Monday, January 25, 2010

Begin With the Content of Character

Fourth in a series about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back when I was in graduate school, I interned one summer for the City of New York. Although my program was urban planning, I ended up in one of the first welfare-to-work programs in North America. And although the internship lasted only three months, what an eye-opener it proved to be!

The official name of my department was The City of New York Human Resources Administration Office of Employment Services Work Experience Management B.E.G.I.N. Program, or NYC HRA OES WEM BEGIN. Whew!

“B.E.G.I.N.” stands for “Begin Employment Gain Independence Now”, and it was headquartered in a faded beaux-arts monolith between gritty Union Square and exquisite Gramercy Park. At first, I didn’t know anything about it, or social work general, but a city employee who lives in my aunt’s Brooklyn co-cop thought it would be a good resume filler. I’d have my own assistant (a public high school student) and the opportunity to attend special intern meetings in City Hall.

When I arrived, B.E.G.I.N. had been going about a year, with the objective of weaning welfare recipients off of public assistance and into the workforce. Its comprehensive scope extended from English language education and basic job skill classes to one-on-one job placement services, provided in a sprawling network of sites across the city.

Being an intern, my responsibility was to provide a sort of “other perspective” of what and how they were doing. I attended executive meetings and made site visits across Manhattan, interacting with a surprisingly dedicated and diverse group of people trying to make a difference.

Stories From the Front Lines

One day, security called my boss and told us the building was in lock-down because an angry welfare recipient visiting a lower floor had brandished a gun, threatened a social worker, and stormed up a stairwell to elude guards.

One day, in one of the building’s once-elegant stairwells, I passed two welfare recipients... well, being very friendly. One day, I lost my sweet, quiet teenage intern when she was sexually harassed by a clerk in the employment office, and my boss couldn’t get him to apologize because his union refused.

I hated visiting the lower client service floors because they were always jammed with people who were confused, loud, angry, smelly; children cried in fright at the cacophony, with city clerks and social workers physically and emotionally overwhelmed by it all.

One bright morning, I found my way west of the Port Authority bus terminal to a delapidated 1970’s-era city building, where ESL classes were being conducted. I sat in on a session in a big, airless room where Hispanic, Russian, and Bangladeshi immigrants – mostly women, mostly in their 30’s or older – were smiling and laughing along with their gregarious instructor. Their good nature filled the dark hallways of that decrepit building, although I never understood what was so funny.

My boss and his staff made a big deal out of my visit to a client site in Harlem, me being a white boy in what was then still very much a ghetto. I actually didn't know what to expect. I stepped out of the subway onto the platform, immediately engulfed in a swarm of police officers. I learned later that a major drug bust had just gone down, and mine was the first train allowed to stop in the station. After that auspicious welcome, I briskly walked down 125th Street and found the client site, a remodeled walk-up that boasted new carpeting, paint, light fixtures, furniture… but no clients. Actually, I think one came in before I left. I remember one of the social workers saying they were having a hard time getting welfare recipients to keep their appointments. Apparently, the idea of transitioning from welfare to work hadn’t yet gotten a lot of buy-in from clients there.

Contrasted with Harlem was my visit to the “Yorkville” site on east 34th Street, several blocks from Macy’s. I would call this neighborhood Murray Hill, not Yorkville; nevertheless, east 34th Street was mostly middle-class with public housing mixed in. This location was bustling with clients, although the building itself was decorated in the typical grime, grays, and dim light of most city offices. It was so busy, in fact, that I remember I couldn’t visit with the staff who were to show me around.

Our offices in the beaux-arts pile provided interest as well. One long-suffering director – I’ll call her Martha - headed up part of the program from her corner of our long suite. Martha seemed to spend her entire day on the phone with people trying to get out of having to go to work. Often, I would hear her on the phone – in her nasal Queens accent – with the same guy (who I’ll call Arthur) with whom she had a long-running struggle.

You see, not only did Arthur target Martha for his many complaints, but Arthur had gotten ahold of then-governor Cuomo’s private phone number, and occasionally he would chastise Cuomo personally about having to find a job. Arthur also had learned one of the office numbers for then-mayor Dinkins, and he’d call Dinkins' staff with the same complaint. The staff for Cuomo and Dinkins would then call Martha – and Martha would call Arthur and tell him to quit bothering the mayor and governor - they weren't going to give him any waivers.

It was a silly, farcical circle of phone calls and veiled threats through which Martha patiently suffered. Once, Martha told me that she’d told Arthur, “Do you realize, with your skills at finding out private phone numbers, needling major politicians, deceiving your caseworker, and constantly whining about this program, you could be making a killing on Wall Street with less effort than you’re using trying not to work?!”

Coloring Between the Lines

Now, I’m not going to draw the simplistic conclusion that clients of a particular race were working harder to get out of welfare and into mainstream employment. If I remember correctly, Arthur was white. The secretaries for both my boss and the director of B.E.G.I.N. were both former welfare recipients; one was black and the other Hispanic. Both of them were actually earning LESS working full-time for the city than they were getting in welfare benefits, but they both were trying to break the welfare cycle as single parents.

One of them, Madeline Ortiz, I saw years later on the Lexington Avenue subway line. She got on the same car as me at Union Square Station. I went over to her, she recognized me, and we chatted until our stops came. She was still working, still with B.E.G.I.N., and instead of a jaded welfare recipient, was now a jaded taxpayer. Which, in my book, is a success story.

So... Did It Work?

B.E.G.I.N. began in 1989, and I worked there during the summer of 1990, when it was still fresh and full of optimism – a rare quality in any New York City employee. 20 years on, what has history told us about this then-groundbreaking program? Has it worked? How many New Yorkers have been moved from welfare to work?

Well, of course, a lot of the answer depends on who is running the statistics. And like any other over-used terminology, “welfare” can mean different things based on government classifications and agencies. Still, the number that seems to stick for New York City is approximately 350,000 people on welfare, down from nearly one million back when I worked at B.E.G.I.N.

So, how much of the drop can be attributed to B.E.G.I.N.? Again, a lot of the answer depends on who you ask, but of the 650,000 people weaned from welfare in the past 19 years, the best number I could find in B.E.G.I.N.’s favor is 100,000 success stories. Most experts agree that a combination of programs like B.E.G.I.N., a relatively healthier economy and job creation during New York’s recent boom years, different counting methods, more stringent eligibility rules, and an increasingly complex application process can all be attributed for the welfare decline.

But what about the cost? What does that translate into when factoring in the cost of the program? How much are these people earning now? Do they earn incomes that afford them private housing? Are they working in New York City, or have they taken what NYC provided them to another city in another state? How many of these people were recent immigrants who likely would have worked hard to make it in their new country, or how many had been welfare recipients for years?

Valued By the Content of Their Character

So the numbers don't tell the whole tale - at least, not yet. What lesson I think can be learned from this, however, is a lesson preached by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and which no reasonable person can deride. It's from the same Lincoln Memorial speech from which I quoted earlier, his resounding "I Have A Dream" speech:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".

Being "judged... by the content of their character". If King wanted that for his children, surely he wanted that for his race and for his country. Not that people who are on welfare don't have integrity or are of low character content. What the phrase means is that people with integrity act upon that integrity in the best way they can with the opportunities they are given - or find despite obstacles. Depending on the circumstances, some people may not rise out of poverty and may need some form of welfare to survive. These are the people for whom our society needs to care and remember.

Whatever our race, if we were on welfare, and had the opportunity to transition from welfare to work, our moral obligation would be to take advantage of that opportunity. We want to be judged by the content of our character, and employment contributes to character (sometimes the hard way!). If we as a society can transition to having a legitimate safety net - either through our churches or through other civic organizations - race and ethnicity won't be a factor as much as content of character. Those with integrity will look for a way up, just as those with integrity assist those who need it.

Poverty, like wealth, is not a sin; it's what you do (or don't do) with it.

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