No Words Wasted Sale

Saturday, May 4th, 2002


Hands to Work: The Stories of Three Families Racing the Welfare Clock

by LynNell Hancock

A review by Leah Bobal

Using personal stories and historical background, LynNell Hancock puts a face behind our nation’s welfare statistics. "Hands to Work," her first book, published in early 2002, comes at a critical time: the federal law establishing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant expires at the end of September. The Bush administration wants to modify this grant, along with other policies first created under the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996. (Read: welfare reform)

For the three women profiled in "Hands to Work," the welfare clock is constantly ticking. And that ticking grows louder with every new obstacle they face under the US’s attempt at reform.

Alina Zukina, a Russian refugee from Moldova, begins her race against the welfare clock at a crossroads; she must choose between working for her welfare benefits or pursuing her education and losing her safety net. Brenda Fields, a mother of two, struggles to even find a job while keeping her kids sheltered and schooled. A mother of four and a heroin addict, Christine Rivera finds her path to recovery and independence halted by the new welfare rules.

"Could be worse," welfare recipient Zukina says of her current situation as an immigrant trying to balance the requirements of America's welfare system with her future goals. Hancock follows Zukina as she stomps through New York City's mean streets to attend medical school and work her 22-hour a week job. Her job "fulfilled the mayor's social contract, paying the public back for the $170 a month it gave her in welfare benefits." But it also slowed Zukina's efforts to get a degree and become fully independent. At one point, she even gets knocked off the rolls because the Human Resources Administration loses her time card.

President Bush is proposing to increase the number of hours welfare recipients must work and to raise the number of welfare recipients who must have jobs. Right now recipients are supposed to spend 30 hours a week in work or related activities. Bush wants to raise that to 40 hours a week, 24 hours in a job and 16 hours in training or other work-related activities designated by the states. How these new policies will affect recipients like Zukina — already mired in a sea of red tape — remains to be seen.

What is certain from reading "Hands to Work" is that welfare reform in America will always be a contentious political issue. Hancock chooses well in chronicling the lives of those working under New York's welfare-to-work programs as New York was the epicenter of welfare reform under former Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In his first few years in office, Giuliani set up programs to thin the welfare rolls — from 1995 to 1996, 150,000 recipients were dropped off the welfare rolls dropped. A year later, 350,000 had fled the rolls, according to Hancock. But the city could not document how many of these people actually found self-sustaining jobs, she adds.

Critics lambasted the Giuliani administration, calling his new "Workfare" program a "forced-labor system." Giuliani stood his ground however, arguing that "New Yorkers were on welfare because they felt trapped in a system that left them with no incentive to do for themselves," Hancock writes.

Through the nuances and details of daily life Hancock shows us a different reality. Welfare recipients — at least the three women featured herein — are busy, their lives complex. They are not "welfare queens." For three years, we are with Brenda Fields as she tries to find another home, another job. We're with Christine Rivera while she gets her kids to school, then to the welfare office, then to her son's daycare, then to meetings with caseworkers and housing experts.

"This new welfare world is an emerging, untested social experiment," Hancock writes, "one that has the potential to define what kind of nation we want to be, what kind of government we think is most fair. It's a political story. It's an economic story. It's a story about social reinvention. But in the end it is simply a human saga. It is about ordinary Americans trying to make a life for themselves, caught by an accident of timing in the wake of a social experiment meant to change the course of their lives."

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