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The cruel truth about US workfare

Unemployed welfare recipients have been forced to do the work once done by paid employees.

There's a great example (there are plenty to choose from) of the pro-workfare brigade's disingenuity about workfare's success in this 1996 New York Times article. In it, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's office claimed that his New York City workfare programme was a real success – ''saving the lives'' of people on welfare by putting them to unpaid work in exchange for their benefits. The city made that claim even though, as the story notes, two-thirds of the 122,700 people placed in workfare had left the programme and the welfare roll, and neither the mayor, nor the city, had any idea where they'd gone. The city had not bothered to track them.

The city's assumption was that they'd found jobs. If they hadn't, the mayor's senior advisor Richard J Schwartz reasoned, then he and other New Yorkers would have noticed 89,000 extra people loitering about, or lying around, or something. “If they weren't finding work, the evidence of that would be out on the streets of the city, in plain sight to everyone, but that simply isn't the case, because the program works,” Schwartz told the paper in an analysis that was as long on hubris as it was short on science. As far as the city was concerned, the main – only – point of note was that the number of people on welfare had dropped. The hell with the explanation. In neoliberal discourse, any cut to the welfare bill was a win.

Talk to people like John Krinsky, though, and you hear a different tale. Krinsky is associate professor and political science department chair at the City College of New York City, and the author of Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism. He tells me Giuliani celebrated too soon. Sure – some of the people who left welfare may have found work (the Times story indicated some did, although it also suggested the long-term employment prospects for workfare participants were poor), but many would not have. Krinsky says it was likely that many left because they struggled to meet their new “work” commitments for reasons like ill health, disability, childcare commitments, travel problems, confusion about attendance requirements, and the city's difficulties assigning, supervising and keeping track of workfare schedules.

Like most in workfare, they would have found few opportunities of ongoing, paid employment at the end of placements. Estimates put just five percent of Giuliani's workfare participants in actual jobs. Research indicated that participation in Wisconsin's much-vaunted workfare scheme, called W2, did not lead to ongoing, unsubsidised employment for most (we'll be looking at the Wisconsin example in more detail in the coming weeks, given its influence on UK workfare thinking). Certainly, there was evidence that Wisconsin authorities were ultimately compelled to look at better ways to create real jobs.

As time went on and the numbers refused to stack up, Giuliani toned down the “workfare saves” and “leads to jobs” rhetoric. ''It's a lot better than their staying at home, just collecting a check at home,'' that Times article has him telling the First New York Conservative Democratic Club in Forest Hills. ''It's a lot better for us, and most importantly, it's a lot better for them."

Krinsky has his doubts about that. What really tends to happen, he says, is that a lot of people who drop off welfare rolls are pushed into the grey economy (casual childcare and care work, waitressing for cash and so on). They begin a slow descent into a poverty that isn't immediately obvious – even if people like Giuliani's senior advisor Schwartz felt 89,000 new poor should have been immediately in his face.

"[Homelessness sociologist] Peter Rossi estimated there was about a four-year time-lag between the time that people lose their income and the time when they present themselves to public authorities as homeless. In New York, the timing worked perfectly – about four years after New York City started reforming welfare, we started to see a spike in the number of homeless people,”  Krinsky says. “That has continued unabated.”

Problems affording food were seen even earlier. By the late 1990s, there was an increase in demand for emergency food (much as we've begun to see in the UK). It isn't rocket science – cut people's incomes and/or benefits and, slowly but surely, you'll find that large numbers of people can't feed and house themselves.

“Basically, what you do with workfare, is that you take paid work away from people who would otherwise be doing it for compensation,” Krinsky says. “It introduces different pressure points in the wage labour system. It gets rid of people who were doing jobs and contributes a larger segmentation of the labour market where you have better and better paid managers who redistribute the work so that a good deal of the labour is done on a part-time basis, on a volunteer basis, or by workfare workers.”

That development (or deterioration) in the labour market structure is the real issue. It's worth noting that in that structure, paid employment doesn't necessarily reduce a worker's need for some state support either. David Ward, from the Direct Care Alliance in New York, told me that careworkers his organisation represents are often paid so poorly that they rely on food stamps and medicaid and other support to make ends meet. That's the experience of many low-paid workers across the US. Their problem isn't laziness, or scrounging. Their problem is that their wages are so low they can't feed their families on their earnings.

Workfare simply gives companies and organisations another pool of very cheap, and disposable, workers. Unions certainly saw that point in New York. Several years into the city's workfare programme, District Council 37, a union which represented municipal employees, took Guiliani to court, saying that his workfare programme “had illegally replaced nearly 2000 unionised clerical workers with unpaid welfare recipients in three agencies.”

We will be tracking the implementation of workfare in the UK – at a time of huge public sector job losses – very carefully.

This is the first in a series of posts looking at workfare in the UK and abroad.

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.

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