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David Kusnet, Union advantage: The case for organized labor and democracy in the workplace
VOLUME 2, NUMBER 31    <>     MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2001

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mike dyar / eat art

Roar, Rhorer, roar!

sweep3.jpg (19638 bytes)In a week that began by celebrating the accomplishments of working men and women, it’s may be fitting to reflect that fate follows strange routes. In San Francisco, for example, the moving finger has recently writ and moved on, designating newly appointed director of Human Services Trent Rhorer as point man for an imaginative adventure in welfare reform that may actually reform something.

I’m talking about a plan for the future: the measure in question is a reconstituted Community Jobs Initiative for city workfare workers, scheduled to begin sometime in October.

But to understand its perhaps revolutionary significance, we need to travel back in time, to the good old days of the Clinton administration, when Congress in its infinite wisdom, and the president in his, passed and signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

Welfare reform.

The idea was that no-good layabouts, particularly those of the single female-parent persuasion, who were living off taxpayers’ hard-earned money, should be taught the error of their ways. The method was the elimination of old doleful programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the creation of new tough-love ones like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Here’s the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ take on how the law works: 

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 eliminates AFDC’s open-ended entitlement and creates a block grant for states to provide time-limited cash assistance for needy families, with work requirements for most recipients.

In the short term, poor people had to learn a whole lot of new acronyms. In the long term, they discovered that they had to work hard in dead-end jobs. Here’s how the program played out in San Francisco, as described by the man first charged with implementing it, previous director of Human Services Will Lightbourne:

April 6, 1998 marks the start of San Francisco’s implementation of the mandated federal welfare reform legislation. Beginning today, more than 7,000 of San Francisco's 8,900 families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC), will need to be enrolled into a personalized welfare to work plan by the end of the year. Under the California version of welfare reform, called CalWORKs, recipients must plan to move to employment within 18 to 24 months after enrollment, and also still fall under the 5 year federally-imposed lifetime benefit.

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The army of “more than 7,000” went to work, cleaning up the city — yes, even tackling the mess on Market. Armed with buckets and brooms, these welfare warriors swept sidewalks, hosed down MUNI buses, and cleaned the bathrooms in SF General. Although they worked alongside regular city employees, they had little hope of joining their comrades’ higher-paying ranks: the skills and experience they were acquiring didn’t translate officially into the skills and experience that were prerequisite for “real” jobs.

And so, what happened to them “within 18 to 24 months after enrollment”? As their allotted time expired, they — and hundreds of thousands of other Americans — found themselves back where they’d started, facing the prospect of unpaid unemployment.

But at this point in the saga a little side road fed into the workfare lane leading through San Francisco, forcing a change in direction.

It turned out that those regular city employees who were sharing their workspace weren’t all that highly paid either, particularly in a city where the cost of living was imitating Tony Bennett’s little cable cars. Hesitant whispers grew into determined shouts: San Francisco needs a living wage ordinance.

Never one to do things by halves, in October 2000 San Francisco instituted the rip-roaringest living wage ordinance yet to hit an American urban area. OK, so $9/hour isn’t enough to live on in the city by the bay. The far-reaching measure contained provisions for wage increases and benefits that would improve the lot of tens of thousands of local workers.


It also instituted a two-tiered system for many of the city’s jobs, since street sweepers and hospital janitors earning $9/hour or more would be working beside people who were making $6.26/hour.

That was asking for trouble. The simplest remedy was to amalgamate the two tiers. And that’s exactly what happened.

The new city budget contains funding from a variety of sources to implement a new Community Jobs Initiative. It’s a start. It will allow 250 people in county adult assistance programs and 600 CalWORKs participants whose workfare term has expired to continue their employment. Working 32 hours a week at $8/hour, they’ll earn about $1,100 a month plus benefits while — here’s the clincher! — accumulating enough hours to apply for the regular city jobs they’ve already been shadowing.

It’s a start with more to come. The supervisors on the Finance Committee promise to draw on the city’s general reserves for additional funding as other workfarers reach the two-year limit.

It’s a start that may actually work. As time runs out for federally reformed welfare, observers nationwide note that it has failed: the participants have striven valiantly, but their efforts have rarely led them into the labor force. But it may turn out that the kooks of San Francisco have come up with a solution that escaped their more levelheaded compatriots.

The city has proposed; it’s up to Trent Rhorer to dispose.

Betsey Culp