The Cold Side of "Workfare"



Meet James Howard of Brooklyn, New York: 42, diabetic, blind in one eye, takes care of his disabled wife and their kids, a tenth-grade dropout, relegated to poverty jobs, a hard worker.

Mr. Howard has been an exemplar of the welfare-to-work programs that the miserly Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, had imposed to crack down on "welfare cheats." But James Howard was no cheat -- as the New York Times reports, he's a guy doing the best he can with what he has, and public assistance was designed to help struggling families like his make ends meet.

Nonetheless, with public assistance ending Howard found himself thrust into Giuliani's highly-ballyhooed "Work Experience Program," which promised to put him in a good, full-time job -- if he performed well in a training period to become a Subway cleaner.

"Make an Effort, Not an Excuse," barked one of the little homilies scattered on signs around the walls of the WEP office where he had to check in. Howard's effort was A+. He had almost perfect attendance, cleaning the Coney Island Subsay terminal, where his tasks included disposing of bodily wastes from the subway cars and scouring an employee bathroom that, as a trainee, he was not allowed to use. He was on the job in the harsh winter, wearing two coats and three pairs of socks. He ate his brown-bag lunch in a utility closet filled with the acrid aroma of cleaning fluids.

The program promised that he would be hired after three months, but they kept Howard as a low-paid trainee for 18 months ... then they dumped him. "Winners Make the Grade, Whiners Make Excuses," barked another sign at the WEP office. Howard made the grade, but it was Giuliani's WEP making excuses, claiming that the subway system had imposed a hiring freeze and -- oh, by the way -- your welfare benefits have also expired.

This is Jim Hightower saying ... James Howard played by Giuliani's rules, but Rudy's gone now and doesn't give a damn. "I don't know what's going to happen," Howard said when he was dumped just before Christmas -- "I don't want to lose my home."
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