Virginia Walden's last stop before falling out of Minnesota's welfare-to-work programs for good was an unpaid job at a local nonprofit, where she was placed by an agency under contract to help Hennepin County move its toughest cases into the workforce. In exchange for Walden's participation in the program, she was receiving $387 a month in public assistance, as well as—theoretically—the job skills and references to begin her climb out of poverty.
Walden, 43, didn't buy it. Her problem wasn't a lack of skills or willpower, she says, but a trio of physical disabilities that had left her and her son dependent on Minnesota's Family Investment Program (MFIP), the state's answer to the dictates of welfare reform. Under the auspices of the program, she'd been trying to get a job for several years, but between a degenerative spine disease, which made it hard for her to sit for long, and plantar fasciitis, which made standing similarly tough, there weren't many good fits.
Still, welfare reform had instituted timelines, and by 2005, the fact that Walden couldn't find a paying gig meant that if she wanted to keep her benefits she would be required to do unpaid work. So for five months, she says, she did clerical tasks for the Minneapolis Crisis Nursery some 34 hours a week. The job was tough on her physically. But when she left, it was because her son turned 18, ending her MFIP benefits. Right now, she's getting by on $203 a month in state disability payments and the largesse of her still-teenage son, who works at the Wal-Mart in Midway.
On December 5, Walden told her story at the weekly meeting of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. She was accompanied by members of Minneapolis's Welfare Rights Committee, who asked the commissioners to find out how many people locally work for no pay, and then to put an end to the practice. The commissioners seemed surprised, and asked county staff to investigate and report back.
Last week, the board got some answers. In 2006, 739 of Hennepin County's 11,000 MFIP recipients worked for no pay as a condition of continuing to receive welfare benefits. They worked an average of four to six weeks apiece at a long list of local nonprofits. Hennepin County contracts with an outside agency to provide the placements. (Under a separate program, the county spent $600,000 subsidizing the wages of another 200 MFIP recipients who were having trouble finding jobs.)
Thirty-two of the people performing unpaid work were eventually hired by the agencies where they were working. Results for the rest were mixed: 28 percent went on to part-time work at an average wage of $9.51; 36 percent went to work full-time (more than 32 hours a week); 7 percent saw their benefits reduced for failing to do enough; and the other 30 percent or so were unable to keep working because of family or medical issues or chemical dependency.
Because of new rules imposed on states by the federal government, this year, welfare rights advocates and state lawmakers say, the number of people pushed into unpaid work stands to mushroom.
Workfare, as the practice of requiring people to work for benefits is known, is hardly a new idea. When Congress passed the landmark 1996 welfare reform, they created a series of rules regarding the duration of benefits for individuals and the number of recipients who had to be moved into the workforce. Minnesota chose to meet the federal requirements by providing extra support to families during the process, in the hope that they would become truly independent and not just cycle back onto the rolls whenever they stumbled.
When the new approach was launched, during the salad days of the 1990s stock market bubble, the economy seemed robust, jobs were relatively plentiful, and the experiment was deemed a success. But some officials feared privately that there would come a time when the people remaining on welfare would be, for the most part, the hardcore unemployable.
A year ago, the Bush administration delivered the coup de grace. By a margin so thin that Dick Cheney was required to cast the deciding vote, lawmakers voted in a $40 billion package of cuts to social programs known as the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. Among the changes: strict new rules requiring elaborate state documentation to prove that at least half of total welfare recipients are engaged in a minimum number of so-called core activities each week. People with children under six, for example, must perform 87 hours a month of work that is paid, subsidized, or qualified as on-the-job training. People without young children must log 130 hours a month.
Most dramatically,the new rules slashed the amount of time people may spend looking for work on welfare to six weeks a year, and narrowed the scope of job training programs that count as "core activities." There are a couple of other narrow exceptions, but for the most part, anyone who can't get their act together quickly may be expected to perform unpaid work. The new rules went into effect three months ago; Minnesota stands to start losing funding if it isn't in strict compliance by October 1, 2007.
In Minnesota, MFIP participants can be required to put in up to 1,039 hours of unpaid work with any agency. (Under state law, workers must be classified as "employees" after logging 1,040 hours of work.) But the system remains convoluted: Because federal labor laws say welfare recipients can't be forced to work for more hours than it would take them to earn their public assistance if it were being paid to them at the minimum wage, a few people can't work the full 87 hours a month, but are still deemed "countable."
The limits aren't enough to change the fact that requiring anyone to perform unpaid work is wrong, say the members of the Welfare Rights Committee and their supporters on the County Board and in the statehouse. They want Minnesota to find other ways to comply with federal requirements. To that end, Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Minneapolis) has introduced two bills for consideration during the upcoming legislative session. One would prohibit workfare in Minnesota. The other would create several ways in which counties could meet their targets with that practice taken off the table.
"One of the reasons it's so hard to meet the federal goals is because once someone has met the goals, they're no longer in the program," Berglin explains. "We could ask counties to take out of the pool of people counted those people who we know can't meet the requirements, like people in chemical dependency treatment." People who are meeting the goals could be given bonuses to keep them in the program, she continues, and funding for subsidized work could be increased.
When welfare reform first came down the pike, MFIP recipients could go to school. For the most part, that's no longer the case—a state of affairs Berglin would like to remedy by allowing the state or counties to purchase work-study hours from colleges and vo-techs so that recipients could both accrue their "core" hours and acquire meaningful work skills.
None of these ideas is new, she cautions. In years past, the Pawlenty administration hasn't been interested in finding alternatives to unpaid work. Berglin is hoping the Legislature's incoming DFL majority can change that.
Hennepin County has yet to take a position on the issue. Commissioners Penny Steele and Linda Koblick were untroubled by the Welfare Rights Committee's complaints, saying they see nothing wrong with requiring people to work off their grants. But if Commissioner Gail Dorfman has her way, eliminating workfare will be among the board's requests of the Legislature this year. "We can complain and we can advocate for our constituents who are on these programs, and we often do, but it doesn't always change things," she says.
For her part, Virginia Walden says she'd still like a job, but there's nothing about her situation that seems ripe for change. "It's just really sad Minnesota has reached a level where we're making poor people work for free," she says. "I feel sorry for other people still in the program."