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Stigma of Welfare Hampers State Push Toward Jobs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his State of the State address last January, Gov. Pete Wilson attacked welfare recipients for an unwillingness to work. “Taxpayers [will] no longer subsidize idleness and promiscuity,” he declared in praising the arrival of welfare reform. “We’re ending welfare’s warehousing of people who don’t want to work.”

Now Wilson is telling private businesses that these same people--nearly 1 million adults in California--will make good employees. This month, a task force appointed by the governor is formulating a major campaign whose fundamental message is that hiring people on the dole makes good business sense.

To many social advocates, the governor’s divergent words and actions reveal a gaping dichotomy in the welfare debate and raise questions about government’s ability to find private sector employment for those now on public aid: the main goal of the 1996 federal welfare overhaul.

As the effort intensifies to move vast numbers of recipients into jobs, officials are bumping into the entrenched stigmas and prevailing stereotypes that, many social experts contend, are barriers of their own making.

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“It has been an image ingrained in the public mind ever since politicians realized they could score points with the electorate by exploiting the welfare queen,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, a professor of social welfare and public policy at UCLA. “Now in some respects it’s going to come back to haunt us because many businesses say they would rather hire an immigrant than a black person or even a white person on welfare.”

The image of the welfare Cadillac queen may have been popularized during the Reagan administration, but the association of various kinds of social pathology with being poor and on welfare dates even further back, given strong voice by politicians and reinforced by media depictions, experts say.

The legacy has been profound.

Besides showing a preference for immigrants over welfare recipients, some employers, studies show, pass up tax incentives if associated with people on welfare.

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To counter such attitudes, states and local governments are mounting ambitious efforts to promote the hiring of welfare recipients. Nearly all involve at least some effort to rehabilitate the image of welfare recipients with employers and the public.

In California, the job team created by Wilson is expected to announce the details of its campaign in coming weeks.

Encountering Prejudice

“I think without a doubt there are stereotypes about this population,” said team member Jerry Jacobs, a vice president with the Pacific Telesis Foundation. “One of our important tasks is to understand what the profile is. There is a whole spectrum of people [on assistance], and we don’t understand what that spectrum is.”

Indiana is using tax credits a carrot, as well as contracting out job placement services to private firms that are expected to help arrange for transportation, child care and instruction in “living skills” if needed. Officials claim to have had great success in reducing welfare rolls, averaging 2,300 job placements a month, said James Hmurovich, director of the state’s Division of Welfare.

But Hmurovich concedes that he has encountered obstacles while proselytizing the chief officers of industry groups.

“They have voiced these concerns when they know they are welfare recipients,” he said. “I remember doing public information about welfare realities--that most welfare families only included one or two children, that most families were white, that the majority of people were on welfare for less than two years--and you could see in their faces a general misunderstanding, like ‘No, we know this is a way of life for these people.’ ”

The question mark that looms ominously is whether the business community can overcome societal prejudices against a population that has often been attacked unmercifully over the years.

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The stakes are high. Welfare legislation signed last August by President Clinton sets out a rigorous timetable by which states must get people into jobs--half of all recipients must be working by 2002, for example--or the states face steep financial penalties.

Along with job fairs and tax credits, government may need an intensive public relations campaign to change the perception of welfare recipients, many suggest.

“If we can change the image of welfare and welfare recipients, it will definitely help in the transition to jobs,” said Jeff Gorell of the California Manufacturers Assn. “There was a huge effort to change the perception of the military in ‘70s after Vietnam War, to dispel the image that these were bad people, and it worked. Maybe that’s what we need here.”

Gorell said members of his group are already raising red flags about the ability to quickly move mass numbers of welfare recipients into the private sector. Some firms are pushing for laws to make it easier to fire workers in return for hiring people now on welfare, he said.

“The Legislature is going to be turning to us to absorb this huge labor force that is typically at-risk and with no tangible work experience,” he said. “If we find they are not compatible to fit into the dynamic of the workplace, we want to be able to fire them.”

Lisa Kalustian, a Wilson spokeswoman, said the governor has sought in his remarks not to fault individuals so much as the system.

“The governor does realize that people on welfare come from many different places and for a variety of reasons,” she said. “However, he also realized there are people who need to be motivated to get jobs. The ills of society do not need to be all laid at the feet of welfare, but welfare is full of perverse incentives.”

How Perceptions Have Changed

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The demonization of welfare recipients is by no means universal, and at the outset most were in fact viewed with sympathy. In 1935, when the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program was enacted as a part of the Social Security Act, its stated purpose was to relieve mostly widowed mothers from the necessity of working on the theory that it was best that they devote their time to the rearing of their young children.

In the 1960s, however, there developed a noted shift in attitude about the morality of welfare recipients and a belief that their poverty was of their own making. During a 1967 congressional debate on toughening welfare laws and adding work requirements, Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) stated: “We do not want to have the mother sitting around and drinking wine all day. . . . We are so solicitous of people who never did a lick of work in their whole lifetime and do not propose to do so because they have a child of school age.”

Lucy A. Williams, a law professor at Northeastern University, has studied the changing welfare debate and traces hardening attitudes to changes in the racial makeup and social class of recipients. Many early laws, particularly in Southern states, for example, excluded black women from AFDC. It was assumed they would enter the labor force as fieldworkers, maids or wet nurses, whether or not they had young children.

When exclusionary laws were struck down as discriminatory, the profile of welfare recipients began to change, even though the majority of recipients remained white.

Williams became fascinated with the issue three years ago while following the widely publicized case of Clarabel Ventura, a Boston mother charged with abusing her 4-year-old son. The story in the media evolved from one of abuse to the social pathology of Ventura’s extended family, which included several generations of welfare recipients. The family’s poverty and welfare status became attached to a lack of personal responsibility, suspect morals and abuse, Williams said.

The result was a raft of state bills to limit aid to welfare mothers.

Harry Holzer, an economics professor at Michigan State University who has studied the employment problems of minorities and low skilled workers, contends that some of the stereotypes are at least partly true. He says that welfare, especially when it is generational, does sap the work ethic.

Holzer estimates that there is a hard core of about 30% of welfare mothers who are simply unemployable in the private sector and that if government wants them to work, it will have to provide the jobs.

Efforts to Erase Suspicions

Cliff Johnson, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a large body of research shows that welfare recipients carry a stigma that hampers their appeal to private employers. The use of wage subsidies and tax credits to encourage their hiring has not been very successful, he said.

“A suspicion is evoked when an employer realized the government is going to pay them to hire somebody,” Johnson said. “The natural reaction is ‘What’s wrong with this person?’ ”

Johnson said those who look for a job on their own rather than through a government-run job program may in fact have more success because the employer may never learn they are on welfare.

Richard Katz, director of a Los Angeles job-training program, has seen the impact of society’s negative perception of welfare first hand.

Last August, Spotlight on Jobs became part of a $500,000 statewide demonstration project to train welfare recipients in computer skills. The program had become noted for placing unemployed and displaced workers in film industry jobs.

Of the 24 graduates from the ranks of welfare placed so far, only one has landed a job at a film production company. Katz said the entertainment jobs are very competitive, but admits his disappointment.

“There is a stigma and they don’t believe they can get good, dedicated people--which is not the case because we have some great people,” he said. “All this talk about getting employers to help solve the problem--they would rather give money to charity than force their department managers to hire someone [off welfare]. They don’t want the headaches. Why take the risk?”

Many analysts, however, believe that an improving economy and expansion of entry-level job positions will make it easier for recipients to overcome stereotypes. In Wisconsin, 28,000 AFDC recipients were placed in jobs last year, said David Blaska, a spokesman for the Department of Workforce Development. Unemployment is averaging 3.5%, he said.

“It’s a worker’s state and [employers] can’t be as choosy as they have been in the past,” Blaska said.

* REPLACEMENT BENEFITS: State funds proposed for older noncitizens soon to lose aid. A3


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