Ending Workfare as We Know It?

City Limits • July/August 2005

It starts before Benita Andrews even makes it home. Five o’clock finds her walking to her South Bronx apartment, a ramshackle three-family covered in aluminum siding. Her kids–nine in all–spot her from their third-floor window, and they are already calling for her when she is half a block away. By the time Andrews passes the corner house, known as a drug spot, and a stoop blaring salsa music, her front stairs are lined with children. “It gets kinda crazy when I get home. Everybody’s all ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy.’” says Andrews, feigning irritation. “I about fall into a coma come 10:00.”

So far, the only sign of exhaustion from Andrews is a deep breath before the onslaught from her children begins. “I want to be working, but there’s too many loose ends at home,” she says matter-of-factly. Asked what it would take for her to leave welfare, Andrews raises her eyebrows–I have tried and it does not seem possible, her look says–and ponders the question. “If I do Scratch n’ Match [a state lottery game], that might cover me for three or four years,” she says. Pressed for specifics, Andrews launches into a list.

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Siegel’s Bohemian Clout

City Limits • July/August 2005

Burlesque dancers, fire-spinners and nightlife activists aren’t commonly courted by politicians. But this year, bohemians citywide have at least one candidate eager for their support: Norman Siegel for Public Advocate.

Taking his second stab at the office, Siegel’s jumpstarting his campaign by drawing on the city’s newly mobilized masses, some of whom he’s represented in court: cyclists opposed to the aggressive policing of monthly mass bicycle rides; hipsters fighting the city’s arcane cabaret law, which prohibits dancing in bars without a license; and anti-gentrification advocates in Williamsburg, Prospect Heights and beyond. By early June, Siegel’s campaign had compiled a list of more than 400 volunteers ready to do battle for Norman.

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Building Insecurity

City Limits • May/June 2005

Jesse Villegas takes pride in protecting the Empire State Building. A security guard at the 34th Street entrance, he reports to work in the landmark’s cavernous marble halls, overseeing turnstiles that scan office workers’ I.D. cards. But even though he’s a security officer, Villegas sometimes wonders if the building is safe. “Nobody really checks I.D.,” says Villegas. “All they’re doing is making sure people don’t jump over the turnstile.”

They also don’t do much to screen the 3.8 million tourists who pour through annually. A visitor’s first encounter with security is an x-ray machine for bags, located in the building basement where the line for observatory tickets begins. Entry to the building itself and various parts of its lower floors is monitored by nothing more than a surveillance camera.

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The Young and the Jobless

Part 1 of series, “Getting By”

Winner, 2006 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism
Finalist, 2006 Livingston Award for Young Journalists

City Limits • March/April 2005

One in five.

That’s how many of New York City’s young adults, ages 16 to 24, are not working and are not going to school. Only a few of them are even looking for jobs. There are 200,000 in all–the approximate population of Richmond, Virginia.

There have always been young people for whom high school failed, and work was out of reach, but the sheer numbers have never been greater, according to new research from the Community Service Society of New York. The problem is not New York’s alone: The number of young adults whom policymakers call “disconnected” is surging nationwide.

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Clean Bill of Health

City Limits • March/April 2005

Private employers could soon be forced to provide health insurance for their workers, under a new bill moving steadily toward City Council approval.

The Health Care Security Act, introduced last fall, would require private employers in five industries–large groceries, industrial laundries, hotels, building services and construction–to either provide insurance or pay into a citywide fund that would do it for them. Still in the early stages of negotiation, the bill has strong support; at press time it boasted 39 council sponsors, enough to survive a mayoral veto.

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The Big Idea: TANF Taketh Away

City Limits • January/February 2005

It’s been a while since welfare reform was news. When the federal law backing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) expired in 2001, the chatter about what to change petered out as legislators merely extended the legislation for a few months. Since then, the same process–anxious expectation, legislative wrangling, stalling and ultimately a simple extension–has been repeated eight times. In the meantime, the subject of welfare has all but vanished from public debate.

Welfare will be back on the Washington agenda as early as March, when the current extension will expire. Freed from election-year concerns, an emboldened White House and Congress are poised to push through a Republican remake of the Clinton-era welfare law.

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Health Care for Caregivers

City Limits • January/February 2005

For New York’s nannies, good health care is often a luxury. Paid too well to qualify for government insurance, yet too poor to afford private insurance, they do what millions of workers do: Try not to get sick. That could soon change, however, thanks to a new effort to get them insured. And it’s not the city, or the nannies themselves, that will be footing the bill. It’s the families that employ them.

That would be great, says Michelle Cornwall, who’s worked as a New York nanny since immigrating here from Grenada in 1993. Like many nannies, she hasn’t managed to get her immigration paperwork together, and hence is paid under the table. And though she does file taxes, she doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. “I’ve never had health insurance on any of my jobs,” says Cornwall. “You go to the doctor, you pay for it on your own.”

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The Big Idea: The Poverty Paradox

City Limits • December 2004

When the latest poverty statistics came out in August, the numbers didn’t make very big waves. With the Republican Party roaring into New York, the fact that poverty had gone up nationally–no surprise for an economy just creeping out of a recession–barely made it to the local news at all. But a close look at New York City’s share of the numbers showed a quirk: Poverty here didn’t go up. It stayed flat.

Even more curious were the unemployment numbers. Though poverty didn’t go up in the Big Apple, unemployment plowed steadily upward; in September, it was 6.9 percent. Nationally, unemployment also rose, but on a much smaller scale. Nothing like what one would expect. After all, the more people lose jobs, the more people should be poor; and if fewer people are losing jobs, then fewer people should fall into poverty–right?

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The Union Builder

City Limits • December 2004

Do-gooders, beware: Lavon Chambers has his eye on you. Or, more specifically, on your workers. The 39-year-old union organizer is setting out to conquer one of labor’s frontiers, nonprofit staff.

But if you’re expecting traditional union gripes to drive this campaign–low pay, long hours, fix it or we walk–you’d better take a second look. “I have workers that say, ‘They can’t afford to pay me for 60, 70 hours, and that’s okay,” says Chambers, who entered the union movement after a stint as a community organizer challenging it. Many nonprofit workers are willing to deal with tough working conditions because of the social mission, says Chambers. And that social commitment is exactly what he hopes to gain by getting nonprofit workers to join the Laborers Union. His campaign to organize nonprofits aims to build bridges between grassroots groups and organized labor, heightening both groups’ political power.

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Big Idea: Work Details

City Limits • November 2004

New Yorkers always want the best. And usually, we get it. We’ve got the tallest buildings, the tastiest street food, the lowest crime, the hottest ball teams. But when it comes to making sure poor people can stay afloat on meager paychecks, New York is not always at the top of the heap.

Our poor can get job training, tax breaks, health insurance and other resources to help them get by. We offer one of the nation’s most generous state tax credits for the working poor, and New York City just upped the ante by adding its own. We offer high-quality public child care. And two-thirds of qualified adults are enrolled in public health care programs–well above the national average.

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