Welfare-to-work requires cultural shift, panelists say

When President Clinton signed the welfare reform act into law last summer, it caused "shock and disbelief" at San Francisco's Jewish Family and Children's Services, said Amy Rassen, JFCS's associate executive director.

Though restrictions on SSI to elderly legal immigrants have recently been reversed at the federal level, said Rassen, that was only a short-term measure.

"It's going to come up again," she said, participating in a panel on welfare reform Thursday of last week. "From a Jewish point of view, this is not how we want to be treating elderly people…who are afraid."

Addressing an audience of 40 at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, Rassen described how, in the months after the act was signed, clients lined up around the block and deluged the JFCS office with calls.

Many of the clients were elderly Jews from the former Soviet Union. San Francisco has recently resettled 25,000 ex-Soviet Jews, 6,000 of whom are elderly, said Rassen. At the time, those legal immigrants stood to lose their Supplemental Security Income under the new welfare laws unless they could pass a citizenship exam.

Rassen also mentioned younger JFCS clients, whose AFDC benefits were threatened under the new laws. Telling the welfare-to-work story of a Jewish single mother, she illustrated JFCS' creative response to the crisis.

The woman had secured a job delivering mail but needed support to deal with her hyperactive 4-year-old. Since she could not afford to take time off from her new job, a JFCS caseworker met her twice a week during her mail delivery rounds.

Giving the Jewish context for JFCS' work, Rassen quoted the 12th-century scholar Rambam, who defined eight levels of tzedakah, or charity.

"The highest level, above which there is no other, is that of the person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan, by accepting him into a business partnership or by giving him employment," said Rassen.

Panel member Abby Snay, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services, echoed the need for employment and said that "moving people from welfare to work means a cultural shift and a cultural change."

Snay reported that approximately two-thirds of JVS clients were on some public assistance and that JVS faces "a tremendous challenge" in coming years. She reported "the beginning of some very creative linkages" between social service agencies and businesses.

JVS itself, she said, is teaming up with Pacific Bell to "prepare people for PacBell jobs." Snay also cited a collaborative program between PG&E and City College to provide training for clerical jobs.

Panelist Elliot Hoffman, president of Just Desserts, addressed the role of the corporate community. Hoffman, who received a $2,500 loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Association to start his business, recently served as co-chair on Mayor Willie Brown's Welfare Reform Task Force.

He reported a spirit of collaboration at the task force meetings, saying that participants "had dropped their self-interest hats and asked, `What are we going to do for this group of people that's having the rug pulled from under them?'"

The result, said Hoffman, was major welfare-to-work initiatives coming from the private sector. The city's 21 largest employers had formed a jobs committee to raise $3.5 million for job training, and the Small Business Network was partnering with the Roberts Foundation to match ex-welfare recipients with appropriate employers.

All panel members agreed that the Welfare Reform Act was "pretty terrible legislation." Striking a positive note, Hoffman said, "As citizens of San Francisco, we can be proud of the city's response."

Summing up the Jewish response to the crisis, Snay said, "The Jewish community has a responsibility to the broader community…to make welfare reform work, and to build a stronger community for all of us."

Other panel members were Joe Wilson, associate director of Coleman Advocates for Youth, and William Lightborne, director of San Francisco's Department of Human Services. The panel was sponsored by the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club.