Sunday, January 9, 2011

From Welfare To Workfare

Those on welfare would tell you they don't like being there. In fact, I would venture to say the majority of them don't want to be there, because a welfare check comes with a social stigma.

Welfare recipients are constantly reminded by the accusatory expression on the faces of tax payers who see them as freeloaders, as people who get money for not working.

Some have argued that the welfare system should be abolished, without a clue as to how the problems that would arise would be solved. If welfare is ended, we will return to the world of Oliver Twist where children went hungry, and mothers knowing there was a demand, sold their bodies for money to feed their children.

This is not to suggest that the welfare system, as it is today is the best we can have. It solves one set of problems, but inadvertently creates another. While children do not go hungry, and mothers are not forced into prostitution; getting money without working has debilitating effects on the minds and bodies of welfare recipients, and their children.

When a person stays home all day, seven days a week watching television, and not engaged in activities that challenge the mind, few neurons synapses are created in the brain. But, when the mind is engaged in challenging activities; in confronting these challenges, more neurons synapses are created in the brain. As more neurons synapses are created, the brain's capacity to learn increases, enhancing its agility, and its ability to solve problems quickly.

Again, when a person stays home all day watching television, he or she has very little motivation to do physical exercise. The result is the body becomes overweight, and gradually becomes obese. Overweight and obesity are known sources of stroke, heart diseases, diabetes, and a myriad of other diseases. The more that overweight and obesity become a problem, the more difficult it will be, owing to limited resources, for the national health system to provide adequate health services to all who need them.

When the children of welfare recipients see their fathers and mothers home all day, yet able to get money to buy food, pay rent and buy clothes, they will be misled into thinking that staying home all day without working is a normal way of life. They will be trapped into emulating their parents, and end up on the welfare system as their parents before them.

Consequently, the aim of the welfare system, which is to prevent children from going hungry, and mothers from becoming prostitutes will be turned on its head. The welfare system  will become a breeding ground for generation upon generation of young men and women expecting to be paid for doing nothing.

In fiscal year 2008 the federal government spent $522 billion, and state governments spent $192 billion on providing assistance to welfare recipients, a total of $714 billion. The figures for 2010 will be slightly higher. However, when you add the cost of administering the welfare system the total amount spent both by federal and states governments rises beyond a trillion dollars a year.

When talking about the welfare system, the program that comes to mind is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) because it is the one that comes up in most welfare discussions. But there are other programs under the welfare umbrella including, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Supplementary Security Income (SSI), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Head Start, Work Study, Medicare and Social Security.

In 1996 President Clinton with the help of a Republican majority in Congress signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act; otherwise known as the Welfare Reform Act. This legislation devolved administration of the welfare system from the federal government to the states.

Among other provisions, the welfare Reform Act stated that all welfare recipients who began receiving assistance from the date of the legislation shall find jobs within a period of two years, after which welfare assistance will be cut off.

It also stated that current welfare recipients shall find jobs with a period of five years, after which welfare assistance will be cut off.

Another provision stated that all mothers receiving welfare assistance shall receive no increase in cash assistance if they had another child. For example, a mother currently on welfare with two children will get no additional assistance for her third child, unless the state legislature decided differently.

If these welfare reform provisions appear draconian, they are the voices in Congress of hard working and tax paying Americans who see the increasing tax burden upon them taking away their ability to provide opportunities for their own children, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is our choice to pursue a planned change in the welfare system, or wait for a blind instrument to cut across the welfare system with no regard for who goes hungry, who loses health care, or who becomes homeless.

The five years period when mothers already on the welfare system should have found jobs ends in 2011. With the unemployment rate hovering around 10%, it is not likely that welfare mothers who have received assistance for five years will have found jobs in 2011. Experts at the highest levels in the federal and state governments are thinking seriously about how to solve this problem which is already at our doors.

I have provided detail of a planned change to the welfare system that gradually moves recipients from the welfare system to a workfare system. Following the change those on the workfare system will get paid only when they work. Although, there will be some who will get paid without working, and these are about 50% of welfare recipients comprising mostly of the disabled and elderly.

The workfare system will work as following. The geographical and political area of operation will be the county. It is small enough to be effectively managed, yet large enough to have a critical mass of welfare recipients to make the workfare system work. Every building that is connected with providing welfare services and checks to recipients will be renamed a workfare building.

A short and simple form will be created and given to all current welfare recipients asking them to tell the workfare system what they can do best. Someone might say he is good at mowing a lawn. Another person might say she is a good painter. Yet another person might say she is a good baby sitter, or a good bricklayer.

The workfare system will collect all the filled in forms bearing the names, addresses and job proficiencies of those who filled them. The workfare system will group the various job proficiencies into job training programs. So that the person who said he is a good lawn mower will be given a mowing machine to demonstrate his proficiency.

When the job is done, the trainer will analyze the mowed lawn, and depending on his or her assessment, determine what level of training this trainee will need to qualify him as a certified lawn mower. The job training period will not exceed four weeks.

At the end of the job training, the trainee will receive a certification card the size of a credit card. The certification card will tell all companies he is assigned to work that he is a certified lawn mower. The same will go for trainees in other job training categories.

When job training and certification have gone on for some time, the workfare system will have available a large number of certified and skilled men and women ready to work.

As this will be a high priority operation, top officials of the workfare system will invite private companies to register for the service categories for which there are trained workfare workers. The private companies will show evidence that they have the financial resources, qualified management staff, and are doing business legally in the county where they are registered.

Next, top officials of the workfare system will through advertisement invite all private companies and individuals in the county to post onto a dedicated workfare website the services they want provided for their companies and homes.

The work assignments, as we shall called them, will be posted to the workfare website the day before. They will be sorted out and put into work assignment categories by the workfare staff. The next morning, the categorized work assignments will be posted onto the workfare website.

The private companies registered with the workfare system will look through the categorized work assignments, choosing those work assignments for which they have the technical skills and experience to perform. As each work assignment is taken, it is removed from the list.

Each private company will be allowed to take only a certain number of work assignments expressed in money value, and could come back during the day to take more work assignments after the ones previously taken have been done. This will prevent private companies from taking more work assignments than they can satisfactorily complete within the agreed period.

Once the private companies have taken their work assignments, they will within one hour, contact the companies or individuals who posted them on the workfare website, for the purpose of agreeing on a price, and completion time of the work assignment.

Where there is agreement, the owner of the work assignment will post onto the workfare website the agreed price, and when the work assignment is to be completed. The private company that will perform the service will also post onto the workfare website the agreed price and completion time of the work assignment.

The workfare staff will compare the two documents from the owner of the work assignment and the private company to determine the number of workfare workers the company will need to perform the work assignment.

There will be a tug of war going on between the private company and the workfare staff as to the number of workers needed to perform a particular work assignment, as the private company seeks to reduce its labor costs with few workers, and the workfare system seeks to prevent the private company from overworking the workfare workers.

When an agreement is reached, the workfare system will select the number of workers with the required skills the private company needs to perform its work assignments for the day. In effect, the workers will be employees of the workfare system hired out to the private company for the day. The hourly rate paid shall not be different from what the private company is paying non-workfare workers doing the same job.

The private company will keep accurate and updated records for all the workfare workers who worked for it in each pay period not exceeding one week. It will make unemployment, retirement, health insurance and disability contributions on behalf of those workers. At the end of each pay period, the private company will write one check with an attached detail for the wages and benefits of all workfare workers who have worked for it.

At the workfare payroll department, the check from the private company along with the attached detail would be allocated to the individual workfare worker's payroll account to determine his or her pay for that week. The workfare system will issue individual payroll checks to the workfare workers after taking into account all deductions including taxes and benefits.

In this way the private company can focus on doing its business, as long as it is able to issue the aggregate weekly checks for work done for it by the workfare workers. What is exciting about the workfare system is that the money paid to the workfare workers will come from private companies and not from the county government, as able body welfare recipients will no longer get paid for doing nothing.

The argument that the workfare system, in soliciting work assignments from private companies and private individuals amounts to unfair competition with private entrepreneurs is mute, because all work assignments received by the workfare system will be done by private companies. The workfare system will perform no work assignments.

Unfortunately, such smoothly run operation seldom happen without some problems. We can foresee a situation in which a workfare worker assigned to a company for a day's work gets angry for whatever reason, and decides not to work, or refuses to take instruction from his supervisor.

Private companies have neither the time nor resources to deal with the problems of a workfare worker who does not want to follow instruction or work. They should not be compelled to deal with such problems. Private companies will have the right to call the workfare office and ask for another worker who is not angry, and willing to take instruction and work.

Highly skilled and experienced psychiatrists and psychologists, employed by the workfare system, who know the human mind and how to influence it in one direction or another will get on the phone with the agitated workfare worker with a plan to remove him from the environment that is agitating him.

He is agitated, and needs not to be told what he's doing is wrong. He needs someone to complain to about how he is being unfairly treated. The psychiatrist or psychologist will say, "Alright Mr. Winters", to choose an arbitrary name, "tell me what happened. I will make a report, and whoever is bothering you will be dealt with according to the law".

Later, depending on the decision of a judge, things might turn out differently for Mr. Winters, especially where there was violence against persons or property. But for now he needs to be convinced that the law is on his side.

During the course of Mr. Winters' statement, the psychiatrist or psychologist will ask at an appropriate time, "Mr. Winters have you had breakfast or lunch yet?" Most likely he will say he has not had lunch.

In response the psychiatrist will say, "Mr. Winters in 15 minutes I will have lunch waiting here for you with your name on it. I need you to be here as quickly as possible because you wouldn't want to eat a cold lunch". The psychiatrist will proceed to describe what the lunch is made of. If the lunch is vividly described, Mr. Winters will start salivating though he has not seen the lunch yet. He will leave the work site, jump into a bus, walk briskly, or sprint to the workfare office as fast as he can.

At the workfare office a hot lunch will be waiting for him. The lunch should be flawless. If he finds the least flaw with the lunch he will think he's being punished for what happened at the work site. It should be a lunch fit to be eaten by the psychiatrist or psychologist.

When Mr. Winters is done his lunch, the psychiatrist and psychologist will talk to him. Where no violence against persons or property was involved, the experts will find out whether he didn't want to work with that particular supervisor, or he simply didn't like the type of work he is doing.

If he didn't want to work with the supervisor, he could be reassigned to a different company under a different supervisor. Now, if he didn't like the job for which he has been trained, he may express this by saying,
 "I don't like the job", or "I don't like to work".

If he didn't like the job, the psychiatrist would say, "Alright Mr. Winters I have another job for you. Take this sheet of paper. I will take you to a very important building. You will stand at a particular spot. Every car that comes through that spot, make a check mark in one of the boxes on the sheet." Other recommended jobs may be a street crossing guard, or a doorman. The point here is to get Mr. Winters into a job where he will need limited supervision to do his work.

Most likely the efforts of the experts will alleviate Mr. Winters agitation, and place him in another work environment where he is less likely to be agitated. This is only one example of problems that may arise under the workfare system.

In handling this and other workfare related problems, the psychiatrist or psychologist should be the first to talk with the agitated workfare worker. Only when there is violence should the police be called in. Even then the police should not come in with handcuffs and guns. They should seek to stabilize the situation, and quickly allow the experts to steer the agitated person in a different direction.

When workers go to the workfare office and clock in, they expect to be assigned jobs for the day. No clocked in workfare worker should wait more than one hour to get a job assignment. Where there are not enough day jobs for the workfare workers, the county government should create city beautification work assignments for the private companies, which in turn will hire workfare workers to do them.

In fact, one may go as far as to suggest that in an extreme case, the county government should pursue a job creation policy that may involve nothing more than digging a hole only to refill it. On the face of it, it may sound absurd, but when we consider the effects of such endeavor, including the opportunity for workfare workers to put their minds and bodies to work, and the setting of good example for the children, it will more than compensate for merely digging a hole only to refill it.

Up to this point, the workfare system will work flawlessly if only men were involved in it, but as it is obvious that women will form a significant proportion of the workfare labor force, it is necessary to add a childcare department to the workfare system.

If workfare mothers are to go out and work hard, they need to be convince beyond a doubt that their children are in a safe and clean environment; that they are interacting with care givers who have been screened, trained and have the right temperament to thoughtfully and gracefully handle the problems of children from all backgrounds.

This is possible only when the administrators of the childcare system race to the top, rather than  to the bottom in terms of the standard of care given to the children. The workfare system should take an in depth look at the range of childcare standards; from the poorest neighborhoods to the wealthiest neighborhoods.

The purpose of this exercise is to find what standard works. Obviously, the standard of childcare in the wealthiest neighborhoods will be the standard to race up to. But while mothers in the wealthiest neighborhoods are paying $300.00 a week for childcare, mothers in the workfare system may have to pay $53.00 a week, depending on their income, for the same standard of childcare.

The workfare system will pay the difference between the $300.00 and $53.00 per week. In other words, the workfare system will subsidized the childcare services provided to workfare mothers. Money that would have gone to pay welfare checks to mothers who got money for doing nothing, will now go to pay highly screened and trained staff with the right temperament to provide top notch childcare services to the children of workfare mothers.

Because these children will be receiving the best childcare money can provide, all children regardless of where they live, their color, ethnic or religious background will have equal opportunity to succeed.

Under this childcare system, when a staff sees a child, she will not see a color or an ethnic background, she will see a child wanting to be loved, cared for, and taught the wonders of the world he or she is only beginning to know.

And no group will be fooled into believing that equal opportunity is a zero sum game where the gain of one group is the loss of another, as we wise up to what President John F. Kennedy said, "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Under this childcare system what will matter the most will be the content of a child's character, to quote our beloved brother Martin Luther King Jr., and how that character could be molded to reach the highest achievement the child is capable of.

And here on God's earth, no child shall be born condemned to a life of perpetual welfare, but all children under the workfare system shall be born to look up, and reach for the stars.


  1. I've been forced to undertake workfare and it is utterly demoralising, both for myself and for the people who I was working with. As an introduction to and an approximation of paid work it is totally ineffective since it provides none of the benefits associated with having a job, namely a wage, a sense of community and belonging, a chance to improve your circumstances, opportunities for training and further education, a positive self-image, status and acceptance in society...and justice. It is just so wrong.

  2. The problem as you have clearly stated Lee, is not with the concept itself; it's with how existing workfare system is implemented. Which is why I'm calling for a change in the existing workfare system, as outlined in my this article. Workfare should be different from welfare. It should provide opportunity for training to make participants competent in a particular trade; provide them jobs that pay a living wage, and improve their self-esteem and dignity.