During the summer of 1997, the Business Partnership Initiative was launched. HR departments across the country were briefed on how to implement the new "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity" Act, as the initiative was labeled and marketed to the corporate world. Enthusiasm was low. A media campaign suggested that welfare recipients would not work and instead would become street criminals when their benefits stopped.
On the job, HR professionals were subjected to a barrage of well-intentioned but demeaning and patronizing instructions from program facilitators who anticipated widespread insensitivity. The use of words like "welfare" or "public assistance" when referring to a candidate’s financial situation was considered politically incorrect. Warnings were issued to be extremely patient and that certain special accommodations in training or work hours might be necessary.
My employer used a contract recruiter who was deemed to have "special rapport" with the incoming group. She was hired for a limited engagement. Depending on the size of the organization, a minimum number of hires were necessary to meet the Partnership’s mandated goals. When that number was reached, the contractor’s job would end. And then what? No wonder we in HR didn't look forward to involvement in this program.
Gradually, a welcome realization dawned on us. Characterizations of the Partnership initiative as a symbolic gesture, or charity, began to fade. Myths and stereotypes about welfare recipients were exploded. Detractors who were inclined to use public assistance and welfare as code words for attacking women and minorities had their consciousness abruptly raised. And, as a result, over the past two years, several "responsible" people have been hired who have maximized their "opportunity" to succeed and are now valued employees.
As with any new concept, there were problems. Most of the new workers were women. A few viewed the HR manager as a sort of "superman," the first line of defense for assistance in solving typical family problems. From time to time, the HR staff became informal counselors. Since we were not trained as social workers, we had to reach out for assistance.
Uncontrolled children, expensive, time-consuming commutes, and sometimes, disapproving or disgruntled husbands and boyfriends were among the issues. But no one seemed to mind. The various requests for help and advice provided depth and texture to a profession in which we make our living hands-on among people. It was fun!
Opponents of the Welfare-to-Work program point out that some welfare recipients are in worse circumstances than before. But the dire predictions of welfare criminals running rampant in the streets have not, and will not, come to pass. Critics also insist that participant workers have made only minimal gains. I disagree.
The Partnership hiring initiative and training program was, and continues to be, successful and has produced a pool of competent entry level employees who, given time, will advance. It’s true that they are not yet earning much money. A big salary isn’t always the primary goal. Work itself provides self-esteem and creates ambition—two critical factors.
President Clinton has promised to set aside additional funds for childcare and will continue to secure ongoing commitments from all sorts of businesses. The Welfare-to-Work Partnership alliance is an excellent model of vision and proves what can be accomplished when government, business, industry and community work together toward the right outcome.