Once again, welfare reform and passionate moral claims have intersected. This time the issue is workfare.
New York City requires 38,000 people who receive welfare to work for their benefits, and the city expects to expand the program to 100,000 people in the next few years. But 68 liberal churches, synagogues and non profit groups have declared that they will not hire any of these workfare recipients. They claim that the city's program is tantamount to slavery because participants are not paid in wages or salaries.
“We don't want to say five years from now, here was an evil system that grew up around us and we didn't resist it,” said the Rev. Peter Laarman of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.
The slavery analogy is wrong. In fact, those who accept workfare assignments are receiving payment-in the form of welfare benefits. They are paid by public authorities rather than private employers, but they are paid.
Aside from their benefit checks, workfare participants gain something else. They learn skills and the sense of responsibility necessary for moving from welfare to work permanently. For people on welfare, who have a hard time getting their feet in an employer's door, workfare at least gives them a fighting chance to compete later on.
The clergy members and leaders of nonprofit groups who insist that they would be “slave drivers” if they employ people on workfare obscure the fact that recipients are not actually forced to take the jobs the city assigns them. They have another option: They can stop receiving public assistance and instead enter the labor force on their own.
Workfare is not a ball and chain. It is an opportunity for the poor to enter the labor market, an opportunity they might not otherwise have. Once workfare participants have the skills and the desire to seek regular employment, they need only do a simple calculation: Is my welfare check worth more or less than the wages I would be making in a real job?
Most everyone remembers his first job. The pay is low, the work is hard and the frustrations are many. We don't remember the paychecks so much as the lessons learned: how to handle responsibilities, how to deal with difficult bosses, how to endure long hours and how to set priorities.
This experience is what prepares us for higher-paying jobs and greater responsibility. The work we do also becomes a big part of our personal identity. When we are productive, we are entitled to self-respect and we elicit respect from others.
Work can also be seen, from a theological perspective, as a moral duty for those who can do it. Saint Paul said, “If a man will not work, neither let him eat.” Through work a person develops not only physically and mentally, but spiritually as well. The religious leaders in New York who are protesting workfare should be the first to recognize this.
Yet the benefits of work are denied to those trapped in poverty. And by providing welfare without tying it to any obligations, we have created a system that offers few means of escape. If we are looking for the ball and chain, we need look no further than unchecked subsidies for doing nothing but staying poor.
Workfare programs are far from prefect. In the short run, they can be as costly to taxpayers as the old system of requiring nothing from welfare recipients. Workfare can also pose difficulties for single mothers, who need to find care for their children. And it requires sacrifice from employers, who bear the burden of training unskilled employees.
Yet no one said the transition from failed system of subsidized poverty to one of work and productivity would be smooth. Workfare may not accomplish miracles but it offers hope. Its main benefit is that it teaches that there is moral merit to work. If New York City's workfare program sends that message, it deserves support.