Help Wanted

Milwaukee resident Mary Rhoden has been on and off welfare for years. Her trouble hasn’t been getting a job. In fact, she’s had quite a few. It’s keeping them that’s the problem. The mother of five fought with her supervisor and was fired as a counselor for a teenage program. She quit as a hotel maid because the boss got on her nerves, and she walked out of a clerical job because others made more money.

Rhoden’s difficulties aren’t just the product of bad attitude. According to a profile of her in The New York Times, Rhoden was molested as a young child, and when she tried telling her mother, her mother ignored it, leaving Rhoden with a deep distrust of authority. At 13, Rhoden ran away from home and eventually went into foster care but, like many women on welfare with a history of sexual abuse, her problems remained. By 17, she was suicidal, attempting once to poison herself. Rhoden’s lingering mental health issues pose a steep barrier to her success in the workforce.

For the most part, the Times seems to have known more about Rhoden’s deep-seated psychological issues than her caseworkers at the welfare office did. Despite participating in various training programs and cycling in and out of the welfare office for years, she never thought of confiding in her caseworkers. But then, why would she?

Rhoden’s welfare caseworker is likely the same check-writing eligibility clerk who has always been there, scrutinizing her utility bills, searching for signs of unreported income that could bring an end to her monthly assistance checks. Only now, since welfare reform came to Wisconsin in 1996, Rhoden’s caseworker does all that with the reminder: Get a job.

Judging from Rhoden’s story, the “get a job” approach hasn’t been too successful for her or a good number of other welfare recipients. A recent study from the Erikson Institute’s Project Match found that simply funneling people into jobs without adequate preparation has failed miserably: 57 percent of former welfare moms were again unemployed after only six months and 70 percent had left or quit their jobs within 12 months.

But imagine a different scenario: What if Rhoden went to the welfare office and instead of finding a low-level clerk, she were greeted by a sympathetic social worker? Someone Rhoden could trust and who, along with job leads, might connect her with psychological counseling to help her deal with her sexual abuse. And when she did get a job, what if the social worker called once in a while to see how she was getting along, encouraging Rhoden to tough out the hard times and advising her on how to deal with her boss?

To be sure, a social worker’s counsel is not nearly enough to conquer the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse. But there’s some evidence that a good social worker can be the glue that helps make women like Rhoden stick with jobs and start climbing up the economic ladder. And those folks still on welfare today are going to need all the help they can get.

Welfare rolls are at their lowest level in 30 years. More than five million former recipients are now working. States like Wisconsin and Wyoming have shed more than 90 percent of their rolls over the last six yearsthe nation, 53 percent.

Thanks to that massive decline, Democrats and Republicans alike now shower the new system with praise. No longer do we hear the stories of the “welfare queen” and calls for cracking down on cheats. Instead, as The American Prospect wrote recently, welfare reform has radically changed several million people “from being considered undeserving poor’ because they don’t work, to being viewed as deserving’ poor because they do.”

Despite the bipartisan declarations of success, it’s a little early to declare victory. The exodus from welfare has slowed to a crawl in some states: New Mexico’s caseload fell by only a fraction of one percent last year, and Tennessee’s declined by 1.5 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The numbers suggest that after four years of this social experiment, the majority of folks who were able to get jobs have got them. As for the rest, well, they are demonstrating what liberals have always argued: that poverty is a complicated social ill, stemming from a host of complex issues that can’t be cured solely with a welfare checkor an admonition from the government to get a job.

The welfare rolls today are loaded with women like Rhoden. In 1998, researchers at the University of Utah conducted a survey of state residents who had received welfare for at least three years. A huge proportion of long-term recipients reported serious problems that posed significant barriers to their ever getting off the dole. More than half were victims of childhood physical or sexual abuse; 55 percent experienced domestic violence; over 40 percent suffered from depression; 47 percent were addicted to drugs and alcohol; and 41 percent were struggling with serious health problems.

Welfare reform has given states the money and flexibility to create new programs, such as drug treatment and mental health counseling, that are desperately needed for a sizable proportion of women still on the rolls. But officials have discovered that just because they build programs doesn’t mean women will come. That’s largely because front-line caseworkers in most welfare offices aren’t trained even to figure out what kind of problems their clients have, much less how to help them.

Even Bill Clinton noted recently that something is clearly amiss in the welfare office today, because a sizeable number of those million or so low-income adults who have lost their welfare benefits are losing their food stamps and Medicaid insurance, even though most are still eligible once they enter the workforce. (Official assessments of welfare reform in Indiana show that four-fifths of former welfare recipients who held a job were still living under the poverty line, making less than $7,500 a year.)

Three-quarters of the funding set aside by Congress to ensure continued Medicaid coverage for low- income families$383 millionhas still not been spent as of this year. Three-quarters of low-income children and their families who qualified did not even apply for health insurance, a recent study found, and two-thirds of families who qualified also left the food-stamp program.

For clients like Rhoden, mired in personal struggles, the simplistic jobs-first approach that most welfare offices have adopted is not a long-term solution. They need much more help. And helplike food stamps and Medicaidis out there, if only someone could show Rhoden and her troubled counterparts how to find it. That’s why a social worker might be just what she needs.

Old-fashioned social workers were trained to do precisely what welfare caseworkers often aren’t: to identify a client’s problems and link them to available services. In effect, social workers are facilitators, people who could make the connection between the old check-writing welfare system and the new get-off-your-duff-and-work system.

For instance, a social worker might look at a woman with Rhoden’s history of mental illness and realize that realistically, she might never be able to work full time. Instead, the social worker might help her apply for disability benefits or send her to a mental health program rather than force Rhoden to languish in work readiness programs. A social worker also would make sure that if Rhoden did go to work, she would keep her food stamps and other benefits available to her. But the only way for that to happen is for a different kind of person to be waiting for Rhoden at the welfare office.

“Today, [welfare office workers] don’t even spend time with you,” said Janlee Wong, a social worker in Sacramento, California. “They just say, Get a job.’ People will bring in their problems and they’ll say, I understand you have problems, but get a job.’ You or I can stand at a window and say, Get a job.'”

Kerry O’Brien, the founder of the D.C. Employment Justice Center, which provides legal services to low-income D.C. residents, says that for the most part, “the main function of caseworkers is to determine whether or not someone is eligible for benefits. They are really like bank tellers. Their job is to fill out forms, shuffle papers. That’s their jobto distribute income.”

O’Brien says the system needs to be retooled so that someone keeps track of a woman who shows up six times with a black eye and says she fell down the stairs each time. “That shouldn’t be the job of someone who gets paid $18,000 a year and has little more than a high school education,” she says.

Here again is a job for a social worker. Acting as a link between individual clients and the system, social workers could prevent clients like Rhoden from falling through the cracks. They might become privy to personal problems that an occasional across-the-Plexiglas conference with a caseworker would never reveal. Social workers can also offer clients the intangibleslike a sympathetic shoulderthat can mean the difference between languishing in poverty and getting back on their feet. Moreover, they can offer hope, which sometimes can mean more to a client trying to get her life in order than a GED class.

People in the nonprofit world have long known that the personal intervention from a competent, concerned caseworker can help today’s welfare recipients get a leg up. Take Chicago’s Project Match, for instance, a private nonprofit program that began in the city’s infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project. Serving extremely disadvantaged clients, Project Match helps the hard-to-employ make their gradual ascent into the workplace by retraining welfare officer caseworkers to behave like old-fashioned social workers.

Once retrained, workers help women develop concrete skills such as the ability to adhere to a schedule or to deal with supervisors. These workers develop a plan that might start out with a welfare recipient taking a child to an extracurricular activity once a week, or volunteering in a class. If the client succeeds in fulfilling this requirement, the caseworker will, like a tough coach, gradually add more activities and responsibilities to the schedule until the client is declared job-ready.

Failure is considered part of the learning process. If the client fails, the caseworker is there for her to fall back on and will work with her to fulfill a different task or to identify the obstacles keeping the client from succeeding. Caseworkers keep computerized diaries to keep track of the progressof which there is plenty. A five-year study of 470 participants from Cabrini-Green found an increasing number were able to work all 12 months of the year, growing from 26 percent in the first year to 54 percent in the fifth year. The study concluded that although the process was gradual, “many Project Match participants do become steady workers.”

But the key to the success, says director Toby Herr, is the front line worker. “That’s why this system is designed to take eligibility workers and transform them into more sensitive caring and knowledgeable counselors,” she says.

The social work approach isn’t just a bunch of squishy New Age psychobabble, either. A 1996 Urban Institute study found that many hard-core cases on welfare needed more time to acknowledge their difficulties, and then to be willing to seek help for them. Crucial to getting to that stage, the study noted, was developing trust between the workers and the clients. One worker in the study noted, “Sometimes you have to nurture’ a recipient into treatment. Over time, recipients begin to believe that staff really care about them and their well-being.”

Social workers may be just what our current welfare system needs to make welfare reform a genuine success. But good luck finding one there. According to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), only one percent of its entire membership works in public welfare offices. Of course, who can blame them? As Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy, points out, “Very few people with master’s degrees in social work want to sit around calculating income and verifying rent receipts.”

It wasn’t always like this. In the early 1900s, social workers were instrumental in public welfare. Social workers like Harry Hopkins, who later headed Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, and Frances Perkins, who went on to become the first female Secretary of Labor, were leaders in creating the social safety net in the 1930s.

Even then, though, social workers had started to get a bad rap. The profession had its roots in the late 19th century Charity Organization Societies, in which mostly white women from the upper-middle classes made friendly home visits and showered their clients with advice of mostly Christian virtue and morals, while handing out largesse. Their approach found its way into government antipoverty efforts, so that relief was doled out only to the “deserving poor.”

During the 1960s War on Poverty, liberals dismissed this approach as condescending and supercilious. The poor needed money, they argued, not counsel. Social workers’ arbitrary assessments, they believed, had no place in such a decision. Welfare offices drastically cut the number of social workers, and front-line workers became little more than clerks concerned with eligibility verification and fraud detectiona system that had the benefit of being cheapand a bureaucracy rapidly grew to support these two tasks.

That’s the system as it existed in 1996, when Clinton signed the Republican-driven welfare reform bill that limited cash-assistance, mandated workfare, and turned over control of the program to the states. The bill radically changed expectations for welfare recipients. Unfortunately, it didn’t much change the welfare office. The same low-level clerks who have been checking rental stubs for years were the same people charged with transforming thousands of Mary Rhodens into self-sufficient, tax-paying members of society. O’Brien says, “They are all of a sudden expected to be miracle workers.”

The seven million people remaining on welfare today are going to need more than tough love to get them out of poverty. Perhaps, then, what the system needs is tough loversa class of workers employed not as gatekeepers but as innovators, confidantes, mentors, even coaches, who draw on their highest talents, their deepest passions and their keenest intellect to lift their clients out of poverty.

Some states are starting to realize this. While they aren’t bringing in a drove of freshly-minted graduates of social work masters’ programs, places like Iowa and Utah are retraining capable front-line workers to screen recipients for substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, even learning disabilities, and to refer these clients to programs appropriate for their various problems.

In Oregon, when welfare recipients drop out or stop coming to work training classes and risk losing their benefits, social workers track them downeven visiting them at home to find out what’s going on. Through their contacts, social workers keep a lookout for signs of such problems as mental illness or substance abuse that might be causing the women to fail. When they do identify such problems, they refer those clients to appropriate services.

The results of Oregon’s original pilot project, called Step Up, were fairly dramatic. The program cut the “no show” rates in county programs by half, and nearly tripled participation in work programs. Lynne Murray, a staffer with Oregon Adult and Family Services in Corvallis, says that the home visits by social workers were actually welcomed by many clients. “In a lot of cases, people were glad that someone cared enough about them to come see them. It made them feel better about the whole process,” she says. “It’s a big, big job. But for the most part, it seems to be working.”

Replicating Oregon’s model throughout the rest of the country has tremendous potential for helping the poor. But it also promises another, unexpected benefit. These programs have the potential to lure some new blood into the welfare office. No idealistic young person looking for a rewarding career wants to work in the welfare office if it means sitting at a desk writing checks all day. But he might come knocking if he saw the welfare office as a place where he could actually help someone.

Tracking down welfare moms and cajoling them to stick with the program, finding them late night child care, and just listening to their sorrows, promises to be far more challengingand rewardingthan most dot-com desk jobs. Creating a demand for social workers in the welfare office could attract a whole new generation of people to government service. And who knows? After being maligned and neglected for the past 30 years, social work might regain its good name.

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