Patricia GibbsWelfare Devolution
March 25-31, 1998. Honolulu Weekly
Photos: Minette Lew
Everyone feels the presure associated with Hawaii's stagnant economy--but some feel it more acutely than others. And now, in the wake of welfare reform--the federal government's "Personal Responsibility Act of 1996--many are being squeezed into an already-tight work force by "welfare to work" principles. Some take anything they can find. Many, actively looking for paid employment, are instead "doing time" in volunteer-type jobs to fulfill government work requirements. A few are organizing to challenge the connections between structural inequality in American society and the lives of low-income people and their children here.
Tela Scanlon and Varuna Cori are quiet and shy--single women who struggle to work and raise their children on their own. It's not easy for them to talk about themselves; they don't want to be misjudged. They live on 0'ahu and collect social assistance--welfare. On their request, we've used pseudonyms to protect their identities.
Nora Kanemura works, attends school and parents a young daughter. She also receives government assistance to meet her basic needs.
"I never accepted welfare until I had my child," says Scanlon, who is 43. "I was working in a warehouse; I really liked my job. But when I had my child, I had to take some time off. ...When I went back, my job had been cut back, and it was too difficult to pay for childcare."
Cori, 45, also worked before the birth of her five children.
"I was a bilingual teacher--English and Samoan--at a local school. I liked my job a lot. When I had my children, I couldn't work. I felt it was important to stay home and take care of them. Now, when I looked into going back and being a teacher's aide, you have to have [college] training."
Scanlon, who has one child, is supposed to receive $30 per month in child-support from her child's father; she says she thinks it goes toward her welfare payments now. Cori has never received any child support.
We sit on old car seats outside of the women's worksite on the 'Ewa side of 0'ahu, where they participate in a publicly funded program. Inside, a foul smell wafts through the building: The women say there has been a problem with rats here for months, and one has died within the wafls.
The women also say they're frustrated with doing make-work jobs, and worried about making ends meet in the future.
"It's a good thing I have family," says Scanlon, "otherwise I don't know where I'd be."
"Family and the church," Cori adds. "If it wasn't for them, I'd be in a lot of trouble."
Scanlon and Cori admit to being confused and overwhehned by the many rules and regulations governing their welfare payments. Both women explain that they now spend their time "participating in the welfare JOBS program." In fact, according to information from the State Department of Human Services (whose programs and rules are complicated, and contain enough acronyms to whip up a hearty alphabet soup), the JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills) program no longer exists; it has been replaced by other work-related proarams called "FTW" (First to Work), "QTW" (Quick to Work), "SKB" (Skill Building Units), "TOP" (Transitional Opportunities Program) and "Work Plus." All these programs combined grant aid to 75,817 recipients, adult and child, in the Islands. (Almost all of the families served--93 percent--are headed by single mothers, of whom over half were never married, and nearly two-thirds are under 34.)
Scanlon and Cori are participating in one of these programs--First to Work. After a year, however, both have been unable to find paid labor.
"So we do volunteer hours--we doin' time," Scanlon explains. "Like, we spend 34 hours a week out at volunteer job sites, to collect welfare benefits of $452 per month."
That breaks down to 136 hours per month, at $3.32 per hour.
What do the women do? "At our work sites, we do outdoor yard work, practice clerical skills, warehousing, and distribution, janitorial ... and do employment-readiness workshops. We get a lot of employment-readiness training. We're really overtrained," Cori says. "We have made our resume, and we train and we learn about work skills ... and then when we co to the interviews, we don't get the job."
Cori's rent is $600 per month. Her welfare payments just about match that, having been been cut down twice in the past year, from a high of $700. Food stamps and child-care allowances allow the families to make ends meet--barely.
The women say they are depressed about their situations and constantly worried about what will happen to them, now that welfare reform has imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance.
What if the jobs don't materialize? What if they find work and lose it again?
There are many barriers to paid employment, the two say. "Threre are just so many other people there wanting the same jobs," Scanlon says. "Some of them are younger; some have some university training, and some even have degrees. Or there's people with just more job skills. And then there's all of us on welfare in there, too, and so we are all competing against each other."
Scanlon and Cori feel the stigma that welfare carries. "We feel like when we go to the interviews, it's like we have a bias sign that says 'welfare' written across our foreheads," Scanlon says. "It's like employers take one look at you, and they are already thinking, 'No.'"
The women know that they are not highly skilled, but they are trying to gain skills--they are "participating," to use the language of the DHS. Yet they also feel frustrated with the kind of training they're getting. They do their volunteer service at an underfunded nonprofit agency; there are no computers there.
Scanlon says they have had a few hours of computer training. "But only just enough so we could make up our resumes, and then that was it."
Many critics of welfare reform say the biggest problem with expecting the unemployed to go to work is that there is no work available. On O'ahu, 33,350 people--nearly 5 percent of the labor force - were unemployed at the end of 1997.
Hawai'i's rate of unemployment is connected to the phasing out of the sugar and pineapple industries, the bursting of the Japanese investment bubble and recent layoffs in many government and private businesses. Although statistics show that Hawai'i's rates have declined to some extent over the past year, state unemployment rates are greater than at the beginning of this decade and remain higher than the national average. And more bad news is on the horizon: You'd have been hard-pressed to miss the headlines announcing layoffs at major banks, the remaining sugar plantations and Liberty House in recent weeks. Entry-level workers have little control over demand for their services, and they find themselves at the mercy of these phenomena.
Another little-discussed factor in sustaining unemployment especially for entry-level workers, is the national role played by the Federal Reserve Board. (While employment has been rising on the Mainland, unemployment remains higher for unskilled workers and residents of many high-poverty pockets throughout the country.) If unemployment rates drop below 5 percent, many economists believe workers begin to pressure employers for higher wages. The Fed typically responds to rising employment by raising interest rates, inducing businesses to tighten their belts and "dehire" workers. Welfare reform hasn't addressed the lack of jobs for these unemployed citizens, who play their part in establishing the nation's current economic structure.
Ray Domingo, a statistician with the state Department of Labor, says, "Over the year, the state unemployment rate did improve, but it's still way above the national average." Unemployment rates are determined by taking survey measurements and counting unemployment insurance filings. Groups of people are excluded from these statistics, among them members of the armed forces, as well as prisoners and homeless persons--so the actual numbers of unemployed are believed to be somewhat higher than official figures show.
Susan Chandler, director of the state Department of Human Services, comments that the state is working to find jobs for those who seek them. "It is really an important part of my job to help welfare recipients find jobs and become self-sufficient. And we can only put people in jobs if there are jobs available. So we have a number of strategies to help with this," she says.
"We have our job-related training programs; 452 welfare clients have been placed as volunteers in state agencies; we work collaboratively with other agencies--for example the Department of Labor and Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism--to develop special strategies to provide jobs. And we have a program where welfare clients work for six months for a company while we pay their benefits, and at the end of it, the company has the option to hire the worker. This has worked very well with such corporations as AT&T, which have hired our clients."
Chandler continues, "We are also working with the idea of micro-entrepreneurship and getting clients into starting their own companies. The statistics show that the best way to get a job is to be out actively in the work force, not in school or at home."
A DHS rep who asked not to be named says, "We give them a short, one-week training session on basic job skills. Then they have to find work. They have to go find any kind of job. Lacking a job history is a great obstacle--you must build up your work history. So job-program participants should be using their volunteer experience to build up their skills and use that to find paid employment.
"We don't create work - we encourage them to find employment."
Nora Kanemura, mother of two grown children, a 14-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, his been a "productive" member of the full-time, permanent work force, a welfare recipient and a welfare caseworker. Now she is both working and completing a degree in social work at the University of Hawai'i, while receiving some public assistance. One of her daughters, also a mother, receives aid as well. Kanemura is pursuing a bachelor's degree, and she participates in a federal work-study proaram. Welfare rules now require her to work 32 hours a week to continue receivin- aid, and her college studies do not exempt her from this.
"Basically what's happening is that the federal social policy is going totally towards work," she says. "It used to be that welfare clients who were studying for a degree could still collect payments and continue in school. Now they are not counted as working when they do this. So what a lot of clients have done is work, go to school full time and try to look after their kids."
Kenemura keeps in touch with many fellow students who are single parents--and welfare clients. "Most of them work at clerical jobs within the University: just entry-level, part-time student jobs that are not related to their majors. They do this because with this type of job you can have some flexibility in your schedule. Most other places aren't like that."
Alluding to the "Personal Responsibility" act, she says, "It is like the women are hostages--they are in this situation because they care about their children. They are taking responsibility for raising them."
"It's a bad situation," Kanemura adds. "The Federal [welfare] act totally buys into the Western work ethic; it overlooks communities and cultures. Now, with the time limits, people will end up working at three poorly paying jobs just to make ends meet. And they can't take care of children and do that too.
"What welfare clients usually end up taking for work is low-paying service industry jobs, many of them in tourism. But many Hawaiian people don't want to work in the tourism industry, because it tends to perpetrate colonization. They can choose between being a hula dancer or a cashier. They are stuck.
"You know, I just feel so frustrated," Kanemura says. "I read everyday in the paper that our government is ensuring the stability of our infrastructure--new roads, buildings, prisons, the convention center--a lot of time and attention is paid to these things. But when the cuts are made, they are on the human side. The cuts are made to education and human services. We seem to not be looking at the issues behind the problems. Instead we have solutions that don't seem to work."
Many public misperceptions about welfare and welfare clients exist, says DHS spokesperson Kris Foster. "People think a typical welfare recipient is lazy--always on welfare, refuses to work and has way more children than the rest of the population. This is simply not true. Ninty percent of welfare clients only use it as an emergency measure; they are on briefly, and then they are off and we never see them again."
Foster says she is frequently asked, "Who are they? What do people need to know who might employ them?" Foster responds: "They are you and me without jobs. That's who they are."
Bob Nakata, a steering committee member for the Welfare and Employment Rights Coalition, says cuts to welfare are part of a larger pattern in American society.
"A fundamental difference today is that there is a shortage of full-time jobs with a livable wage. More and more full-time jobs are being transformed into part-time jobs that have little or no benefits attached to them. And they offer lower wages than full-time work. Parenting has been degraded as well. It is seen as being not as important as wage labor."
Many activists bemoan the new limitations on support for poor parents and children as an example of the way power is shifting toward business and a "free market," and away from individuals. Instead of blaming structural inequality, however, many who are closest in class to welfare recipients point the finger at the needy, says Debbie Shimizu, executive director of the Hawai'i chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
"The way it works now, the social and economic system actually pits the welfare poor against the working poor," Shimizu says. "For example, for many years, the working poor have struggled along, many with no medical care and no subsidized childcare. The welfare poor got medical benefits and, for those who were working, subsidized childcare. This caused a huge rift between the two groups--the working poor blamed the welfare poor, and even though the two groups share similar problems, they were divided. They are still divided. And the welfare poor are losing--losing their dignity. It's as if now, they are selling their dignity.
"The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Trickle-down economics, where decisions are made at the top ranks and the rest of the people feel the outcomes, makes a lot of sense to those who are at the top of the economic ladder. ... Take the Economic Revitalizabon Task Force. For the people involved with it, from their perspective, trickle-down works. The multinationals, the rich--it works for them. But the Task Force is unrepresentative of the people of Hawai'i.
"From our perspective, the average working person, the working poor and the welfare poor are not given a voice. There is no one there from Human Services; there's not even anyone from the counties. ... You get the idea. It's exclusive and unrepresentative. We need to have more control over what goes on here than that."
In April 1997, at a legislative hearing on welfare cuts, members of several local antipoverty groups came together to orgazanize a "Jobs Yes! Cuts No!" rally. In December 1997, representatives from these groups--the Committee on Welfare Concerns, the STRENGTH Coalition and the Lokahi Coalition--announced their cooperative merger into a new organization--the Welfare and Employment Rights Coalition (WERC), a statewide coalition of low-income earners and advocates that calls for fair distribution of economic, social and community resources, sufficient jobs paying a living wage and a comprehensive safety net. WERC is sponsoring another rally--"We Vote: Jobs Yes! Cuts No!"--at the Capitol on April 2.
Bob Nakata, formerly of the Committee on Welfare Concerns and now with WERC, commented, "We have found that several important issues--welfare cutbacks, lack of jobs paying a living wage and inadequate state revenues--are closely related. Everything is connected, and it's having a very negative impact on our community."
At a Oct. 17, 1997 Committee on Welfare Concerns conference, participants learned about the Legislature and how to give testimony. They formed groups, talked about shared issues and finally, usina microphones in front of a video camera, gave mock testimony to mock legislators.
Eseta Ulu, a welfare client, former STRENGTH Coalition member and current WERC steering committee board member, says the conference was motivational. Ulu has gone on to speak directly with Gov. Ben Cayetano. "After he signed $10 million over to the Visitor's Bureau, I spoke to him in person," she says. "I said, 'I voted for you last time. I believed what you said about coming from poverty and understanding that. But now you don't act like that. If you cut from the poor, the poor are gonna steal from the poor. How can you do this? The poor are getting poorer.' He didn't have much to say in response.
"I told him, 'Many of the poor don't vote; they figure, what for?' I was rude to him, I think, but I made sure that he knew that I was a registered voter."
Ulu believes that organizing by the poor is important, not only in making better social policy, but to raise the standard of living for everyone. She continues to organize for change and encourages others to do so as well.
Asked what could make things better, Cori says, "There are no jobs in many areas of the state. ... And there's very little equipment, like computers, to train on. ... Even for Christmas, a lot of the shop owners will hire people that they know, maybe a high school kid for a short while, and that's all. A lot of it comes down to who you know, whether you'll get the jobs or not. But also, if the government could not make the cuts so fast: Give the pleople a chance--at least to get a start--it takes time to do that."
Nora Kanemura says, "If education programs could be re-instigated, if education could be counted as hours toward setting benefits for a period of time, poor people could educate themselves and then have access to jobs that pay a living wage more often. ... I am suffering because of this. But I think that people in these groups need to understand that we have to fight for what we want and need. We have to risk in order to enact change. We need to take an active role."
Debbie Shimizu says, "Well, it's kind of a David and Goliath situation, isn't it? I think we need to organize locally, and make more linkages between us to fight the classic 'divide and rule.' We need to make links between Human Services people, the poor and labor in order to have a better social safety net."
Nakata comments, "Our conununities are being dismantled in the wake of global economics. The frustrating thing is that labor can only really organize successfully locally, but capital can move much more quickly, right out of our communities, if it likes to set up shop in another country where people are more easily exploited."
"What will things be like for my grandson, Micah?" Nora Kanemura asks. "I worry about that."
Many anti-poverty activists and social service groups ate now focusing on an effort to participate in the state's "economic revitalization" plans. Shimuzu says, "Right now, we need to get more local representation in the economic revitalization proposals. It looks really great--all these TV ads about lowering taxes--but people need to realize that social services can be curtailed or shut down completely because of this. Are we willing to sacrifice these services?"
Shirnuzu and others are supporting an effort to allow more community participation in economic planning for the state. Efforts are being concentrated on the Legislature--and participation organizations have dubbed themselves the Community Revitalization Coalition. The results of their efforts may not be known for some time, but the employment desires of many depend on them.
"We don't expect a great job, but just a job to start off--then go higher," says Varuna Cori. "The way it is now, we just feel unproductive."
WERC is sponsoring a rally, "We Vote: Jobs Yes--Cuts No," at the State Capitol on Thursday, April 2, from 11 A.M. - 4 P.M. For more information about WERC, call Debbie Shimizu at 521-1787 or Danette Rayford at 696-4261. For information about the Community Revitalization Coalition, call 599-6408.
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