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Earn it or spurn it: the last word in welfare

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Both Bill Clinton and George Bush are cautioning that the free ride for welfare recipients is over--that people on the dole must get jobs or risk losing their benefits. The Illinois Department of Public Aid (IDPA) is ahead of them, having already trimmed thousands of single poor people, mostly black men in urban areas, from its general-assistance rolls, though some of them will be allowed to regain their benefits by volunteering for jobs funded by the state.

"Most public-aid recipients have complained that they would rather receive a paycheck than a public-assistance check," said Governor Edgar when he signed the earnfare program into law on August 5. "This will give thousands of them the opportunity to improve themselves and reduce their reliance on others."

The earnfare program has clear limitations. The jobs pay minimum wage, carry no medical benefits, and will last only six months--with no guarantee of future employment. Yet many poor single people recognize that earnfare is their only alternative in the current climate, and they're determined to make the program succeed. "Count me in," says Arnold Thornton, a 31-year-old west-side man who was cut off last spring after seven years on welfare.

In July 1991, IDPA won approval from the General Assembly to cut its commitment to general assistance and guarantee only nine months of aid. General assistance was also renamed "transitional assistance," or TA. "The message was clearly given that payments would not go on forever," says Doug Dobmeyer, executive director of the Public Welfare Coalition, an advocacy group for recipients. Only those deemed "chronically needy"--addicts, the homeless, those over 50 with no job history--were entitled to ongoing help.

For the able-bodied, it soon got worse. In January 1992 IDPA reduced TA payments from $165 to $154 a month, and in April Edgar proposed cutting all employable people off assistance, which he said would save the state $77 million. Dobmeyer says the Democratic leadership in Springfield wasn't going to bat for this constituency this time around. Well aware that Ohio and Michigan had canceled their versions of TA, he pulled together a coalition of welfare-rights organizations to push for some kind of compromise. Earnfare was what they came up with.

The idea for earnfare, modeled after a program in Montana, was put on the table by state representative Wyvetter Younge, a Democrat from impoverished East Saint Louis. "People want to work," she said. "I know that instinctively." The resulting bill, also championed by the black caucus, passed just as the legislature recessed for the summer.

The law authorized IDPA to spend up to $25 million on earnfare, but the state cash crunch dropped the amount to $10 million. The money will be forwarded to employers, who will use it to pay workers. The goal is to employ 10,000 single adults annually, 8,000 of them in Chicago--not a lot considering that 64,000 people lost their TA benefits over the last year. Only 14,000 people now remain on the TA rolls--the unemployables, a class that the earnfare law broadened to include diabetics, teenagers in school, the temporarily incapacitated, and functional illiterates.

For many employable former recipients in Chicago, East Saint Louis, and other cities and townships downstate, the only thing that will keep them from destitution is earnfare. On October 1 the state began making payments to those formerly eligible for TA only if they agreed to work for 62 hours a month. Their salary comes to $4.25 an hour, the minimum wage, so most positions will presumably be menial. In Chicago volunteers will also receive a CTA pass for transportation.

Welfare-rights advocates have several quibbles with earnfare, beginning with the fact that volunteers will lose the limited outpatient medical benefits they had with TA. "These are people who suffer a high degree of sickness," Dobmeyer points out. The first 25 hours of their time also goes to pay off $111 for food stamps, which they would be eligible for without working if they didn't sign up for earnfare. IDPA spokesman Dean Schott defends the requirement, saying it extends the time people are employed and builds their experience. "We feel the longer people work at these jobs, the greater the likelihood they will be retained."

But then there's the six-month limit. "What happens after six months?" asks Dobmeyer. "Can these employers make a long-term job out of sweeping the floor? If these earnfare folks aren't hired permanently at the end of six months, they go back into the job market. And there aren't jobs. Spiegel is closing, Oscar Mayer is closing--and that's 2,700 positions right there."

One portion of the earnfare bill directed the state Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA) to establish two pilot projects, in East Saint Louis and Chicago, that were to plug TA candidates into public-service jobs. But the DCCA projects weren't funded by the legislature. The Job Opportunities Advisory Council, a 28-member state body established a year ago to create public-service jobs, is supposed to have a program ready to go in January, but what it can accomplish in a recession is anybody's guess.

Nevertheless, people like Arnold Thornton are lining up for earnfare, if only because the last few months without benefits have been difficult. Thornton has a degree in electronics from Malcolm X College but hasn't been able to locate work. He figures he's applied for hundreds of jobs, as a laborer, as a clothes presser, in shipping and receiving. "I don't mean to sound prejudiced," he says, "but the last time I had a real chance at a job a white boy beat me out." Lately Thornton has been getting by on food stamps and the money he makes doing odd jobs, like painting, cleaning up for his landlady, and hauling junk with a friend's truck.

"You have to know somebody to get a job," says Vincent Harris, a former TA recipient who joined Thornton one morning at an earnfare orientation at Fifth City, an East Garfield Park community center. "All you see are shitty little jobs that are already filled."

"Here's the thing," says Bennie Carter, who was also dumped off TA. "You need so much that you can't buy with food stamps--towels, clothes, deodorant, toothpaste. You got to pay your rent. If you don't, you're going to be put out on the street--and all the shelters are full. I don't have any family but my uncle. And he reminds me too much of my mother, so forget my relying on him."

These men don't like not working. "Basically you're doing nothing," says Thornton. "You wake up in the morning with time on your hands. You can sit around the house, except when it gets hot or you feel stir-crazy and you go out on the corner to shoot the shit. Friday and Saturday nights come around, but who wants to get all cleaned up with nothing to do? If there are kids in the house, you don't even have a quarter to give them to go to the store."

Moreover, basic medical care is now unaffordable. Thornton, bitten by a dog after he lost his benefits, was treated at a private hospital, which has sent him a bill several times. He ignores it because there's no way he can pay. The day the Bulls won their championship, Carter broke his wrist. A doctor at Cook County Hospital set it, but Carter couldn't afford to buy the prescribed pain-killer and had to manage with Tylenol.

So it's no surprise that earnfare looks attractive. "If the circus came to town and wanted me to shovel manure for earnfare, I'd do it in a second," says Thornton. Carter and Harris nod in agreement.

So far, says Dean Schott, more than 400 employers have expressed interest in being part of the earnfare program. The Marriott hotels have 30 openings for earnfare workers in kitchen, housekeeping, and clerk jobs; other employers also have specific projects in mind. "We had a big layoff last year, which means our department of public works is deficient," says Adeline McGahen, personnel director for Calumet City. She needs people to collect garbage and fix potholes, and a couple of janitors for city hall. The Chicago Housing Authority wants bodies to house-sit vacant rehabilitated apartments. Suburban Job-Link, a temporary-help service, wants to augment its existing corps of workers. Magid Glove and Safety, a northwest-side manufacturer of industrial gloves, is looking for four or five phone salesmen or warehouse workers. Fifth City plans to have Thornton, Carter, Harris, and other recruits clean streets and help start a whole-grain bakery.

But some welfare-rights advocates fear that not enough volunteers will come forward. "A lot of old TA recipients may just blow this off," says Dobmeyer, "mainly because there's too little incentive for them or because they're at such a level of hopelessness that they don't see the need. That would be too bad. It'd be playing into negative feelings the public has about the poor and about African American men."

But Thornton, who's been pushing all the former TA recipients he knows to sign up, says, "If we don't make this work, everything's going to cave in on us. We aren't going to let that happen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc Pokempner.

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