Tough Love in L.A. County
The Failure of Welfare-to-Work
On an evening in March 1998, over one hundred parents, grandparents, and children crowded into the cafeteria of Burnett Elementary School in Central Long Beach, a mile north of Mark Twain Library. The meeting had been called by the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services DPSS) to unveil California's new welfare program, known as “CalWORKs” (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids). Enacting the department's mission to create a more “client-positive environment,” a small army of DPSS staff, along with volunteers from theschool, local churches, and social services agencies, cheerily greeted arrivers. Inside, a long folding table was piled high with glossy CalWORKsbrochures and flyers advertising job training programs and counselingservices. Free refreshments of coffee, juice, and cookies were served.
Fidgeting apprehensively in their folding chairs, the women and men who attended the forum represented a cross-section of the surrounding community: Cambodian grandmothers cradled infants; African-American couples flipped through DPSS brochures; a group of Mexican andCentral American mothers rotated a position at the door to keep an eyeon their children outside in the playground. Mostly brown and black, with a handful of white faces, many in the audience had stopped at the meeting on their way to or from work. Their uniforms testified to the range of low-wage jobs that predominate in Central Long Beach: Alberto's Mechanics; Pic 'N' Save; Hilton Hotel Housekeeping; and SaintMary's Hospital Food Services.
After 15 minutes of fiddling with the school's faulty P.A. system, a DPSS representative took the mike. “The government wants you to work in order to achieve self-sufficiency,” the middle-aged Mexican-American speaker told the expectant audience first in English, next in Spanish, and finally translated into Khmer by the school's translator. “Welfare is no