Okay, I stuck the word "teenage" in there for poetic effect. But the basic idea, I was a poverty pimp, holds.
I took taxpayer's money and squandered it in ways that would appall them if they only knew. And I feel compelled to make amends.
You could say that I meant well -- which I did. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I meant to help people get off welfare, which is a goal that the taxpayers can firmly support. But what I did in practice was prop up a bloated bureaucracy that sees welfare recipients as a faceless mass existing purely to keep federal block grant money flowing so that we -- the tax-funded workers -- could keep our jobs.
I tried to make the program functional, within and in spite of the constraints put upon us by Congress and the Bureau of Employment and Training Programs. It was a mostly futile gesture. Call it "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." Call it "making a silk purse out of a sow's ear." Call it "a day late and a dollar short." It all amounts to the same thing. There is no way that any permutation of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (aka "Welfare Reform"), especially not as interpreted to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Employment & Training Programs (aka "BETP"), is going to accomplish its stated goals except as a fortuitous side effect.
Most of the people who get off welfare and get jobs would have done so anyway, with or without our program. If our program had any real effect on these people, it was mostly by annoying them so much that even the suckiest dead-end minimum-wage job was an improvement. But if you're going to get people off welfare by annoying them, it would be a lot cheaper and more cost-effective to heard them all into a room and make them listen to tapes of Gilbert Gottfried reading Finnegan's Wake.
What about the people who remain on welfare? Are they, as the Left asserts, plagued by barriers such as lack of training, lack of child care, lack of appropriate health services, and so on? Are they, as the Right asserts, just feckless moochers?
There are some welfare recipients who fit pretty well into one or the other of those stereotypes. "Janice", for example, had housing problems, transportation problems, and less than idea job skills. But her biggest real barrier to long-term employment is that she had mental health problems that weren't severe enough to warrant going on disability, but kept her from developing the coping skills to overcome them and hold down a job. Peer support or even simple coaching would enable her to get and maintain a job.
"Marty", on the other hand, had an illness that limited his ability to do strenuous labor, and didn't have a GED, but he had access to job training and funding for equipment that would have enabled him to earn a living. Marty wasn't interested; his life goal was to leverage his illness into a disability claim so that he could vegetate in front of the TV drinking beer the rest of his life. "Marty" was a slug and a bum -- but he was far more of an aberration that the Right would like to believe.
My observation is that there were far more people like Janice than like Marty. But Welfare Reform isn't set up to serve one or bitch-slap the other. It's set up to fill the welfare recipient's day with federally-approved activities for a federally-mandated amount of time every week, ultimately regardless of what would actually boost the person off welfare and into independence.
So I spent my time channeling folks like Janice into "work skills" activities that really didn't help her, because the skills she needed were illness management. I'd spend time channeling people like "Jose" into "work skills" activities when he needed a combination of English classes and job search. I'd spend time channeling "Jerica" into "work skills" activities when what she needed was to learn to budget for car repairs.
There are things we could be doing to equip people to enter and stay in the job market, and things we could be doing to boot shiftless slugs off the public dole. Most of the former could -- and should -- be done in the school system, not by engaging in "self-esteem" activities, but by teaching them to identify and develop their skills, to set and accomplish goals, and to recognize their own ability to set and follow through on a positive life trajectory. As long as they're trapped in a union-driven public school system that holds kids hostage, none of this is likely to happen. And most of the latter could be booted off the dole -- they'd pretty quickly rearrange their goals to include working for a living.
While I was working inside the system, I could tweak it. I could do my best of encourage my clients, to steer them toward what they really needed, and to creatively interpret the rules to allow them to engage in truly productive, dignity-based activities. I could throw the shiftless out of the program and at least hope that they'd be sanctioned and lose their free money. But I could do nothing to change the wasteful, spirit-crushing, dehumanizing nature of the system as it stands.
I'm praying that I can find work somewhere in the field of public policy, where I can turn my experience into a force for reform. If I do, then the time I spent as an employment and training Case Manger can be redeemed. If I can't, it will always remain a shameful blot on my record: my time as a poverty pimp.