Help and hype 

When Gov. John Engler’s Project Zero expanded to include all of Oakland and Wayne counties this month, state and local welfare officials applauded.

"Project Zero helps take this welfare reform a step forward," Margarete Gravina, a section chief in Michigan’s Department of Career Development, said at a kickoff ceremony for the program at a Detroit church. "It provides focus in the communities … moving them from assistance to independence."

Gail Woodall, a Detroit single mother of two, then told the crowd how Project Zero helped her get a job at a day care center.

"I actually always wanted to run my own day care," she said. "I think I’m on my way."

It is the kind of success story the Engler administration embraces as emblematic of a program the governor has said "defeats every negative stereotype about welfare reform."

However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the state’s welfare-to-work efforts.

Beverly Flemister, another Detroit single mother of two, says she made the leap from welfare to work seven months ago, landing a part-time job at a day care center that she says pays $5.50 an hour.

"That’s nothing when you’ve got to pay lights, gas, rent, phone bill," she says. "Social services thinks it’s a lot of money, but it’s not."

To make matters worse, says Flemister, the state recently notified her that her welfare checks, amounting to approximately $110 monthly, would stop coming after September. She says she continues to receive $253 monthly in food stamps.

To the state, she is "working and on her way to self-sufficiency." As Flemister sees her situation, she is worse off financially since her welfare was cut off. Flemister is not alone in her criticism. Three years after its launch, some advocates for the poor say Project Zero gets more credit than it deserves.

Critics of the project, which targets only a percentage of welfare recipients, say it misleads the public into thinking everybody is getting off welfare in places that "hit zero" and that it distracts people from the depth and prevalence of poverty.

"The whole Project Zero wording and framework is very worrisome," says Clifford Johnson, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "It implies that a realistic policy goal is to get to the point where nobody needs any help."

Downward trend

Although the nationwide trend of decreasing welfare rolls is generally associated with President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform package and the booming economy, Michigan has been ahead of the curve on this issue. Under Engler, the state began its welfare-to-work efforts in 1992 with what later became Work First.

That program, which still applies to the state’s entire welfare population, gives welfare recipients 60 days to either get jobs or begin participating in state-specified job-seeking activities, which can continue indefinitely. Otherwise, welfare checks are reduced over four months and then cut off.

By 1996, when Michigan launched Project Zero to help identify and surmount barriers to employment for people on welfare, the state’s welfare caseload was already declining. The project began with six sites and a $1 million annual budget. It has gradually expanded to the current 71-site, $8-million program, and is scheduled to continue growing, with an $11 million allocation proposed for next year. The program is to eventually extend statewide.

The money is used to provide extra funding for support services such as day care and transportation that help people make the transition to work.

"It has provided clothes for interviewing. We’ve provided bus tokens for people. … It has helped people to find jobs, sometimes with the idea that the first jobs will lead to better jobs," says Gene Hashley, Wayne County spokesperson for the Family Independence Agency.

Woodall, 42, says Project Zero pays a baby sitter for her 10-year-old son while she teaches toddlers at Angel Land Child Care and Parent Centers in Detroit. She says she was recently promoted to head teacher and received a raise.

"I can only speak for myself and I’m not having any problems," she says. "It’s hard, catching the bus to work every day, taking my child to the childcare provider … but life is a struggle."

The real zero

Project Zero’s success was to be measured by the elimination of joblessness among "targeted" Family Independence Agency participants. Hashley said 22 of the state’s 71 Project Zero sites had "hit zero" as of Sept. 30.

But Sharon Parks, senior researcher for the nonprofit Michigan League for Human Services, says judging from the media spin on Project Zero and various conversations she has heard, many people believe that if a site hits zero, the welfare rolls there have been wiped clean.

What it really means is that all the targeted welfare recipients in a designated area are employed on a particular date.

"Zero is a point in time," FIA spokesperson Maureen Sorbet said. "They could be at zero on a given day in a month and be declared a success."

State officials told Metro Times they don’t keep track of how long the sites stay at zero — in other words, how long clients in those areas keep their jobs.

"It would be exciting to see some measurement of job stability," Parks says. "Do people keep their jobs? … You might hit zero this week. You might not have zero next week."

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the program affects only a portion of the state’s welfare cases.

For example, Hashley says Project Zero is targeting 1,248 of Oakland County’s approximately 3,700 welfare cases and 19,399 of Wayne County’s 38,852 cases, based on August figures.

Engler spokesperson Susan Shafer says. "If you’re an able-bodied adult, there is a deadline and there is a system in place to help you find a job."

But, just as a zero designation does not mean all welfare recipients are working, neither does it mean that all those working have stopped collecting welfare checks.

Although Project Zero’s stated goal is to move cases completely off public assistance, Parks says that hasn’t happened.

"It’s perhaps misunderstood what the project really was," she says. "Understand, this is not no more people on welfare."

Deeper poverty

While fewer and fewer people are receiving welfare checks in Michigan and nationwide, other trends indicate that something is wrong.

A recent Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study shows "the average incomes of the poorest 20 percent of female-headed families with children fell from 1995 to 1997 despite continued economic growth …"

Wendell Primus, the study’s lead author, stated, "It is disturbing that substantial numbers of children and families are sinking more deeply into poverty when we have the strongest economy in decades and when substantial amounts of funds provided to states to assist these families are going unused."

The report links most of the income losses to the erosion of government cash and food assistance to poor families.

Jane Marshall, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, says increasing demand on nonprofit emergency food providers such as food banks and soup kitchens nationwide indicates that some families are worse off.

"We hear this all the time: ‘I can afford my rent or my food bill but not both, so I’m going to pay my rent and come to you,’" says Marshall.

One of the shortcomings of Project Zero, says Michigan League for Human Services CEO Ann Marston, is that it considers any employment a success, regardless of hours, pay, benefits, or advancement opportunities.

Gravina, of the Michigan Department of Career Development, maintains that under Project Zero, "We’re starting to look more at the career ladder."

And other state officials note that Work First, which includes all state welfare recipients, has expanded opportunities for participants by allowing some education and vocational training to count toward satisfying its work-related activities requirement.

Nonetheless, Marston maintains, "The bar is really low. … It’s easy to jump over."

Parks says the public spotlight on Project Zero adds to pressure on the state and local welfare agencies.

Says Parks: "Based on what we’ve seen, most of the jobs people are getting pay just above minimum wage. … That’s not to say they aren’t trying to get people into good jobs, but the emphasis hasn’t really been on finding the right job or the right plan for the person. The emphasis has been ‘If there’s a job out there, you should take it.’’’

Parks says although not everyone in a successful Project Zero site gets off welfare, even those who lose cash assistance are often far from being able to meet their families’ needs.

For instance, she says, a single mother of two might get a job that pays $775 month. That’s $9,300 a year compared with the poverty level, which is just above $13,000 a year. It’s enough for her to lose cash assistance, but it might not pay her rent.

"She couldn’t expect to quit her job and go back on welfare because she would be expected to find work again and she’d be back where she started and her case would close," Parks says.

Parks says jobs people obtain with the help of Project Zero can cause them to lose not only cash assistance, but also some of their food stamps, the option of fully subsidized day care, and the utility shutoff protection they’ve had through the state. She says some people leave welfare to face no heat or electricity and hundreds of dollars in past-due utility bills.

Beyond Zero

After the past few years of state and federal policies weeding people off of welfare, there is also concern that those who remain on welfare, swept out of the public radar, will be caught in an endless cycle of job-seeking futility. They are, as Marshall puts it, "the poorest of the poor."

"The people who are left on welfare really need some intensive services," Marguerite Kowaleski, a longtime volunteer with Oakland County Welfare Rights Organization. "People left now are much harder to serve. They don’t have skills. They have health problems but not enough to be considered disabled … It’s not enough just to say, ‘Go find a job.’ They need more than that."

Johnson says it is clear that Michigan’s welfare-to-work efforts aren’t working for many people. He says some welfare recipients are experiencing such great barriers to employment, such as homelessness or mental illness, that employers continually refuse to hire them, yet the state keeps sending them back to be rejected.

"If you’re going to be serious about welfare reform, you have to answer the question ‘What’s next for these people?’" he says.

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