Wages of Welfare War

Down in the Liberty City projects, a growing number of women's voices are just saying no to workfare as we know it

Local WAGES coalitions work within the guidelines of state and federal policies. But on the ground, they enforce welfare laws and administer services such as subsidized child-care, job training and placement, transportation, and transitional benefits -- all areas that, according to critics, haven't met the standards for success. At the heart of the problem, opponents say, is that WAGES providers don't have a complete picture of their recipients' needs. Furthermore they aren't familiar with the new laws and apply them inconsistently. As a result most program participants receive piecemeal information and miss out on the services available to them.

"I have not been impressed with the level of case management," says Edith Humes-Newbold, Mayor Penelas's advisor on welfare-to-work. "The laws are applied inconsistently, and caseworkers don't take the time to really get to know the participants."

A small regiment of single mothers marches to war against welfare reform
Photo courtesy Gihan Perera
A small regiment of single mothers marches to war against welfare reform
Gihan Perera connects women like Treva Landrum to other grassroots groups over the Internet
Steve Satterwhite
Gihan Perera connects women like Treva Landrum to other grassroots groups over the Internet

Robin Reiter, Miami Herald vice president and former co-chair of the local WAGES coalition, had never heard of Minority Families. She wasn't moved when she heard of the group's problems with WAGES. "As good as WAGES may be, it will never provide full satisfaction for everyone," Reiter says.

Although WAGES punishes some for not participating, many have dropped out of the program in frustration. "It's a very complicated system that involves far too many cooks," says Valory Greenfield, the public benefits attorney. "It allows far too many people to be served in a very superficial and generic way."

Indeed, for all the cooks involved in coming up with a recipe, there is not a single WAGES participant sitting on the board of the Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES coalition. A committee within the board nominates candidates; there is no external or community process for nominating people to the local coalition. "It just hasn't been done like that," says a WAGES coalition staffer who did not want to be named. "We advertise nominations and take applications; everything is public record."

According to the Qualitative Study of WAGES, coalitions make decisions mostly based on information they get from service providers and administrative staff; board members do not receive regular feedback from WAGES participants. "The philosophy of democracy is that people should have a say," says University of Florida professor Elizabeth McCulloch, one of fourteen researchers who worked on the WAGES study. "The people who are being governed by these rules are poor people. They're the ones who know how it's actually all working out."

"You can speculate all you want about why people fall through the cracks," Greenfield adds. "But it's a whole different thing to bring people who have fallen through the cracks to the table. These are people right in the thick of it, and they may very well have the answers."

The anonymous WAGES staffer says the coalition's outreach isn't far: "They're welcome to be involved. But we're not going to search them out." Vickers concurs. "This is not a public agency," he says. "There should be some input, but that does not necessarily mean that [WAGES recipients] should be on the board level."

Like the other 22 coalitions in Florida, Miami-Dade/Monroe WAGES awards contracts to public and private agencies to provide services for welfare recipients. But WAGES hasn't been efficient when it comes to coordinating the flow from providers to individuals. The result is that the majority of WAGES participants is missing out on some of their benefits. Thousands have dropped out of the program entirely. "There are lots of opportunities for people to get lost," admits the anonymous coalition staffer.

Despite the program's emphasis on work, more than half of those surveyed in a WAGES-financed study did not receive employment referrals or job leads from their WAGES career counselors. Vickers counters that while most participants may be landing work on their own, it's in part thanks to the training WAGES provides. "They receive the skills we afford them in order for them to land those jobs," he says. "They're trained on how to use computers and newspapers to search for work on their own."

Yet according to the survey, 82 percent of WAGES participants weren't even aware of the number of months they could take educational classes. Child-care and transportation also were trouble spots; more than half expressed ignorance on time limits for both. Sixty-six percent didn't even know they could receive clothing, uniforms, and school supplies. Seventy-five percent were unaware there was a WAGES hotline.

The problems were compounded last month when the number of people classified as missing or not participating in WAGES reached 11,000, out of approximately 17,000 still on welfare. Miami-Dade/Monroe also fell short by about 10 percent in meeting state standards for job placement and training (local coalitions must serve at least 40 percent of their area's caseload). The state board threatened to shut them down, and in response the local coalition drew up a "corrective action" plan. Miami-Dade/Monroe has a year to get it together. But Greenfield says there's no meat to the plan. "It was written in a way bureaucracies speak to each other."

Gihan Perera and Tony Romano began measuring the pulse of the welfare population in Liberty City in 1998. From Lincoln Fields to the Edison Terrace housing projects, Perera says, Liberty City's denizens believed WAGES was cornering them with few options for a decent life after welfare. Once the two men surveyed the population, they recruited a handful of women and formed Minority Families Fighting Against WAGES, a Miami Workers' Center project, in March. The group leafleted Liberty City, did grassroots outreach, and then began phone banking.

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