Assistance for the poor and unemployed has taken
many forms in the history of the United States.
Heavily influenced by the Poor Laws of England,
government programs for the indigent and poor were
community based during the 19th Century. In addition to
the government programs, there were numerous self-help
organizations, often religious and ethnically based, caring
for the sick, unemployed and orphaned.
In the 20th Century, The Great Depression of the 1930’s
caused massive unemployment, and the federal government
intervened with work and public relief programs. The
federal programs began small and were basically limited to
widows and orphans.
Simultaneously, with the advent of federal assistance, a
philosophical belief in the effectiveness of government to
train and transform lives gained acceptance. Influenced by
Hegel and the Progressive era, the concept was that neutral
bureaucrats could teach and mold people to become better
citizens. An educated and knowledgeable bureaucrat could
better train and develop Americans. An improvement over
the haphazard guidance provided by family and community.
American universities began to educate and train social
workers to assist the poor.
In the 1960’s, concerned about persistent black poverty,
President Kennedy believed there was structural poverty in
America. In 1964 President Johnson declared war on poverty.
The federal government developed a plethora of training and
educational programs. The combination of money, social
workers and middle class guilt propelled The Great Society.
Poverty was going to be eliminated in America. Conservatives
and liberals endorsed training the poor to be self-sufficient.
Along with the training programs there were increases in
welfare grants which eventually became entitlements to any
unemployed, unmarried person with a child.
The results were devastating. Generally training
programs failed to develop work skills that assisted people
to work. Additionally there was no government demand
that welfare recipients obtain work. There was talk of
self-sufficiency but no directive to obtain work. Generous
welfare stipends and medical benefits were considered to
be better than entry-level jobs. Few people entered the
workforce and the welfare caseload steadily climbed.
The guarantee of money and medical benefits to
unmarried persons with children born out-of-wedlock
sharply increased the number of children being raised by
a single parent. Generally children without the benefit of
a two-parent family do worse in social, emotional and
educational development. Many of the adults and their
children became mired in dysfunctional behavior of alcohol
and drug abuse. Tragically a couple of generations of children lacked the personal and educational development
to be competent citizens in American society.
Middle class America became indifferent to the needs of
the poor. With the wide array of government programs, the
middle-class American reasoned that the problems of society
were being attended to by the professional social worker. And
middle-class America conveniently ignored the problems
of poverty. Simultaneously, with the advent of government
programs, the self-help community organizations steadily
faded away and essentially disappeared.
During the 1980’s, America still believed training and
education would solve the problems of poverty. But there
was a growing awareness that the war on poverty was failing.
There was no consensus on why or what to do. Generally,
American liberals called for changing the training programs
and a few conservatives called for work programs. The large
bureaucracies of social workers and sympathetic university
professors were the most vocal advocating for different
approaches to training, and the intellectual debate on cures
to poverty faltered and stalled. However, state politicians
foresaw looming financial crisis with skyrocketing cost of
welfare and Medicare. In 1988, the Family Support Act
allowed for state experimentations with work programs.
The work-first demonstrations were successful, resulting
in The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act of 1996 (1996 Welfare Reform). The
1996 Welfare Reform gave states flexibility to develop
work programs, set time limits on welfare, cap benefits
to women who have additional children, diversions from
entering welfare and sanctions (penalties) for failure to
participate. Again, the bureaucracies and university elites
were sure the work programs would fail and children and
families would be severely damaged. They were wrong.
The 1996 Welfare Reform, setting time limits and requiring
work, changed behavior. Welfare recipients, predominately
women, obtained employment and increased their income.
As income has increased, poverty for the mother and her
children declined. The explosive growth of out of wedlock
and teen birth-rates stopped.
What changed the behavior? Work requirements, time
limits, diversion programs and strong sanctions for failure
to participate changed behavior. Instead of living off public
assistance people became productive and managed their lives.
Where is America today? The federal government
recently passed stronger work and sanction requirements.
Research shows that work, time limits and sanctions
change behavior. The federal government is requiring the
states to increase their work participation. Today, with the
favorable results, few politicians and university professors
are predicting gloom and doom.
Besides the government emphasis on work, secular and
religious organizations are beginning to develop separate
programs. Focusing on assisting the whole person, groups
are forming to mentor the poor. Often working with the most
difficult, the homeless and friendless. The most effective
programs are programs that develop simple work skills,
e.g., honesty, dependability, civility, and cooperation. More
important these community organizations provide a mentor
that assists the client in the transition to employment.
Mentoring takes many forms. Kimi Gray, a former welfare
recipient, mentored her associates in public housing all
by herself. Cincinnati Works, a secular work placement
organization, has job coaches that train, place and follow-up
with employers and clients. Jobs for Life, uses biblical text,
to train people for employment, and then has a member of the
church “walk” with the client for 18 months as they transition
into work and self-directed lives. These groups are having
excellent results in securing and maintaining employment.
A mentor is a neighbor that guides and counsels
a person. A mentor is a friend that assists a person in
making decisions concerning work, education, family and
community. Rather than a social worker that originally was
educated to develop and mold a better citizen, a mentor is
a friend that assists a friend to develop the their skills and
cope with the vagaries of life.
What caused the revival of mentors and self-help
organizations? The community (regular people – not
politician, academics or policy experts) recognized their
neighbors had been lured into a life of indifference and
disrespect for themselves. Thus, neighbors observing the
dysfunction of their neighbors began mentoring friends and
Why did the government program fail? America spent
twice as much on the War on Poverty than it did to fight
World War II, but it failed and harmed generations of adults
and children. It failed because the premise was wrong. A
neutral government social worker cannot mold and develop
a better citizen. As unsystematic as neutering is by parents,
family and community, it is superior to a designed system
run by the government. I do not know when the belief
in the neutral social worker faded, probably in the Ford
presidency in the mid 1970’s. Unfortunately, by then the
institutionalized bureaucracy shifted the discussion from
molding and developing model citizens to low- income
people having material needs. The mantra was the inequity
and the inadequacy of capitalism.
Institutions are very powerful and government
institutions are more powerful. They have a monopoly
of power. Utilizing their influence and power the state
and federal welfare bureaucracies morphed themselves into being the protectors of the poor. And incrementally
developed rules and regulation legally guaranteeing income
and health care to all unmarried and unemployed parents
with a child. And, of course, there was a multitude of other
services, e.g., housing and food.
Ultimately, the state welfare institutions became
functionaries. The caseworker verified eligibility and
providing money and services. They did not treat clients as
individuals. They treated people as a member of a group in
accordance with laws and regulations.
Additionally, the government programs failed because
the social worker did not believe their clients could
improve. The caseworker reinforced the client’s concept of
inadequacy. To the contrary, Kimi Gray, who changed an
entire community of neighbors from welfare dependence to
productive and self-directed lives, knew that her illiterate
neighbors could become productive. Dave Philips, the
founder of Cincinnati Works, learned very early, what Kimi
Gray knew instinctively. Cincinnati works nearly failed
because the job coach, who placed people in work, did not
believe the people could succeed. When Philips found job
coaches that believe their friends could succeed Cincinnati
Works succeeded. Naturally, this is why neighbors mentoring
neighbors is so successful. They believe all humans have
worth, have skills and can progress.
Finally, what is the future of assistance to the poor in
America? I do not know. America does not have a clear
concept of the future of welfare. For the role of government
the results and academic analysis favor work, time limits
and sanctions. The Bush Administration and a couple of
powerful members of congress were able to mandate the
recent changes. However there is major resistance from
the state social workers that want to continue supplying
money and services. The bureaucracy will passively and
aggressively thwart the mandates of the law. Unfortunately
the institutional influence of the welfare providers is greater
than the knowledge and interest of the American voters.
Certainly the community organizations will expand.
Ultimately, financial burdens will force the states to find
alternatives, and will dismantle the welfare bureaucracy.
Eventually, the federal government will probably cease
being involved, and America will return to a system of local
government and self-help organizations. Unfortunately, it
will not occur soon enough for poor lured and trapped in a
Following are longer descriptions of the community
groups lead by Kimi Gray, Cincinnati Works, and Jobs for
Life. New York Way, an excellent and successful program in
New York City, is also a model for government programs.
Kimi was a very large African-American woman. Kimi
had five children by the time she was 19 years of age and
had no stable man in her or her children’s life. By the time she was in her mid-thirties, Kimi was living in a deteriorated public-housing project (Kenilworth Parkside), teaming with uneducated and unemployed mothers with many children. Men occasionally visited their girl friends, usually bringing drugs and violence.
Recognizing that work was essential to being a free and
self-directed person, Kimi educated, organized and lead her
fellow residents from poverty to productivity; from recipients
of public housing to ownership; from fear of her neighbors
to living in stable and nurturing community; from children
without fathers to children with participating fathers. Kimi
Gray assisted individuals, families and her community to
becoming productive and choosing their life careers.
Why was Kimi successful? She recognized and
appreciated that every person has talents, and can organize
and control their lives, be productive and be a significant
member of society.
How did Kimi lead this transformation? First, Kimi locked
the public housing managers out and took over running the
project. Next Kimi went to neighbors and asked, “what are
your desires, what do you want to do, how do you want to
live.” Kimi appreciated the value and rewards of work.
A few years ago, Kimi related to me how she started
with her neighbors. The following is paraphrased: “I asked
her what she wanted to be. She wanted to be a nurse. I next
asked if she could read or write. She couldn’t. Then I made
a deal with her. I would teach her to read and write and
she would work as an orderly in the local hospital. Next
I went to the hospital and talked with the management. I
was blunt. I told them they had two choices. Either hire my
neighbor or they would see her repeatedly in the operating
room as a non-paying patient. The hospital hired her.”
Gradually Kimi’s neighbors became employed and
learned to read and write, to organize and direct their lives.
Kimi and her neighbors at Kenilworth Parkside convinced
the federal government to sell them the public housing.
Instead of receiving free housing they became owners. It
was through ownership of, responsibility for, and control
of their housing that Kimi believed residents would
improve their education, economic well-being and family
functioning. Kimi was correct and at the time of her death
in 2000, Kenilworth Parkside had an average of more than
one college student per unit in the 464-unit development.
In 1993, as welfare reform was just beginning in the
United States of America, Kimi wrote the following about
America’s welfare system and its effects:
Welfare helps people get by but in doing so it
programs them to be dependent. First it predicts, then
enables, then dictates dependent behavior. It assumes
you will be satisfied with a handout, as though living
on the dole is all you’re good for.
Well, I’m good for a lot more than that, and so is
everyone I know. When I was 19, I was a single mother
with five children living on welfare in a run-down, crimeridden
public housing project in Washington, D.C.
Now, 28 years later, I still live in the same location, but
it’s a different place. That public housing project is now a
residential development owned and operated by its residents.
Crime is virtually non-existent, teenage pregnancies are
rare, and few of the residents are on welfare, and then only
for a short time.
I am president of the Kenilworth Parkside Resident
Management Corporation, a multi-million dollar property
management firm, and my five children all are college
graduates and productive citizens.
As we residents of Kenilworth Parkside fought our
way out of poverty we found that the biggest barrier to our
progress was the welfare system itself; a morass of rules
and regulations that penalized us if we got jobs, formed
families, or tried to create small businesses or meet our own
social, health, and educational service needs.
The anti-work, anti-family welfare rules are still in place,
and the bureaucrats are still there to make life miserable for
anyone who dares to dream of escaping the poverty trap.
Kimi was a very talented and gifted person, and it is
unreasonable to expect all persons on public assistance to be
so successful. However, the thousands of welfare recipients
she assisted had a variety of talents and backgrounds. Kimi’s
approach was successful because her knowledge of people and
poverty is universal. People do have talents; people will make
positive choices and will become productive citizens. Further,
people take pride in ownership, especially their homes.
Cincinnati Works and Dave Philips
Dave Phillips is a very successful and retired certified
public accountant that founded Cincinnati Works. Phillips’
accounting career caused him to observe thousands of
employment institutions in many diverse cultures. A keen
observer of employment, the economy and society, Phillips
appreciates that an unemployed person in our global market
economy is not a full citizen. A market economy expects
people to be self-directed, productive and exchange ideas,
goods and services. Unfortunately, an unemployed person
withdraws from exchanging ideas, goods and services,
and hence is not equal to an employed person. Phillips has
dedicated his energy, time and money to employ all persons
Phillips, studious and observant by nature, researched
the various models of assisting people to employment.
Cincinnati Works, which is privately funded, has a very
sophisticated system of putting people into work ready
classes and placing people in employment with one of about
fifty prearranged employers. Philips has a very capable
staff that assists people with work readiness skills, legal
difficulties and emotional problems. Further Cincinnati
Works has job coaches that are available to mediate between
employer and employee.
Again, Philips is an excellent accountant. He measures
performance–what works and what isn’t working. However,
even with all the studious preparation, Cincinnati Works
nearly failed in the beginning. Why? Philips had studied
all the various ideas, especially the human capital model and work first. What went awry? The job coach, the person
placing the potential worker, did not believe the worker
could improve. They didn’t believe the person could
improve, stay employed and be self-sufficient. Philips had
to find job coaches that believed, just as Kimi Gray knew,
that every person has talents and can organize and control
their lives, be productive, and be a significant member of
Humans seek to improve. Unfortunately, most people
working with the impoverished and unemployed do not
believe their clients can improve. And the job coaches’ lack
of faith in their client severely reduces work opportunities
for their clients.
Philips corrected this error. He hired job coaches that
believed their clients would improve. And today, Cincinnati
Works is the most successful organization in America,
placing people into work and maintaining employment.
Once Cincinnati Works hired job coaches that believe
their clients would improve they focused on maintaining
employed. The job coaches interacted with their client
and the employer, assisting and insuring the transition to
Without data or research, but with many years of
observation, I proffer that most government bureaucrats
throughout the world lack faith that their clients can
improve. Thus, the majority of government programs fail.
Jobs For Life
Founded in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jobs for Life is a
faith-based program, working with people without job skills or
a history of work. Jobs for Life is biblically based and teaches
the social skills needed to obtain and maintain employment:
promptness, civility, honesty, and accepting supervision. Most
important, Jobs of Life provides a mentor from their church
that “walks” with their neighbor seeking work for 18 months.
The mentor is a friend that helps the person seeking work to
cope with financial, emotional and transitional issues that often
bewilder a person beginning work.
Because of the strong mentoring assistance, Jobs for
Life has excellent success in maintaining people in work.
The combination of work and mentoring most effectively
assists people in a life of self-sufficiency and satisfaction.
The following is how Jobs for Life describes their
mission and approach.
Jobs for Life is a rapidly expanding movement rooted
in the guiding principle that to lift people out of joblessness,
hopelessness, despair, poverty and the roadblocks of circumstance, they need far more than just a job. They need
to have a life. A life filled with understanding, confidence,
self-control, coaching, learning, guidance, and faith.
They begin building this life, with our help, by
connecting with their community, by becoming part of it,
drawing strength from its support, accepting responsibility,
and by giving of themselves in whatever ways they can.
We believe that just finding a job for someone who needs
a job–without providing much more–has never worked, no
matter how many times it’s been tried. We believe people
in poverty, in confusion, who need a way out, who need a
job, must first be willing to build a life around and within
We believe that just finding a job for someone who
needs a job—without providing much more—has never
worked, no matter how many times it’s been tried. Jobs for
Life mobilizes community and faith-based organizations,
churches, business leaders, small business people, local
government and to engage in this work through their resources, their job opportunities, their time, their love,
their counsel, and by serving as mentors, as coaches to
those who are building new lives.
This is the ultimate expression of neighbors helping
neighbors. And this is why it works. We are not only helping
people live again, we are also helping all those companies who are fortunate to hire them. Because we are building
a remarkably stable, dependable, committed, loyal, ethical
and productive workforce.
Studies show that Jobs for Life graduates keep and
grow in their jobs with a higher rate of job retention
than those of virtually every other jobs program.
New York City – Strong Mayor – Strong Administrator
Welfare reform, that reverses years of government
created dependence and dysfunction, requires strong
political direction and an excellent administration that
clearly signals work and the benefits of employment to
recipients and welfare staffs. Mayor Giuliani of New York
City empowered Jason Turner, Administrator of Human
Resources Administration (HRA), to implement NYC WAY
designed to encourage self-reliance and accountability.
Since March 1998 NYC began emphasizing “work
first” and began converting welfare offices into Job
Centers. All eligible applicants entering a Job Center are
assisted in exploring and pursuing alternatives to welfare.
Assisted by an array of services, including employment
placement and childcare, Job Center Participants are
initially required to engage in a full time job search focused
on obtaining unsubsidized employment. Those who do not
find employment, participate in Work Experience Program
(WEP) combined with other education, training and job
search activities designed to help them achieve selfsufficiency.
Work Experience is a structured work assignment for
each participant who can work. WEP engages participants
in work activities throughout NYC, providing participants
with the opportunity to develop skills such as the ability to
work with colleagues, take directions, get to work on time,
and the capacity to complete assigned tasks. Participants
also learn to manage the demands of work and personal
NYC WAY requires all substance abusers to attend
treatment. In addition all substance abusers are required to
work as a part of treatment after a brief stabilization period.
During this time the participant is tracked for compliance.
The combination of treatment and work allows for positive
interaction with fellow employees and focuses the person
on accomplishing tasks, which encourages sobriety and
NYC WAY has converted the former welfare centers into
employment centers. Since July 1996, Business Link provides
a no-fee employment service to NYC employers. Business
Link provides companies with pre-screened, qualified
applicants who are job ready for entry-level employment in
areas such as retail and customer service, maintenance and
security, as well as data-entry and office administration. NYC
WAY recognizes that work and developing employment
skills and knowledge is the only sure means to climb out of
poverty and despair.
Business Link has an account manager that is assigned
to an employer, managing all aspects of the employer
A clear message to people receiving assistance:
You shall work
NYC Way clearly signaled to welfare recipients and
bureaucrats that helping people find work is essential for
individuals and families to improve their lives. Turner and
company required a retooling of the services from determining
eligibility and handing out money to finding employment
and taking care of the needs associated with employment.
The results have been exceptional.
Work Experince or Subsidized Work
Essential to helping people achieve independence is the
commitment to work even if a regular job is not available.
However, our experience shows that subsidized work with
mostly private employers is far superior to Work Experience
programs which often are make-work jobs. In the Full
Employment Program the employer provides a real job, a
mentor and the training necessary for the job. The participant
is a temporary employee and is expected to perform the
assigned duties. The obligations and rewards of meaningful
work enhances the skills, knowledge and interest necessary
to acquire hirer paying and permanent employment.
Author has been executive director of the American Institute for Full Employment since 1990. During his tenure, Mr. Abram has traveled the country advocating welfare reform. Testifying before many state assemblies and meeting with key political officials, he has helped implement elements of the Full Employment Program not only in Oregon but also in other 13 states.
Mr. Abram earned a B.S. in Economics from the University of Oregon and completed graduate work in economics in Stockholm, Sweden, before receiving his J.D. from Willamette University College of Law. Prior to joining the American Institute, Mr. Abram served 16 years as a Circuit Court Judge for the State of Oregon.
The lecture was presented at the Conservative Economic Quarterly Lecture Series (CEQLS) held by the Conservative Institute of M. R. ©tefánik in Bratislava on March 9, 2006.
The lecture is available pdf/Abram.pdfhere as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.