Appendix: Workfare - the USA case

Submitted by Joseph Kay on May 14, 2012

1. Pre-1996 workfare
The strategy of workfare, defined as compelling those on benefits to do some form of work for these benefits, has been employed in all English-speaking countries; Australia, Canada, New Zealand all have some variation on the workfare theme. But the strategy is particularly associated with the USA. Before the 1930s and the New Deal, workfare was common in the United States, but then fell into decline. In the 1980s, only a minority of unemployed claimants in the USA as whole actually took part in workfare schemes. However, workfare can be said to characterize a tendency in current US welfare policy that has increased alarmingly over the past 17 years.

Modern workfare schemes became permissible under Reagan's Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. The Reagan administration tried to make workfare compulsory for everyone on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), but only managed to give federal states and counties the choice of implementing forms of workfare. This led to a proliferation of regional versions of workfare schemes - perhaps the best known of which is the Community Work Experience Programme (CWEP) - as well as various voluntary 'job search', 'training' and 'work experience' programmes. Workfare was extended by the Family Support Act of 1988, however, and was used extensively in California and Michigan among other states. In New York City, Mayor Giuliani proposed his version of workfare - the Work Experience Programme (WEP) - in early 1995. In New York State, Republican governor George Pataki achieved a major expansion of workfare as part of the 1995-6 state budget.

Whereas UK politicians see Wisconsin as the model for 'welfare to work', it is the rapidly expanding New York version which is seen as the model in the USA itself. By September 1994, 4,467 AFDC claimants and 25,979 HR claimants were enrolled in workfare in NY State as a whole. By October 1996 there were 34,000 WEP workers being used by the city alone; this number had risen to 75,000 workfare workers by mid 1997. Workfare workers will eventually comprise over half the labour force employed by the city.

Up till now, workfare work has predominantly been in the public sector. For example, in Ohio in 1995, approximately 8,000 workfare workers were placed in public sector jobs. The New York State workfare workers were placed in such sites as: maintenance or janitorial positions; clerical sites; hospitals; parks dept; public works; child care centres; and DSS offices (!). By October 1996, the NYS Parks and Recreation Department employed over 6,000 WEP workers. As well as cleaning parks, offices and toilets, WEP workers are also filling clerical slots and even training new hires to do their jobs.

Obviously, WEP workers, unlike most of their properly-paid counterparts, have no choice about where to work, no health or safety protection, no grievance procedures, no days off, and no job when their benefits and workfare end. Indeed, many workfare workers do not even get protective clothing or access to sanitary facilities. Whereas workers on schemes in the 1930s sometimes felt secure enough to stage strikes, at least until recently this has been less the case in the present schemes.

The work-programme legislation passed in the 1980s outlaws job substitution, but it is acknowledged by the administrators themselves that it takes place. Example: in August 1996, a communications organization in Sydney, New York, took on some 8 to 12 workfare workers. Since this placement, there have been three successive layoffs in the company, involving about 70 people. The city of Baltimore has replaced an estimated 1000 regular workers with workfare trainees. In the case of New York City, budget cuts in 1994 forced the Dept of General Services to eliminate half its 300 full-time janitors, replacing them with 140 workfare workers. Mayor Giuliani promised to make a small minority of WEP placements into proper jobs, but instead workfare placements have been used as a source of cheap labour. The City has now cut over 20,000 unionized city jobs through natural wastage and severance buyout packages. Nationally, both workfare proper and voluntary job creation programmes have led to the replacement of public sector workers with those on benefit-level 'wages'.

Of course, though fuelled by a virulent 'anti-scrounger' ideology according to which the unemployed must learn the discipline of labour through making relief as unattractive as possible, workfare schemes must aspire for cost-effectiveness. In general, it would appear that, despite the anti job-substitution legislation, workfare on a large scale can only be cost effective if it serves as a source of cheap, alternative labour. The pre-1996 regulations state that local districts must use the value of the prevailing wage to work out how much work workfare workers must give, but counties across NYS and NYC use the minimum wage instead. (The maximum hours that a person can be assigned to workfare equals the amount of benefit entitlement divided by the minimum wage. Most workfare workers work around 20 hours a week.) Local government therefore get cheaper labour from workfare workers than if they hired outside people.

If it does not involve replacing existing workers, workfare has had to comprise 'make-work' programmes, criticized by the right for being expensive. In such cases, workfare schemes can only be small scale and purely exist as forms of deterrent. Thus, in the programme being used in Westchester County, NYS, most of the welfare savings come from sanctioning claimants who refuse to comply, rather than through them leaving welfare for proper jobs.

2. Workfare of the future
Recent legislation seeks to replace further vast chunks of welfare with workfare. President Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Act sought 'an end to welfare as we know it'. AFDC has been abolished and with it the concept of entitlement, to be replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). No federal money will be forthcoming to provide benefits for anyone for more than five years during their entire lifetime. (Time limits on welfare benefits is part of the new consensus in US welfare policy. This method of eliminating 'welfare dependency' was pioneered in Wisconsin, where AFDC claimants are allowed to claim benefits for a limit of 24 months in a four year period and then not again for a further three years.) The legislation means that at least 25 per cent of TANF recipients were meant to be placed in workfare in 1997, and at least 50 per cent by 2002.

In New York, the 1995-6 state budget mandates that every employable Home Relief (HR) recipient must participate in workfare. (Prior to this, the statewide average of HR claimants in workfare was just 16 per cent.) The new legislation also broadens the categories of clients eligible to do workfare - thus for example, claimants registered as disabled but undergoing rehabilitation are to be forced to participate in workfare programmes.

The legislation in relation to job substitution is even weaker than previously. Under TANF, workers currently laid off cannot be replaced; an employer cannot reduce the workforce in order to take on workfare participants. But nothing is said about the reduction of regular hours, striker replacement or moving facilities to create new slots. Unlike in the case of AFDC, there is no provision for preventing established unfilled slots being filled by workfare participants. Moreover, the new requirements that many more workfare placements be found means that it is inevitable that public sector employees will be laid off to make way for them. Some will be rehired into their old jobs at benefit-level pay only, as happened in Albany, New York State. (Another example: Under the pre-1996 arrangements, Hadie Hartgrove was laid off from her part-time custodial job with the Nassau County government, and ended up on welfare. Ms Hartgrove's workfare assignment turned out to be old job, with far less pay and no benefits.) Not only this, but workfare now threatens to expand into the private sector. CWEP had to be 'in the public good' - i.e., public sector or 'voluntary' (non-profit making) sector. But Clinton has now said that the public sector cannot create enough jobs for workfare, and so jobs will have to be hired in the private sector.

3. Unemployed resistance
Prior to the 1996 legislation changes, groups of welfare warriors (women activists on welfare) around the USA held demonstrations, published newsletters, conducted letter-writing campaigns and engaged in civil disobedience to protest against the threat of increased workfare. Since that time, much of the resistance has taken the form of organization amongst workfare workers to demand, in effect, that workfare placements become real jobs. The ACORN organization has served as the basis for some unity between workfare workers, who have petitioned for protective clothing, and been involved in pickets and demonstrations in which they have demanded a union. Indeed, in the last six months of 1996, New York workfare workers held over 30 demonstrations across the city, demanding proper wages and the usual benefits of work. 20,000 workfare workers have signed union authorization cards through ACORN, which has established committees in approximately 200 worksites. Again in New York, workfare workers and others on welfare from a variety of local activist groups formed WEP Workers Together! (WWT!), which aims, again, to see the creation of permanent jobs and hence the elimination of WEP. Interim demands include health and safety protection, real job training and exemptions from WEP for education. WWT! models itself on a union, with WEP workers who identify themselves as shop stewards at their job sites. In terms of activities, WWT! has planned a work slowdown and taken part in demonstrations with other workers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a public sector union, has likewise signed up workfare workers (8,000 to date) with the aim ultimately of transforming placements into proper jobs.

The authorities have largely refused to recognize these union and quasi-union organizations. Nevertheless, there have been some minor successes concerning working conditions. In Los Angeles, organized (but not unionized) workfare workers performing janitorial work at a hospital won an employee discount at the hospital cafeteria. The Alaskan AFSCME won its workfare members increased training and pledges to move them into permanent government jobs. WWT! activists report that the major problem is getting other workfare workers to organize with them in the first place; many are afraid that if they get involved they will lose their benefits, even though legally they cannot be punished if their WWT! activities take place outside WEP hours.

Obviously, the authorities are not taking organization amongst workfare workers lightly. Workfare activists involved with ACORN and WWT! have been victimized on a number of occasions. Giuliani has rightly recognized that organization for normal employment rights amongst workfare workers would destroy what for the City authorities is the very raison d'être of WEP: flexibility - i.e., the ability of bosses to get workers to do whatever they tell them.