Free Ride

Getting people to work


Work First New Jersey inspired the top two welfare administrators for the Gloucester County Board of Social Services to try another line of work: acting. After the law passed in 1996, board director Carol Pirrotta and her deputy, William Gordon, put on a skit for the county Board of Supervisors in which they acted out the likely effects of the new law. Pirrotta played a woman in desperate need of financial help. Gordon, cast in the role of welfare worker, informed her that her five years were up and he had no help to offer. They brought down the house and were invited back for a command performance for the area's state legislators.

If asked to perform the same skit today, Gordon would rewrite the ending: He would give Pirrotta a car.

These days they get a bit giddy talking about welfare reform and what it has allowed them to do for their clients. Instead of giving them a tight script from which to read, the new law allowed them to improvise.

Gloucester is a rural county in the densely populated state of New Jersey. Unlike in Camden, which is connected to surrounding suburbs and Philadelphia by multiple bus routes and train lines, public transportation is not an attractive option for many of the county's far-flung clients. Prior to the reform, the system mandated that anybody engaged in a work or training activity be given $6 per workday for "transportation expenses." "Who knows what they did with this money?" says Gordon. He figures clients considered it a monthly cash bonus of $120. Post reform, however, Pirrotta and Gordon took this money and converted it into bus passes, which cost half as much. For individuals who live far from a bus stop, they created a jitney service that provided rides to bus stops.

Strangely, clients were somehow able to get to work when the option of government transportation was foisted upon them. Says Gordon, "All of a sudden they say, 'I think my uncle gave me a car last week.'" The jitney driver was at times as lonely as a Maytag repairman. That upset him but pleased Pirrotta and Gordon, who took the remaining money and convinced the state to let them go into the car business.

For clients who have held a job for three months straight but have severe transportation problems, Pirrotta and Gordon will buy a used car, pay New Jersey's high insurance rates for half a year, and even pay to clean up some non-DUI related driving fines. After six months, the clients are on their own for insurance and must start paying the state for the car. As of June, they've provided seven people with cars.

Carmela DeSilvio fits the profile of severe transportation needs. Before showing up to work at 9 a.m., she must get her four children to day care and school. At the end of the day, she reverses the drill. She lives in a rural development, so buses aren't a viable option. The 1989 Ford Taurus station wagon the county helped her purchase is. The car costs her $83 a month. After a year, it will be all hers. Six weeks of insurance costs $149.

DeSilvio first went on welfare for a brief spell in 1982, when as a junior in high school, she had her first daughter. She landed back on the rolls after her divorce in 1992. "I was pregnant and I needed money," she explains. She applied for welfare and food stamps. She received $488 for the former, roughly $300 for the latter, and moved in with her mom.

Today, DeSilvio works for the system, instead of being on it, helping current and former welfare mothers arrange day care. Her car allows her to get to work and get her kids to school and day care. A day care voucher pays a portion of her youngest child's day care bill, and she is eligible for a Medicaid extension, although her county job provides her with health insurance. She takes home $750 every two weeks and rents her own home, which she plans to purchase with the help of yet another government program. Her life is more stressful now—and the kids are more likely to eat hot dogs for dinner these days than a full home-cooked meal—but she's grateful to be off welfare. "It's a horrible life," she says of welfare. "It's really not enough money to do anything. You have to live with people. And the system controls everything."

By removing the barriers to work—in many cases, simply taking away people's excuses—Pirrotta and Gordon have put people like DeSilvio to work. Based on past boom times, Pirrotta figured the caseload would settle at 2,000. Since July 1997, though, the county's welfare rolls have dropped 65 percent, to just 686 cases.

When the reforms first got under way, observers assumed the decline in caseloads would level off quickly. Several years into reform, though, "people are still asking when will it end," says Pirrotta, her face breaking into a big smile.