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US women in workfare talk about their lives

New York workfare workers talk about the programme and their experience of the sanctions process.

As the UK government has looked to emulate US welfare-to-work (workfare) programmes as part of welfare reform, False Economy has been examining the US experience of workfare for comparison.

Previous False Economy articles on US workfare programmes considered the failure of those programmes to move welfare recipients into paid jobs and the racism and sexism that informed Wisconsin's much-touted (by welfare reformers) welfare-to-work scheme.

In this article, two New York workfare workers talk about workfare and their experience of workfare's sanctions process – having welfare cheques suddenly cut for apparently failing to comply with workfare's strict rules. They define welfare-to-work as “slavery” - a punitive, poorly-administered system that has little to do with helping welfare recipients into ongoing, paid work and everything to do with pushing people off welfare and into a pool of free, disposable labour:

I get an unexpected response when I ask one-time New York work experience programme (WEP) workfare participants Pamela Brown and Tyletha Samuels if they were ever sanctioned when they were in workfare. They both fall apart laughing on their end of the phone.

Everybody on workfare gets sanctioned at one point or another, Samuels says. Or at least - that's what it feels like. You can miss a day at work for a doctor's appointment that your caseworker fails to record properly, or turn up at the wrong workplace because you've misunderstood an instruction, or find that you've been given the wrong instructions and - that's it. You're issued with a failure to comply notice and sanctioned.

Brown says on one notable day during her time on workfare, she was expected to be in four places at once. She thinks that was probably a systems, or inputting, error. Whatever it was, she paid the price. “I can't split myself in four, so those other three appointments in the system - I didn't make them.” She says that she was sanctioned several times in one year.

Brown was forced to apply for public assistance when she lost her job after working for 20 years in the banking industry. She was sacked after refusing to sell subprime mortgages. “Being a woman of colour, I was approached for a promotion [to sell mortgages to people of colour] and I was fired because I turned it down.” She was a single mother with children in college. “I applied for aid and I went into workfare. I began to find out how rigorous sanctions are.”

Find out she did. In addition to their workfare experiences, Brown and Samuels are organisers for the New York workfare-rights campaigning organisation Community Voices Heard - a member-based advocacy group made up primarily of women who've experienced welfare and workfare. The group is involved in grassroots organising, civic engagement and direct action campaigns. CVH is also trying to encourage the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the city agency that administers welfare programmes, to move away from punitive sanctions (and cutting welfare rolls) and towards transitional benefits and jobs, and career-relevant training, for people on welfare.

Certainly, welfare advocates argue that workfare administrators sanction too enthusiastically. A 2008 CVH invetigation had some 68% of back-to-work applicants being issued with failure to comply notices while in the back to work programme. The same report found that 60% of all failure to comply notices "were found to be in error after HRA reviewed the cases at conciliation hearings." Sanctions are often wrongly applied, then.

The problem is that people have nothing to live on while they wait for appeal cases to be heard. As Samuels says - “If you complain (about being sanctioned), the first thing out of their mouths is - you can apply for a fair hearing. [The problem is] - what does she [a welfare recipient] eat for a month while she waits 30  to 45 days to get her case her back on? You've got no money and you owe the landlord another month's rent." High sanction rates are generally a much-remarked-on problem in the US.

This is not a good time for that.

In this era of high unemployment, the US emphasis on cutting welfare rolls looks more and more disastrous. There are warning signs for the UK here. CBPP analysts observe in this paper that unemployment remains high “and the prospects of finding jobs, especially for people with low skills, are poor. In August 2011, unemployment was 9.1 percent. Over 42.9% of the 14 million people who are unemployed have been looking for work for half a year or longer.” (That percentage figure is repeated for January 2012, with a drop in unemployment numbers). In austerity, some states are further tightening benefit-eligibility time-limits and cutting monthly cash-assistance benefits. As the academic John Krinsky said in previous articles, modern US welfare reform, with its 1996 introduction of lifetime time-limits for benefit eligibility, exclusion of immigrants and compulsory workfare and sanctions for non-attenders, prioritised welfare roll-reduction ahead of genuine job placement and creation.

For Brown and Samuels, CVH was the ticket out of welfare and workfare. They became CVH members, then organisers.

Before that, Samuels was an unpaid clerical workfare worker at a Medicaid office.

“I liked that job. I thought there would be a [paid] job at the end of it, but there wasn't.” That's not an unusual story for workfare workers. Estimates put just five percent of New York's workfare participants in actual paid jobs. Workfare workers must take any job – even if they're unlikely to find a real one at the end of it - or risk losing their benefits. Brown found she was sent to maintenance jobs. “Nothing ever turned into employment. I worked hard, saying - “here is my resume. Why aren't you sending me more towards office positions?” A lot of time, these places – they know how desperate you are. They are always dangling that idea of work.”

And, says Samuels, there is always that threat of sanctions. Lose your welfare cheque in this environment and you're in an awful place. That can be no different in the UK.

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

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