The Common Good
September-October 1998

An Insult to the Poor

by Peter Laarman | September-October 1998

Why New York churches are resisting workfare.

The most vulnerable and least protected workers of all might be those in "workfare"—programs in which welfare recipients must perform services in exchange for public assistance. Churches in New York City have adamantly opposed Mayor Rudy Giuliani's version of workfare, known as the Work Experience Program. Peter Laarman, senior minister at New York City's Judson Memorial Church, explains why many in the religious community feel that such programs are harmful to working people, unlikely to help welfare recipients move to paid employment, and ultimately demeaning for the participants themselves.

—The Editors

The great hope of welfare reform was that poor people would no longer be stigmatized for their "dependency" but would be enabled to take their place in society by supporting themselves through living-wage jobs. Because of New York's persistently weak job market for less-skilled workers, placing welfare recipients into living-wage jobs would have been extremely difficult here under the best of circumstances. A good-faith effort would have required significant expenditures of both imagination and public funds. Certainly all of the available federal funding coming into New York state would have been captured for its intended purpose of helping move recipients into jobs.

Nothing like this has happened. Instead, the effect of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's Work Experience Program, or WEP, has been to benefit the city and the city's political leaders while punishing persons on public assistance. A number of factors have contributed to the public humiliation of WEP workers, in particular the way they are herded about in special orange vests, segregated from regular city workers, barred from using those workers' restrooms, exposed to unsafe working conditions, and severely sanctioned for missing their WEP assignments. More than 14,000 city college students on welfare have been forced to quit classes in order to fulfill their WEP work requirements.

City officials from the mayor on down imply that the warrant for such harsh and humiliating measures is that people on welfare lack proper work habits and a satisfactory "work ethic." So WEP was set up as a kind of moral spectacle, something akin to the Puritans' practice of exhibiting "sinners" in stocks on the village common. The sweeping assumption that people on public assistance lack work experience or don't really want to work is both false and dangerous, but it plays well politically by feeding off of racially charged stereotypes about welfare recipients.

With respect to money, the city has been saving huge sums in the short term by having unpaid WEP workers do jobs formerly done by 20,000 now-displaced city workers in such departments as Parks and Sanitation. Over the long term, the city will save even greater amounts by using WEP as a tool to drive down the overall welfare caseload.

It almost seems as if grinding the faces of the poor, in hopes that they will drop dead or leave town, is the real bottom line for the city. New York City doesn't even track WEP participants to see how many have found work when they leave the program, but the best estimate is that fewer than 10 percent end up in jobs, and these are people who might very well have gotten jobs without the benefit of WEP.

Judging WEP to be a moral disaster, my church has joined with the Urban Justice Center to cosponsor the WEP Campaign of Resistance. Since we launched the campaign in summer 1997, more than 200 congregations and not-for-profit agencies have pledged that they will not participate as WEP placement sites and they will work actively to abolish WEP and replace it with a program providing adequate jobs and income for New York's poor families. Although we have been criticized for being "too negative," we believe that rejecting the path of complicity and demanding a new program based on what people really need is a positive move for faith-based communities and one with a noble tradition.

Most of us were taught in the church that a key test for the morality of any program is cui bono—i.e. who benefits? WEP's big beneficiaries have been the city's middle class and the Giuliani administration, not the poor who desperately need help getting work. For this reason, we expect that more and more religious organizations and individuals will step forward to bear witness against this inhumane and unjust program.

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