John Krinsky

For nearly the past twenty years, poor New Yorkers who have turned to welfare have been required to work in the Work Experience Program as a condition of receiving their benefits. In 1998, Mayor Giuliani, three years after expanding WEP, as the program is called, was effusive in praising is own initiative: “To shift from dependence to independenceto return work to the center of New York City lifewe have to do this, and more…Everyone, with very few exceptions, is subject to the universal work requirement. That's not a penalty. That's a truly compassionate answer, because it begins to give people the gift of their own independence.”

Even before federal welfare reform in 1996, WEP had grown steadily. By 1998, nearly 40,000 New Yorkers were assigned to WEP, cleaning parks, streets, city office buildings, sanitation garages, and doing a wide range of clerical tasks.  Suddenly confronted with childcare emergencies and other frequent barriers to regular, full-time employment, many WEP workers often left welfare altogether.  That was their “independence.” Those who remain in WEP are not legally employees. They do not receive a wage, but just their welfare benefits, which in no case allow them to meet reach even three-quarters of the poverty line. The difference between unpaid work experience and employment is significant: WEP have no effective grievance procedures (and are thus vulnerable to workplace abuses), no sick days, no vacation days, no right to unionize, and—unlike even workers toiling at the minimum wage—cannot enhance their incomes with the Earned Income Tax Credit. To be consistent with federal law, the bills leave in place the requirement that welfare recipients work, and leave in place a range of other options by which this could be made possible, including subsidized and transitional jobs that are real employment. New York City already has a transitional jobs program, and several other states have well-developed subsidized employment programs for welfare recipients. Getting rid of WEP does not mean stopping helping poor people enter the labor market. It means starting to do so, without exploiting welfare recipients and without displacing existing paid workers with unpaid labor.

Today, in the state legislature, two bills introduced by State Senator Diane Savino would abolish unpaid “work experience programs” for welfare recipients in the State of New York. Savino and Wright’s bills cut through the ruse: “The work experience program provides public agencies and nonprofit organizations a pool of unpaid labor, resulting in the displacement of full time workers.This bill would eradicate that practice.”

The bills buck the trend of dressing up the spread of unpaid labor throughout the economy in nice words and noble sentiments. It pushes the state to provide real opportunities to welfare recipients even while expanding opportunities for everyone else. There can, after all, be no entry-level jobs for anyone if they are all being done by unpaid workers. Indeed, WEP has a dreadful record of moving people to stable employment. It is not meant to do so: it is meant, instead, to get the city’s work done on the cheap and to deter people from applying for aid in the first place. 

Mayor de Blasio’s welfare commissioner, Steven Banks, has already signaled a change in approach by allowing attendance at a four-year college to count toward work-activities. Research shows that this is a far more promising way to keep many people off welfare in the long run. For those not ready or interested in college, transitional and subsidized employment—including many state programs funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act— have been shown to have a far better record in supporting stable employment than unpaid work experience.

Twenty years ago, there seemed to be a consensus that work—any work, under any conditions—was the solution to welfare dependency. The result, in some cases, has been dependency of the government on the unpaid labor of the poor. Some city agencies still use WEP extensively. They need to be cut off. Today, Senator Savino, who, as part of the Independent Democratic Caucus has worked closely with Republicans, and Assemblyman Wright, a Democratic insider and head of the Housing Committee, have shown that this is an issue that can transcend political differences. The Governor should support the bills, too. Though there will doubtless be howls of protest from the usual think-tanks, the state government has a chance to lead on an issue of good economics, real common sense, and moral integrity.

That doesn’t happen every day in Albany.

John Krinsky is Associate Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York.