Work requirements. The continuing lessons of “America at Work.”

(Work requirements for government welfare recipients have emerged as a major issue in the debt ceiling negotiations and will be a major issue in the future. It’s time to listen to those who know the impact of these requirements best: former welfare recipients and the community groups that helped them.)

Work requirements for TANF (welfare) and SNAP (food stamp) recipients became one of the most contentious points in the recent debt ceiling negotiations. Democratic lawmakers denounced the demands as “cruel,” “heartless” and “senseless” and vowed to continue to oppose them.

One need not romanticize or oversell the federal welfare reforms of 1996 and current work requirements to recognize the value that work requirements have come to play over the past twenty-five years. These work requirements have changed the culture and practices of welfare offices to better support welfare recipients in finding work. This point is made repeatedly by those who should know best: former welfare recipients and the workforce groups that helped them. Let’s hear from one of the main workforce groups involved in the implementation of labor requirements today.

Since its founding in 1984 by Peter Covey and Lee Bowes, America Works has provided job preparation, placement and retention for unemployed welfare recipients, ex-offenders, workers with disabilities, the homeless and veterans. Over the years, it has become one of the largest such agencies in the country, with offices in 27 cities, serving approximately 40,000 clients annually.

“What we do in employment is not rocket science,” notes David Aguado, America Works’ chief operating officer. It is true. America Works has always been about doing things most efficiently. Over the years, it has done the training, placement and retention processes, and its growth is driven by results. It provides personalized services for assessment, placement, ongoing post-placement support and continuous skills development for mobility. It has a library of over 1,000 in-person and virtual training programs and has relationships with both major national employers and local employers in each of its service areas.

In the early years of America Works, Cove and Bowles helped popularize the “strengths-based” employment model. While others in the welfare and social work systems looked at welfare recipients and saw mostly weakness and dysfunction, America Works highlighted the strengths these individuals brought to the labor market. While others talked about why welfare recipients were not ready for work, America Works embraced direct job placement and the “job, better job, career” promotion process.

As Bowes recalls, work requirements significantly improved the employment prospects of welfare recipients, especially in 1996. after federal welfare reform. They did this in two important ways. First, work demands changed the culture of welfare offices. After the social welfare reforms, welfare offices changed from a culture of benefit distribution, suspicion and paperwork to one of work and action. Bowes explains:

When we started in the 1980s, social workers only told clients ways to increase benefits. With welfare reform, the culture changed to an employment focus. Although the caseworkers initially felt at risk of losing their jobs, they came to find their new roles much more gratifying.”

Second, the demands of work helped advance a portion of the welfare population that had been stuck in their lives because of depression or inability to find resources or a hundred other different reasons. Work demands helped them “glass”.

“In the beginning, people were so scared because many believed that no one would ever hire them. When they see their friends get jobs and keep working, their motivation increases. I remember a woman who saw a neighbor walking the city streets dressed at eight in the morning. He was told that his neighbor had found a job and this is where you should go to find a job. Word of mouth and government efforts completely changed the nature of life for public assistance recipients.”

Today, America Works partners with social service departments and local workforce boards across the country, including Fresno County, California, on job placement. Blake Conchal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Council, has been active in the public workforce since the 1990s. In Fresno County, the years since welfare reform in 1996 have resulted in increased employment orientation within the social services department and partnership with the workforce board. Additional supports and support services accompany work requirements to help TANF recipients transition to employment. Konchal explains.

1996 welfare reform and work requirements brought about a new and logical partnership between local labor councils and social service offices. It made sense in that we had a common goal of supporting welfare recipients in unsubsidized work. Social security offices began to see themselves anew as employment agents. This has been a huge benefit to the entire workforce system and more importantly to our common (and now working) clients.»

America Works provides job preparation and job search assistance as part of the county’s Job Readiness Program (JobWISE). Nuvia Varela, program manager for America Works in Fresno, adds:

“Many of our participants may find it difficult to find and keep a job due to multiple barriers to overcome, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, child support or mental health issues. JobWISE allows us to meet the participant’s needs and support them in achieving financial independence in our community.”

Marsha Nettus, vice president and regional director for the Americas in the Baltimore-Washington DC area, has been involved in the placement of TANF recipients and ex-offenders since the late 1990s. Today, one of his major projects is an initiative to eliminate bail for nonviolent offenders in Baltimore, which includes strict work requirements. He highlights the structure that work requirements have provided for ex-offenders as well as TANF recipients;

Individuals who are not used to a formalized system, such as a basic work schedule, often find it difficult to adjust to work. Finding a job is not a problem. learning to maintain a routine can be daunting for those re-entering the workplace. A formalized system like job requirements can be the basis of this training.”

Nettus further notes that, in practice, welfare departments broadly favor recipients who have significant mental or physical health conditions or other serious barriers to employment. These recipients are exempt from work requirements. Wide discretion remains in the administration of the program and is used by individual case managers.

“America Works ignores the challenges that affect families in complying with regulations. We pride ourselves on fostering relationships that provide comprehensive services for those who are seeking employment. Our partnerships with local agencies ensure that clients have the support they need to succeed. There are times when exceptions may be the best way to go, and there are already provisions to support them“.

America Works is just one of hundreds of workforce providers across the nation that interact with benefits recipients every day. I urge critics of work requirements to talk to these providers, as well as former recipients of TANF, food stamps, or collateral diversion programs.

No one in the workforce considers job requirements as the complete answer. Other policies remain to be developed, particularly policies that can improve low-wage jobs for all workers. But job requirements are only one element of an effective workforce system.

At the same time, America Works is evolving with the evolving labor market by updating training curricula, adding new programs for workers with disabilities as well as refugees, and introducing a Fellows program for aspiring workforce professionals. Cove and Bowles remain at the center of America Works, completely unsuccessful, even after nearly half a century of fighting the welfare and political establishments.

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