Tag Archives: Work

What’s Wrong With This System? Larry Knows.

The best thing about about visiting Seattle’s Tent City #3 is getting to talk to people like “Larry”. He’s the kind of guy you run across at city bus stops and food banks, sometimes talking passionately to passers-by about whatever strikes his fancy, sometimes just talking to himself.  I hope you will take the time to listen to him in the video below – it turns out there’s a wealth of  knowledge inside his gruff exterior. Listen to what he has to say about bouncing benefits, and being kept in poverty by the system – if only our legislators could hear him!

Larry chose not to talk about how he landed at Tent City, or where he came from, but he was comfortable talking about his life since.  He is a longtime fixture in Seattle’s Tent City #3. Single, childless and unemployed, he qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), medical care, the free phone available to people on food stamps (though as you heard he chooses not to use it), and for a daily bus pass on Seattle’s Metrobus system.

As I mentioned in my introductory post about the tent cities, they exist in Seattle through agreements with the city and the churches that host them, and hosts are only allowed to host for three to six months, so the homeless are always on the move. Larry, and most homeless people I met, would prefer more permanent locations on city or state land, but Washington state, like most states, has ordinances preventing permanent homeless encampments on public property.

What this means for the homeless is a complete tear-down of their city every few months, and relocation to another part of the city, where they have to orient themselves to yet another neighborhood with different bus routes, food sources, social services and so on, adding more chaos to already chaotic lives. When Larry talks about asking the homeless what they need, instead of creating yet another committee to study them, this is one of the issues he means.

The most poignant moment in our talk came when he talked about how the system keeps people from getting ahead – he described how through the perverse logic of the system, getting any job means losing all your benefits – even he could see the impetus that creates, to just stay on welfare.  As he so eloquently says, the welfare system would prefer you stay in your donated apartment and eat your donated food, than make any progress towards self sufficiency.

Since embarking on this journey one of the thoughts that keeps popping in to my head is this: if our stated goal is lifting people out of poverty, why is the system actually designed to keep people IN poverty? Why do we cut off benefits the minute recipients make a dime over the poverty line, or whatever the means test is for that benefit? Why don’t we incentivize progress towards self-sufficiency instead?

Everyone I have talked to so far wants to work, and wants to be supporting themselves. Yet everyone is also aware that the minute they make any money they’ll lose their benefits, so they can’t save up for a deposit on an apartment, or to buy a car (which they can’t own anyway), even though those two things would get them on the path to self sufficiency. Even our friend friend knows how ridiculous the system is; and the sad thing is, he’s stuck in it.

“Welfare Should be Temporary, Not Permanent”

In Decatur, Georgia I was lucky enough to meet several women who are participating in a work preparation class through their TANF program. The program is administered through a private organization that contracts with the State of Georgia to provide work readiness and job search training for TANF recipients.

By all accounts, the women are getting a lot out of the training and there was an energy in the participants I met that I have not encountered anywhere else in my travels. The women I met were all convinced they would soon be off of welfare and into jobs, and felt they were getting the help and preparation they needed to succeed.

While waiting outside one of the classrooms for the women to get out of class, I heard a roar of laughter, and then an instructor came out, and looking a bit surprised to see me, said “I just gave the women a writing assignment, and the question was “What does it mean to be white?””

Given the fact that everyone I saw and encountered in the program (and in Decatur itself), was either African-American, Latino, or of Asian descent, I thought it was a curious question, apparently designed to encourage the women in the program to think about their own pre-conceptions and biases.

According to the instructor, one of the students had piped up “I’m a strong, powerful black woman, I’m black and I’m proud – I don’t know what white women are like, but that’s what I am!”, which had led to the laughter I’d heard when I arrived.

After class ended, “Connie” was the first woman who agreed to talk to me. As you will hear from her interview, she is a poster child for how TANF can and should work – as a temporary program providing cash assistance and job training and placement for women and children in need. Connie had no experience with welfare prior to losing her last job during the economic downturn. She had always worked, and expected to continue to work all the way until her retirement. Unfortunately, with the recession, and a newborn at home, things were taking longer than expected.

What I found most endearing about Connie was her matter-of-fact approach to her situation. There was no feeling sorry for herself, no giving up and deciding to stay on welfare, no slacking off – Connie is a woman with a mission, and the mission is to get on with her life so she doesn’t have to rely on the government.

So isn’t it better for Connie to have TANF as a temporary, short-term solution that helps her get up and out of welfare, than to have her languishing for years on programs that do nothing to prepare her for a life of independence and self reliance? And if so, then why are we gutting the one program, TANF,  that by all accounts is succeeding in it’s mission of getting people off of cash assistance by making it a short term solution with a workfare requirement?


“Strong, Black and Proud” Mom Wants off of Welfare

“Tanya” is a tiny woman, full of energy and drive, who floors me when she announces she is the mother of not one, not two, but five children, with the oldest, at seven, conceived while she was still in high school.

That first child ended her high school career, and she is still trying to finish, by taking classes in preparation for the GED (high school equivalency exam). She is also in a TANF-mandated welfare-to-work program, which she hopes will lead to a full-time job soon. It is clear she has a lot of ambition, if few skills.

Tanya has spent her entire life on welfare, first in her mother’s house and now in her own, and is nearing the end of her state-mandated lifetime allotment of TANF cash benefits. Like her mother, she will still be able to live in her subsidized housing for free, get her utility bills paid for, and her phone, and her transportation, and get food stamps for herself and her family, and Medicaid, but her monthly cash benefit will disappear. We talked about what happens next, and it’s clear that Tanya wants a job so she can support herself and her kids.

When I asked about the fathers of her children, she said that they would rather live the street life, dabbling in crime and getting locked up regularly, than try and straighten out and play a parenting role. She considers it too much of a hassle to get these ‘baby-daddies’, as she calls them, to step up and do their part as the fathers to her kids. Her attitudes towards the fathers of her children, and towards child support in general, mirror attitudes I found across the country, and are troubling for at least two reasons.

The first reason concerns child support – in Tanya’s opinion, since her kids can live on public assistance, she sees no reason for the government to get involved in ‘her business’ and ask her to go after the fathers for child support. In essence, she would rather rely on the state to take care of her kids, than rely on the fathers of her children,  a troubling trend for the children, and an expensive trend for the country.

The second reason concerns putting the fathers of her children on the children’s birth certificates. Often, these young mothers end up aquiescing to the father’s demands not to be named on birth certificates, in exchange for promised under-the-table child support. Predictably, this child support is only paid for a few months, before the fathers disappear. This leaves the children without fathers on their birth certificates, the mothers with no means to collect child support without costly legal battles and DNA testing, and the fathers off the hook, free to continue with their chosen lifestyles.

Tanya’s best hope is the job she dreams about and is in training for; the TANF program she is in has inspired her, and, combined with her pluck and determination, puts her in the best position she has been in so far to reach that goal. Traveling the country this summer, the main theme running through the conversations I had with welfare recipients was this: people want jobs, NOT welfare. So why have so many states now been given the option of gutting the work requirements of TANF? Why remove the only program with a work requirement, when it is clear that work is what people want?

“The Human Cost of Welfare” Introduced on Huffington Post

Authors Philip D. Harvey and Lisa Conyers outline  “The Human Cost of Welfare” on Harvey’s Huffington Post Blog:

A new round of welfare reform may be on the horizon. Sen. Tom Coburn (R/OK) and Rep. Steve Southerland (R/FL) are both raising the issue, and 150 interviews we’ve just done with welfare recipients show why and how the current welfare system needs to be fixed.

To see how welfare recipients view these programs, we asked current and former welfare recipients across the country how they feel about life on government assistance, and about work, and we asked them what happens when they depend on government programs to meet their daily needs.

Some, like Beverly (not her real name) “feel a lot better” once they find a job, any job.

“I had a good job in advertising, but then the recession hit, my job got ‘downsized,’ and I ended up on welfare,” Beverly said. “I had never been on welfare. When I heard that this hotel in Durango was looking for someone to manage their free breakfast and vending machines, I came in to apply. The manager thought I was overqualified but I got the job. It’s a big step down, but now I have a reason to get up in the morning.”

Others, like John in New Orleans, feel caught in the welfare trap. “I’m not living, I’m just surviving.” John said. “I used to work, always worked but now I’m just surviving day on day.”

Replies like these were common among the 150 people we interviewed, including people who felt stuck in welfare, people who had gotten out of the system and back into a job, tribal leaders on Indian reservations, young people in homeless shelters, and older men in cities. While this was not a scientific sample it gave us a profound sense of the nature of America’s welfare programs and how their recipients feel about them and about their lives.

The clearest finding is that some form of work appears to be necessary for a satisfying life. Work involves challenges, and dealing with such challenges lies at the heart of human wellbeing.

At some level, we all know the importance of accomplishing difficult things, of overcoming real obstacles. Picture, for example, the happiness of a child who, after many weeks or months of trying, masters riding a bicycle. The happiness that results from this accomplishment requires the effort that went into it. Closer to home, one of our family members, in the final uncomfortable months of his life, often said “At least I got four kids through college.” That was something he was especially proud of.

Mastering the bicycle, getting your kids through college — these are hard things to do, things requiring skill and persistence, and their mastery is a source of immense satisfaction.

Our evidence indicates that this is the element missing from the lives of those who depend too much on assistance from the government.

Of course, many people who receive government assistance truly need it and their lives might be worse without it. But we repeatedly got the message that people in need want to accomplish things; they want to make a contribution, to have something to point to and say “I did that.”

Clearly, a wealthy nation owes its poorest citizens a decent subsistence. But making poverty comfortable, even modestly comfortable, can create a pattern of dependence and entitlement. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for example, provides cash benefits to the disabled, many of whom are able to work and want to work, at least part-time. But if SSI recipients earn even a trivial amount, the benefit is reduced or eliminated. Such policies trap the recipients in “a cage” according to one man on SSI. The system penalizes both work and saving, two of the things that may provide a path out of poverty.

The successes of the welfare reforms of 1996 are, unfortunately, slowly being eroded under today’s policies, but those successes support the findings of our interviews as they indicate that most people want to work; when given the opportunity and — it must be said — confronted with the requirement to work, they do. “Don’t try to keep us down,” we heard from Rebecca, echoing the views of many. “Create programs that will help us get back up.”

Our present policies are keeping people down and keeping them dependent and they are not happy about it. Welfare policies that reward work (as the Earned Income Tax Credit currently does), are appropriately time-limited, and include access to training will help them get back up.

I Want My Kids to Say “Mommy Took Care of Me”.

“Kate” and I met outside a subway stop near the Nike store in downtown Manhattan; she was on her way to a job doing hair and makeup for an off-Broadway show. Kate is a single mom with two kids; a seven year old son and five year old daughter. After living in a homeless shelter for two years, they all recently moved back in with her mother, who  found an apartment big enough for the four of them.

My interview with Kate is a fitting end to this summer’s journey, embodying everything I’ve come to expect from those I’ve met along the way. Though she is grateful for the help she has had from the TANF and SNAP programs, and medical assistance and housing, she clearly doesn’t want to be a ‘welfare mom’. Her most telling moments are when she talks about what she wants her children to remember about her when they grow up.

“I want them to rely on me if they need something, not the system, so when they grow up they’ll say ‘Mommy took care of me’, not the government.” She is currently planning to enroll in college and work 2-3 jobs, so that when her TANF runs out she is in a position to support herself and her kids. One impediment is the current job market, which is especially challenging in New York City.

Kate has the determination and drive to make it out of the system, and I would like to imagine her five years down the line, off of TANF for good, with a living wage job and a college degree under her belt. If anything holds her back, it certainly won’t be a lack of determination or work ethic on her part. What may hold her back is being on welfare in the first place.

As a TANF recipient, employers will find out she is on welfare and either offer her lower wages, or not hire her at all because they think she’ll be unreliable and unprofessional.

The stigma of welfare is real in the job market. First, when applying for jobs, because welfare case workers get involved, discussing their clients with prospective employers, thus tipping the hand of applicants and making employers aware of their background. Second, when negotiating for wages; employers know that welfare recipients need to take the jobs they are offered, and there is little incentive to offer them high wages. Third, since welfare recipients are able to qualify for continued housing and medical assistance and food stamps if their wages stay low, there is an incentive on the part of employers to forgo offers of benefits such as health plans and retirement funds that will push welfare recipients over the poverty line. The result is a pool of disadvantaged applicants at the mercy of employers.

Looking back on all the people I’ve met this summer who are struggling and surviving on welfare while wishing and dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families, I’ve given a lot of thought to what our country could do differently for its poorer citizens. For the disabled, for the elderly, for the children, a safety net is clearly called for. But for the rest, who just want a chance at a better life, and who just need a little help to get back on their feet after setbacks, layoffs, unexpected pregnancies, and the like, I can’t help wondering whether our current safety net isn’t in fact a safety ‘trap’ that becomes difficult if not impossible to escape. I’d like to believe we can do better.

Homeless and Struggling in Brooklyn

“Rosie” wasn’t always homeless – there was a time when she was living ‘the American Dream’ – husband, two kids, a house, a car, a good job, and money in the bank. But then the bottom fell out – she got divorced, lost her job, lost her house, and then, to ensure her children’s fiscal security, gave custody  to her ex-husband. He turned around and sued her for child support, bankrupting her. She found herself homeless, living on the streets in New York City.

*Please note: Audio is a bit sketchy, it was very crowded and windy at the park; a transcript can be found at the end of this blog*

Rosie is very resourceful, a trait that has held her in good stead during her time as a homeless person. She quickly learned how to find public and private charities that provide various services to the homeless, and how to make a few dollars here and there to supplement her food stamps, which are her only income. Since her background was in the medical field, it was easy for her to find part-time gigs providing services to some of the seedier doctors in town.

She shares stories of an extensive underground network that relies on poverty-stricken patients to generate billings to insurance companies, paying a small portion of the profits to the patients and keeping the rest. Whether it is sleep studies or pharmaceuticals, there are plenty of willing participants, and plenty of doctors who have found easy ways to milk the system.

Rosie turned to recruiting fellow homeless New Yorkers for these studies, earning herself a small underground income. To that she added visits to a dentist who would pay her $20 per unnecessary filling, pocketing the rest of the payment from the insurance company. This same dentist connected her with a denture manufacturer who extracted two of her teeth to use in new dentures, paying her $600 apiece – healthy human teeth are at a premium for patients who can afford them.

Rosie’s story, at least for now, has a happy ending. She has recently married, and knows that if her disability application is denied again (she is bi-polar and has been trying to get into the SSI disability program) she still has her husband, who has vowed to take care of her. Finally, she is off the streets, and his wedding gift to her was two false teeth, to replace the ones she sold.

Is this the best we can hope for for Rosie? Here is a woman who by all accounts is a hard worker who wants to work, and continued to piece together an income even after losing everything. It seems to me we would all be better off if Rosie got a hand up, instead of struggling through her days in the shadow economy. She has ambition, a strong work ethic, and a desire for a good life.  As she says, the system sets you up to fail, and leaves you in a constant struggle to survive. It would appear that the best welfare system in the world is incapable of providing anything but the bare means of subsistence. There must be a better way forward.


What is your background?

Well, both my mom and dad are on public assistance, we didn’t have the luxury to not be on welfare.

What about your parents?

Well, my mom got a job so they took her off welfare, she got a job in a factory, and my dad got odd jobs.

Have you worked in the past?

I had my kids, well, I was 19 when I had my daughter, she’s 16 now, and my son, he’s 13. So I mean, I did start on public assistance, and gradually I went to school, and I graduated as a medical assistant, so I went off of it, and I went to work at Sacred Heart Hospital.

You and your boyfriend moved to New York, then what happened?

I didn’t work out, so I went to Al Camino, that’s a couples shelter…so then the couples shelter, we were there for 18 months. Went back and forth, everyone denied us, we even went to hearings in the courts, they denied us, so …

They wouldn’t let you in?

They wouldn’t. Because they couldn’t verify one address…because it was a lot of moves, and the landlord would change, you know, so just because they couldn’t verify that one address, they couldn’t give help.

So how do you verify an address when you are homeless?

They needed…they wanted to people to see, like say if I was sleeping on a bench, they wanted me to get signatures of people actually seeing me on the bench, like sleeping and things like that, I mean, that’s not possible, so I couldn’t do that. So, um, his mother, my ex’s mother, she lived in Florida. She gave us…we went over there, she gave us a start. He got lazy, I left him, and I went to Philadelphia by myself.

In the last few years you have been homeless and in and out of mental facilities, but now you have a husband and a new home?

It’s been a struggle, you know, when you don’t have no family, you’re just into it, it’s a struggle. And recently I met my husband, we’re newlyweds, and that’s um, that’s the best thing that’s happened to me with my housing and everything, and he’s a good guy and he doesn’t dope or anything, and I recently to converted to Muslim. I didn’t get dressed today [wear a scarf], because some people are racist and don’t know who I am.

So… but, my life now, is turning out for the better, and I thank God that, you know, I could have got raped so many times, or turned to drugs, but I didn’t go down that path, I chose the path to do right.

What was it like living on the streets?

It was tough. You know, guys, you’re walking down the street, they’re hollering at you, it becomes so easy to become…you know, to sell your body, but I never went down that route. I just had self dignity for myself. Some women do take that route, and I have run into women in that way, and they’re young women, too, but me, I look the other way..I mean, it’s… I kept myself clean, and well groomed, and people didn’t believe that I was homeless, they said “You’re not homeless” and I said “Yeah, I am”.

I have my sisters, and they say like that, one time they took me home, do stuff like that, it’s, you know, I mean…God sent you on a path, and He knows how much to give you, before he pulls you out.

Is working for a living important to you?

….they call the cops, tell them they’re boyfriends are beating on them, you know, it’s a domestic violence shelter…a lot of women do that here [to get housing]. But I’d rather work. I’d rather work.

Me, I developed anxiety, I developed bi-polar, by being on the streets. By being on the streets. And it’s a shame, you know, it really is, because I’ve suffered personally. But you know, little by little, they helped me, social services helped me, they helped me to find a job, they helped me when I went to work and everything, so I’m just here, I’m here waiting to hear from Social Security on the retro money, you know the retro money, [retroactive payments if she ends up on disability for her mental condition] that could be thousands, going back four years, but you know, if they deny me, I’ll go back to the medical field, I’d rather work because, let’s say they give me $50 dollars, in cash, that don’t go a long way.

Does everyone live on that?

Some people, um, some people, cash their food stamps for cash. $100 in food stamps will get you $70 in cash.

Are you allowed to save money while on public assistance?

If they give us the money that we are supposed to have, and even if you put $20 in an account, and leave it… like, we were accumulating, something to fall back on…no, they want to know everything, even if you have a bank account, they won’t give it to you, they won’t give it to you. They won’t give it to you. And I think it’s a set-up, to, it’s, the way they have it, its a set-up to fail, so they, so you can go back on the system. That’s the way I see it.

Like, when I first signed up for housing, for, when I was in the shelter, this one lady, she was living there, I didn’t know, if you give one address, and they verify that, then you’re good. I didn’t know that. I gave them, I was honest, I gave them all the addresses that I was, and I got shut down. This lady sitting next to me, she knows how the system works, and she got in, and I didn’t.

What about medical benefits?

Medical…ok, when welfare gives you medical, the medical card, what they do.. I did it.. I didn’t do it, but I worked for a doctor, that was giving stress tests, and for every patient, for every person that I recruited I was getting paid $70 per person, I was, I was in the shelter. So, I’m like, okay. So what happened, a guy recruited me, so he liked the way I was a bee, and really, you know, determined, so, anyway, and so these doctors  they were outta Jamaica, Queens. I would get up at 5:30 in the morning, I would go to the methadone clinics, where I knew that people need money, to the welfare office, where people need money, so I recruit these people, and out of the $70 the doctor was paying me out of the purse I would pay the people $30 out of my money. So every day I’d recruit seven people to get a stress test. And what happens is that the doctor writes off to the insurance company, and, you know, a stress test costs a lot of money for the insurance company. They pay me $70, I’m giving them $30. So I’d get like seven, eight people. I was holding cash, I had cash like $230 in my pocket every day, and I was in the shelter, you know. And I was living on food stamps, and to live…to live.

One time, and then one time, I was working for this other doctor, and,  this dental doctor, and I didn’t have no food or nothing, and I didn’t know what to do, and this guy recruited me, but he chose me, he would say “We’ll give you a filling, and we’ll give you $20.” So my thing was that, it’s kind of embarrassing, but this is true life, this is what it is…um, I had to sell two of my teeth. They gave me $600. My teeth were perfect. But I had to do that because I needed the money.

How do you feel about selling your teeth?

You know, to this day, I’m not going to forget, because these two teeth, I got $600.

What about drugs?

There’s doctors, they’ll give you whatever medication you want, doesn’t matter what you want. See, in the streets here, Clonapin, a bottle, you can sell a bottle of 90 pills, you can sell them for $200.

What if you get caught?

They’re people walking around, they did these things, they cut you off, the medical program will cut you off the insurance. They won’t give you public assistance, they won’t give you , they’ll never give it to you ever again.

What have you learned living here in New York?

Well it’s just one thing that I’ve learned, you don’t trust, you don’t trust, you don’t trust, you don’t trust a lot of people. There’s always someone watching you here. Even if you think they aren’t watching, they are watching.

Does the welfare system work?

I think that they should give you a little bit more money. Because $150, it doesn’t go a long way. I know people mess it up for other people, but at least they shouldn’t. And, give you the encouragement that you can go to work…like not try to live on that, and on food stamps, knowing that you, that there’s no way possible…I used to make $30,000, $40,000 a year in medical assistance working at a hospital. To this? It’s like, wow…so .

I’ve been on both sides, you know, like, my kids’ father filed for child support, so they basically, I went in front of the judge, and I told the judge, and I brought, I have all my papers since I was homeless, I have all of them, so I brought ’em in front of the judge, the judge put it on hold, because he knows I’m trying to get my life together, I’m not, it’s not I don’t want to pay. He put it on hold, and, and, and, and turned it to, every three months, I have to go in, and, and, he gets my medical papers on me, you know, and so, you know I’ve been doing fine, I think I, I’m proud of myself, and I think I’ve come a long way, and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way, and now I’m more cautious.

Is it possible to be happy on welfare?

Never. Never. Never. Because everything is a struggle. You struggle  for every day. You struggle every day. You struggle every day. You struggle every day. All the time.