Roar, Rhorer, roar!
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
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.