the contractor to place the client in any job that is readily available even if it is not the best place.”
Peters acknowledged that some contractors are unhappy. “But we are not going to be just training people for training sake. … We expect stringent outcomes. We expect people to actually get a job and keep a job. We are not paying for training.”
Welfare recipients also get referred to substance abuse programs, counseling and other services. But some job programs lose interest in clients with addictions, said Anthony Cole, vice president of the Haymarket Center, a substance abuse treatment facility at 932 W. Washington Blvd.
“They think that if they send her to a job interview, she will go high,” he said. “They might tell the client, `you need help’ and give them a list of agencies. But they don’t pick up the phone.”
The World Relief Corporation, a social service organization that works with refugees and immigrants, shut down one of its state-funded job preparation programs because many refugees were not ready for work, said Michelle McGillivray, director of education and employment for the organization, at 3507 W. Lawrence Ave.
“A lot of our refugees suffer from post traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “They have high levels of anxiety and they have problems learning English. Emotionally they are not stable enough to put to work.”
Sanura Leonard intended to graduate from high school, go to college and get a “great job as an accountant.” But when she had a child at 16, Leonard went on welfare.
She didn’t plan to stay there. Leonard earned her GED and entered a job preparation program at Employment & Employer Services. Today, the 22-year-old West Pullman resident earns $8.50 an hour as a receptionist at United Distillers & Vintners, 333 W. Wacker Drive.
She also attends Olive-Harvey College on the city’s far South Side. In March she stopped getting welfare. “It feels great not to depend on [the state] anymore.”
Self-starters like Leonard represent the first wave of recipients leaving the welfare rolls, said Jack Tweedie, director of the children and families program for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has offices in Denver and Washington, D.C. “The states had a lot of success putting people in jobs,” Tweedie said. “But now they’re finding they’re needing more training, more education.”
Some states, like Oregon, are giving money to community colleges to create special vocational programs to help welfare recipients earn more, he said.
Under federal law, 30 percent of a state’s welfare recipients in fiscal 1998 had to be involved in a “work activity” before the state can qualify for its federal block grant for welfare and child care.
That year, 37.7 percent of Illinois recipients were engaged in these activities, according to federal statistics. Yet only 2.3 percent of recipients were enrolled in one-year vocational programs or community service, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Thirty states ranked higher than Illinois in this category in fiscal 1998.
In fiscal 1999, the federal requirement rose to 35 percent. In Illinois, 56.8 percent of recipients were in work activities; state officials could not provide percentages for vocational programs.
The real test for Illinois’ welfare program will be to help recipients like the women in Hardin’s work readiness class. Linda Jenkins, 23, who lives in Roseland, seems the least interested among those in the class. When the class read in unison their inspirational poem of the day, Jenkins, who has a 5-year-old daughter, stayed silent.
Later, when Jenkins’ eyelids began to droop, Hardin gave her a lecture about how dozing off can get employees fired.
“Well, I don’t really want to come [to this program], but I’ve got to,” said Jenkins, who quit her job at United Parcel Service of America Inc. in February 1998 because her boss would not switch her off the overnight shift. “You just sit here and they tell you things you already know about.”
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–Contributing: Stephanie Williams. James Boozer, Mick Dumke, Alden K. Loury and Billy O’Keefe helped research this article.