The Magic Bureaucrat and His Riverside Miracle

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
20 years ago, back in 1996, a crowd of reporters and politicians gathered in the White House Rose Garden.

Bill Clinton:
“Thank you, Mr. Vice President.”

Roman Mars:
President Bill Clinton stepped up to the podium and announced that he was signing a landmark bill. It would dramatically redesign welfare, the $16 billion government program that millions of poor Americans relied on for basic support.

Bill Clinton:
“Today, we are ending welfare as we know it.”

Roman Mars:
In this as well as in other press conferences, Clinton made it clear that a central tenant to his redesign was the idea of welfare to work.

Bill Clinton:
“First and foremost, it should be about moving people from welfare to work.”

Roman Mars:
This new reform said that in order to collect welfare, recipients would need to work at a job.

Bill Clinton:
“To transform a broken system, that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence. To give people on welfare a chance to draw a paycheck, not a welfare check.”

Roman Mars:
This whole idea of a paycheck, not a welfare check. Work, not welfare. It’s relatively familiar to us now, but there’s a complicated backstory behind how it came to be at the center of the reforms that President Clinton passed that day in 1996, reforms that still affect many people today.

Krissy Clark:
Over the last 20 years, the number of families living in deep poverty on less than $2 a day is rising and most of them don’t receive welfare.

Roman Mars:
That’s Krissy Clark, the senior correspondent for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk. She has been researching the history of welfare reform for a podcast series called ‘The Uncertain Hour’ and today we’re presenting an adaptation of the first episode from that series. It’s about a guy who basically pioneered the work, not welfare reform. A guy who came to be known as.

Krissy Clark:
The magic bureaucrat.

Larry Townsend:
My name is Lawrence Townsend.

Krissy Clark:
Larry for short. Larry is 79, retired. He’s got close-cropped white hair, broad shoulders, and a serious face with one of those Army General smiles that never quite turns up at the edges. Today, Larry lives in a beach town in California where he drives around in a green Cadillac Seville that has a brass frame around the license plate and etched into the brass. It says –

Larry Townsend:
‘Life works if you work.’

Krissy Clark:
Larry loves work. Just the idea of it. He has a binder full of work ethics slogans that he’s collected over the years.

Larry Townsend:
These are from famous quotes from all over the world.

Krissy Clark:
Alphabetically. Memorized by you.

Larry Townsend:
Yeah. In fact, there’s something that I want to just show you.

Krissy Clark:
He starts with A.

Larry Townsend:
Aristotle suggested that happiness results from meaningful activity.

Krissy Clark:
Goes all the way down to T.

Larry Townsend:
Tolstoy declared it’s a duty of each man to earn his living by the sweat of his brow and callous hands makes independent and virtuous men. Now that was a little sexist, but the point is very valid.

Roman Mars:
And just as much as Larry Townsend loves the idea of hard work, he hates welfare programs.

Larry Townsend:
I’ve seen so much damage to people that are on welfare. They have no hope for a better future and they aren’t setting a good example for their children.

Roman Mars:
Once when Larry was working in county government, he noticed two children in the welfare office waiting room, waiting for their mom and they were pretending to play welfare.

Larry Townsend:
One of the children was playing the welfare recipient. The other one was playing the eligibility worker. Now, you tell me they aren’t learning how to get on welfare.

Krissy Clark:
They were like… Like kids would play house.

Larry Townsend:
Playing house in the waiting room while their mother was in the office with the eligibility worker. Now, they’re catching on about the concept of getting on welfare. Now, that one hurt me.

Krissy Clark:
And then there’s the story about the two women he says he overheard in an elevator once.

Larry Townsend:
And this one said that the other one, “My oldest child is going to become 18 and I won’t get welfare benefits, you know, I need to get pregnant.”

Krissy Clark:
These are the kinds of anecdotes that get told and retold among critics of welfare. Individual moments that may not be typical of welfare recipients in general, but for critics, these stories represent all the failings of the system.

Roman Mars:
But in the late 1980s, Larry suddenly found himself in a position to change welfare in a big way. Because he became the head of a welfare department in a big suburban county east of L.A. called Riverside. The way he saw it, his role in the welfare office was –

Larry Townsend:
To invade and conquer. That was my attitude.

Krissy Clark:
Quick history lesson here. Since the Great Depression, when the program was first signed into law, welfare had worked pretty simply, at least in theory. If you were a single parent, if your family was poor enough and if you met a few other technical requirements, you qualified for a welfare check. End of story.

James Riccio:
There was little expectation that mothers would work.

Krissy Clark:
This is James Riccio, a sociologist who’s been studying welfare programs for most of his career and he’s talking about this crazy flip-flop that happened over the years around who we thought deserved welfare. When the program began, the whole point was to help single mothers, mostly widows at the time make ends meet so they could stay out of the workforce. Focus on raising their kids into productive citizens.

James Riccio:
But attitudes began to change, particularly in the 1970s and early 80s.

Krissy Clark:
Part of it had to do with the fact that more middle-class mothers were entering the workforce. So some were asking the question, what about mothers on welfare? Shouldn’t they have jobs too? Joe Hotz is a labor economist at Duke and he says, while most welfare moms did have jobs, at least on and off –

Joe Hotz:
There was this persistent group of largely single mothers who stayed on welfare for long periods of time, they didn’t work and are arguably had a life of dependence on welfare.

Roman Mars:
And that small, but persistent group of completely dependent welfare recipients started to get all this focus.

Joe Hotz:
There’s a lot of academic attention to this, certainly a lot of attention in policy circles to this “problem” of welfare dependence. And the view was that what’s key to changing this was to make changes in the welfare system, which encouraged people to work.

Krissy Clark:
But then the question was, how? Out in the suburbs of Riverside, California, Larry Townsend had some ideas and his county got a special waiver from state and federal authorities to try some of those ideas out.

Larry Townsend:
I was absolutely stunned that I was given freedom to design a program, to implement a program, to hire the staff that are needed. I felt like it was an honor, it was an opportunity and you had a chance to change the concept of welfare.

Krissy Clark:
Larry’s changes happened under a California pilot program called GAIN, short for Greater Avenues for Independence.

Roman Mars:
So at the time in the 80s, there was the standard welfare approach, which was like you make less than X amount and you get a welfare check every month. And there were two basic avenues counties could take to get more of their welfare families closer to financial independence. One was the education and training route. The idea here was to help poor single moms who’d often dropped out of high school to get more skills, maybe a GED, to fare better on the job market.

Krissy Clark:
But down in Riverside, Larry did not have much patience for that approach. His approach is much simpler.

Larry Townsend:
Get people into a job immediately.

Krissy Clark:
Don’t worry about are you trained enough or do you have enough education? Just get that job.

Larry Townsend:
We’re not going to train you for years. We’re not going to send you to school for years. We’re going to show you how to find a job.

Roman Mars:
No vocational training or GED. Just get in the workforce ASAP any way you can.

Krissy Clark:
You can still hear the conviction and Larry’s voice talking about this program almost 30 years later. Listen to it.

Larry Townsend:
How to find a job.

Krissy Clark:
And the point wasn’t defined a perfect job or even a well paying job.

Larry Townsend:
But at least your foot is in the door and how well you succeed from there is up to you.

Krissy Clark:
With an important catch.

Larry Townsend:
If you do not cooperate with us, we will take you off of welfare. Your children will still get money from us, but you won’t.

Krissy Clark:
To carry out his job-first plan, Larry restructured his welfare office to run job search classes and job clubs for welfare recipients.

Krissy Clark:
James Riccio and Joe Hotz, the sociologist and the economist we heard from a minute ago, both sat in on some of Riverside’s job clubs and they left an impression.

James Riccio:
Imagine people sitting in a circle, chairs in a circle, there’d be a job club leader who would talk about what it means to work, how to find a job.

Joe Hotz:
How do you approach potential employers? How do you dress?

James Riccio:
Dealing with testy supervisors.

Krissy Clark:
Eventually, the people on welfare would be handed a list of job leads and to telephone and told to start calling around and asking for jobs. Here’s Joe Hotz again.

Joe Hotz:
And there’s a whiteboard, right? So somebody would get us an interview and it would go up on the board and everybody would pause at various points in cheer, right? This is like going to, these WeightWatchers meetings where I lost 15 pounds, right? I got a job offer. And that sense of this is exciting, we’re doing something that’s really important and novel, you could see had an impact on the recipients who were involved in these job clubs.

Krissy Clark:
But those job clubs, the cheers and the whiteboards and a WeightWatchers vibe, they were just the beginning of Larry’s plans for the welfare recipients of Riverside. Larry says his vision was a much bigger.

Larry Townsend:
In fact, welfare recipients with a positive attitude with the beauty and glory of work. And so I became sort of like a preacher for work.

Roman Mars:
This was a campaign to change hearts and minds and get people excited about getting a job, which involved a lot of marketing.

Larry Townsend:
Booklets, posters, billboards.

Krissy Clark:
Full of welfare-to-work slogans.

Larry Townsend:
Success stands on your backbone, not your wishbone. Action turn dreams into realities. Get into gears, start a career.

Krissy Clark:
The messages were printed on bumper stickers to catch the eye of a welfare recipient walking through the welfare office parking lot on buttons that the welfare intake workers would pin to their lapels.

Larry Townsend:
A person who aims at nothing has a target he can’t make. Be proud of honest labor. Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it.

Roman Mars:
But even if you somehow miss these messages on the bumper stickers and posters and pins and outside of envelopes, it was especially hard to miss it.

Larry Townsend:
I thought music is a very inspirational form of communication.

Krissy Clark:
And so Larry made this CD called “Work Makes the Difference.” He used $2,000 of taxpayer money, no authorization to record it.

Larry Townsend:
I figured I might get fired over it.

Krissy Clark:
But he didn’t. This is the first track, the title track.

Song Clip:
“Will your children be the next generation…”

Krissy Clark:
The music was made to be played in welfare waiting rooms over the PA system to be the hold the music when people called up the welfare offices. It would play during voicemail greetings. I have to say since I first heard these songs, I cannot get them out of my head. There are 10 songs in all, different genres to appeal to different demographics. Larry says there’s a song that features a whole rap section.

Song Clip:
“Supporting yourself is helping yourself. You’ve got to have some dignity and pride…”

Krissy Clark:
And then there’s a song with a kind of slow reggae jam.

Song Clip:
“Time to get back on your feet. So don’t you wait for your ship to come in. Take a hold of the future.”

Krissy Clark:
And then there’s a jazzy Andrews Sisters 40s style thing that’s very hard not to snap your fingers too.

Song Clip:
“Doo Wop, Doo Wop, Doo Wop. Doo Wop, Doo Wop, Wow.
If you think you can’t get a job, there’s nothing to it.
You gotta work real hard to stay on top to get to it.
Doo Wop, Doo Wop, Doo Wop. Doo Wop, Doo Wop, Wow.
If you think you can’t get a job, there’s nothing to it.
You gotta work real hard to stay on top to get to it.”

Krissy Clark:
But we’re not done yet. There are also three different versions of a song called ‘Feels So Good To Have a Job.’

Song Clip:
“Feels so good to have a job.”

Krissy Clark:
Country.

Song Clip:
“Feels so good, feels so good.”

Krissy Clark:
Urban contemporary. And for the Spanish-speaking audience-

Song Clip:
(singing in Spanish)

Roman Mars:
And all these songs were written, composed, produced and recorded by the staff of the Department of Public Social services or SPSS, which was the welfare department that Larry Townsend ran.

Keith Rogers:
What happened was he sent out a memo-

Krissy Clark:
So like a paper memo.

Keith Rogers:
Yeah, a paper memo. It was an all-staff memo.

Krissy Clark:
Keith Rogers was working in the mailroom of DPSS back then. His job was to send out the welfare checks that according to one of the songs, he would later write, welfare recipients should be envisioning in their past. The memo from Larry said he was looking for volunteers to take some of the work ethic slogans he’d collected and put them to music, turn them into songs.

Roman Mars:
Keith was a musician. The mailroom thing was just his day job. So when he saw this all-staff memo, he was like-

Keith Rogers:
Oh, I got a chance to do my thing. Let me just go up and whip something up and then submit it to Larry Townsend.

Krissy Clark:
So after work, Keith sketched out a melody. He still remembers it.

Keith Rogers:
“Welfare is temporary. Not our way of life.” (sings)

Krissy Clark:
And he sent a demo over to Larry.

Keith Rogers:
He loved it and next thing I know, I’m up in his office. He says, you’re not doing mail right now. You’re going to be a producer. You’re going to produce my CD.”And I’m like, wow!

Krissy Clark:
Six months in the studio later with $2,000 of taxpayer money and musical contributions from the mailroom on up through county social workers and they had their CD. It’s worth pointing out that before he’d worked in the mailroom, Keith had actually been on government assistance himself back when he was struggling to make it as a musician and in between gigs.

Keith Rogers:
Yeah. I mean I receive food stamps, you know, but that was just something that I needed until I became gainfully employed. That was not anything that I wanted to depend upon.

Krissy Clark:
It was temporary, not a way of life.

Keith Rogers:
Oh, I knew it wasn’t a way of life. Try to live off food stamps.

Roman Mars:
Keith was already on board with the message that getting a job was important and he was game to spread the word.

Keith Rogers:
You’re hearing that, you end up being pumped all over in the system there. And then you might call at some of the welfare offices and they put you on hold. You hear ‘welfare is a temporary way of life. And I’m thinking, you play certain things over and over again it does have a subliminal effect. It’s, hey, guess what? I want to find this job.

Krissy Clark:
And whether it was the songs themselves or the buttons, the billboards, the bumper stickers, the job clubs or the jobs-first strategy altogether. Somehow Larry’s plan in Riverside seemed to work.

James Riccio:
The results in Riverside were the most impressive we had ever seen in a welfare-to-work program up to that time.

Krissy Clark:
This is sociologist James Riccio again. He was actually hired by the government to study Riverside’s jobs first program. His team followed the families who participated, tracked what happened to them for five years and compare that to what happened to families who stayed on the plain old welfare program where they just got checks, no job clubs or job pep talks. It turns out the ones who participated in the jobs-first program, five years later, they were doing way better.

James Riccio:
On average had earnings that were 42% higher than those who were assigned to the control group.

Krissy Clark:
They were making 42% more money than the families who hadn’t gotten any of the jobs-first stuff. James also compared the people who went through the jobs-first program in Riverside to people who lived in other parts of the state that emphasized education-first and the Riverside jobs-first group came out on top in that comparison too. Five years later, they were employed more and had higher wages than the education-first group. And because of all of this –

James Riccio:
Larry Townsend, the director became a kind of star in this narrow world of welfare reform.

Krissy Clark:
But this narrow world of welfare reform was about to widen and play a very big role on the national stage. And Larry’s ‘get a job, any job’ approach for welfare recipients became known as-

James Riccio:
The Riverside Miracle.

Roman Mars:
The Riverside Miracle. The Riverside Department of Social Services received an award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Riverside Miracle got a lot of attention on the national news.

Krissy Clark:
And I’ll just read a few quotes here from the New York Times. “No program has done as much to raise the earnings of people on welfare as the one here Riverside County.”

Krissy Clark:
And from the LA Times. “Riverside is pursuing a notion so obvious as to be stupefying. If you want to get people off welfare, stay on their backs until they get a job.”

Larry Townsend:
They call me the Magic Bureaucrat or something and it was an editorial, a whole page with my picture on it. I couldn’t believe it. It was a little over the top.

Krissy Clark:
Larry has a framed copy of the editorial hanging in his house, but in all the news coverage, Larry’s thoughts about the welfare system sometimes revealed a more aggressive tone than the one you hear in those songs.

Krissy Clark:
In one article from 1993, he says that every time he sees a bag lady on the street, he wonders if it’s a mother on welfare who “hit the menopause wall” who can no longer reproduce and get money to support herself. I asked him about this quote.

Larry Townsend:
Please don’t go there.

Krissy Clark:
Well, it is out in the public record. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to-

Larry Townsend:
Well, it’s been out in the record eons ago. No, I don’t know about the need to clarify it further.

Krissy Clark:
Well, since we’re going into history, part of this whole story is about the history of it.

Larry Townsend:
I’d you’ve done your job in that regard.

Krissy Clark:
Okay.

Krissy Clark:
Larry clearly did not want to talk about this, but I still wanted to know whether he ever worried some of his welfare to work rhetoric might be hurtful to people. There is this tricky territory. It seems like in discussions around this where there can be stereotypes that come up or feelings of judgment.

Larry Townsend:
The examples that that talk about, it was a concept where I was concerned about ladies getting into an unfortunate situation and nobody ever helped them to discover how good they are.

Krissy Clark:
And that’s all he wanted to say. Regardless of what you think about Larry’s opinion of work and work ethics and how that applies to who’s on welfare and why, the fact is these opinions were widely embraced 20 years ago.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, Larry’s story, his Riverside Miracle started getting noticed in political arenas. The results in Riverside influence thinking among Republicans and Democrats.

Bob Packwood:
“Meeting will come to order. This is one of a continuing series”

Krissy Clark:
And in the years leading up to welfare reform, Larry flew to Washington, D.C. five different times to testify before Congress as they debated how to restructure this some $16 billion program.

Bob Packwood:
“If we have heard anything from the witnesses to date, it is work, work, work. That that will work better than anything else we might consider who attempt to cure what we would regard as the failure of welfare in the United States.”

Roman Mars:
That’s Republican Senator Bob Packwood from Oregon in 1995 just a year before welfare reform legislation would be signed into law impact. In Packwood’s eyes, the Riverside Miracle would be the key to fixing welfare.

Bob Packwood:
“Mr. Lawrence Townsend, who’s the director of the department of public social services in Riverside, one of the outstanding success examples in the country. Mr. Townsend?”

Krissy Clark:
And there Larry was in a dark suit with a big blue button pinned to his lapel. That read ‘self-sufficiency is supporting yourself’.

Larry Townsend:
“Thank you, honorable chairman Packwood.”

Krissy Clark:
Larry told the senators all about his welfare-to-work program in Riverside. All the ways he had enlisted his staff to promote it.

Larry Townsend:
“If you call Riverside County and nobody answers the phone, they’ll get a work ethic message. We have posters in the waiting room. We have produced a compact disc with work ethic music.”

Bob Packwood:
“Out of curiosity, what is work ethic music?”

Larry Townsend:
“We’ve produced a compact desk and we started a new singing group called the Ethics.”

Bob Packwood:
“Do you sing hi ho it’s off work we go?” (laughter)

Roman Mars:
Eventually, the laughter would die down and the senators would come to take Larry’s methods and philosophy just as seriously as he did.

Krissy Clark:
Larry’s dismissal of educating welfare recipients as a waste of money and time, his emphasis on getting a job, any job, both of those ideas show up in various ways in the welfare reform bill that Congress passed and President Clinton signed in 1996. It had a name that Larry would approve of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

Roman Mars:
But just a few years after this change was made, it came to light that the thing that all of this reform was based on, the Riverside Miracle, tt turned out it wasn’t a miracle after all. The ‘just get a job’ approach wasn’t the magic fix that everyone wanted it to be.

Joe Hotz:
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple.

Krissy Clark:
In the early 2000s, Joe Hotz, the Duke economist, he and two other researchers checked back in on what had happened to the welfare recipients who’d gone through the Riverside job-first program and they compared their circumstances to folks who’d gone through other programs in counties like L.A. and Alameda that had focused on education and training.

Joe Hotz:
And what we found was that yes, indeed work-first worked better in the first few years out of the treatment.

Krissy Clark:
But by years seven and eight and nine?

Joe Hotz:
Actually, the effect reversed.

Krissy Clark:
Meaning the people who had gotten more education, more skills training rather than being told with buttons and songs and slogans to just get a job, any job, they were doing better.

Joe Hotz:
They were more likely to be still in work.

Krissy Clark:
They were making slightly more money.

Joe Hotz:
And less likely to return to welfare.

Krissy Clark:
The effects of the Riverside Miracle had all but disappeared.

Roman Mars:
Joe says the Riverside Miracle had less to do with Larry’s work-first tactics and more to do with the fact that, in Riverside back then, there was a booming job market for low-skilled workers. This plan doesn’t work in places where there aren’t a lot of low-skilled jobs.

Joe Hotz:
When there aren’t jobs out there, you can have all the job clumps you want, right? You can have them calling as many employers as you want. It’s not going to change the fact that there are no jobs.

Roman Mars:
And by the 90s, there was very, very little of this kind of labor, even in Riverside. It turns out a better name for the Riverside Miracle might’ve been-

Krissy Clark:
It’s not as catchy, but maybe it’s something like the ‘Riverside Short-term Spike in the Labor Market That Was a Fluke and Allowed More Jobs for Awhile’ or something like that.

Joe Hotz:
But that’s probably not going to get a soundbite.

Roman Mars:
The Riverside Miracle did not look like a miracle nine years later. It didn’t put people on a trajectory that was going to last a lifetime.

Krissy Clark:
But this discovery that maybe climbing out of poverty in an unpredictable economy takes more than job clubs and songs that did not get the same kind of media play as the Riverside Miracle had gotten. Because in the meantime, the ship had already left the dock. The Riverside Miracle had inspired a whole raft of federal welfare reform legislation based on the get a job, any job work-first mantra and collectively changed how we think about welfare.

Bill Clinton:
“Today, we are ending welfare as we know it.”

Roman Mars:
And the thought of revisiting and restructuring welfare again just wasn’t something that the federal government or the States that ran welfare to work programs had the political will to deal with anymore.

Joe Hotz:
Because their view was, oh, we took care of this back in 1994-95 and we don’t need to revisit it.

Krissy Clark:
It wouldn’t be till later that the weaknesses of the ‘get a job, any job’ welfare-to-work approach revealed themselves on a big, painful scale. In the great recession that started in 2008 when job markets crashed all over the country, especially for low wage workers, Joe says, the Riverside Miracle had been such a tantalizing low cost, quick fix to poverty. Get people off welfare and into self-sufficiency. Just inspire them, tell them to get jobs. It was a hard approach to let go of.

Joe Hotz:
Unfortunately, after a while, we realized these problems are age-old. If it were that simple, we would have solved it much earlier. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple.

Roman Mars:
And the people who went through the Riverside Miracle are still dealing with the bittersweet aftermath.

Sophia Elsman:
“Okay. So we have pink, pink, pink and coral.”

Krissy Clark:
After going through the Riverside jobs program more than 20 years ago, Sophia Elsman has been off welfare ever since. For the last decade, she’s worked in this plus-size dress shop. She’s the store manager in charge of a small staff and figuring out where to put the pink sweaters so they don’t clash with the coral ones.

Sophia Elsman:
But this coral here with this set looks good.

Krissy Clark:
The fact that Sophia has a job is evidence that the Riverside jobs-first program did have its successes. In fact, she was featured in a newspaper article in the early 90s as an example of the Riverside Miracle. But for a woman in her 50s, she has a physically taxing job. She’s on her feet all day, dragging racks of clothes from here to there.

Sophia Elsman:
“My hands are screwed up now. I get cramped.”

Krissy Clark:
And for all this, she makes less than $15 an hour. Sophia lived up to the Riverside programs, name – GAIN. She found greater avenues for independence, but I asked her-

Krissy Clark:
“Do you consider yourself a GAIN success story?”

Sophia Elsman:
“Um.”

Krissy Clark:
She thought for a long time. Yes and no, she said, and then she corrected herself.

Sophia Elsman:
“You know what? To tell you the truth, I’ve been working for like since I was 14-years-old.”

Krissy Clark:
The work requirements, the job clubs, they were actually a bit of a distraction she says. She’d already had low wage jobs and she knew how to get them.

Sophia Elsman:
“I felt like it was more a hindrance to me.”

Krissy Clark:
“Like GAIN was a hindrance?”

Sophia Elsman:
“Yes, because I had to go there, but I did what I had to do because they said I had to do it, so I did it.”

Krissy Clark:
Sophia has moved out of poverty and off of government assistance, but she says she would have done that anyway. Welfare was just a temporary bit of help she needed when she and her husband split up, but two decades later she hasn’t moved that far out of poverty. Things are still tight and rather than getting pep talks to find a job, any job she wishes she’d had encouragement to get the training to do what she really wanted.

Sophia Elsman:
I” wanted to be a nurse. Probably if I got offered the opportunity to go back to school right now, I could be in a hospital being an RN.”

Roman Mars:
Making it a lot more than $15 an hour.

Song Clip:
“Welfare, just a temporary way of life. You don’t have to stay there for the rest of your time.”

Roman Mars:
A longer version of this story was originally heard on the ‘Uncertain Hour’, a new podcast from Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk. It’s really good. You should check it out. The Uncertain Hour is Krissy Clark, Caitlin Esch, Gina Delvac, and Nancy Farghalli. Ben Holiday’s the engineer and Mark Miller is the managing editor.

    1. John Stafford

      I’ve been trying to find any trace of it online, and have come up empty. Please let me know if you have any luck…

  1. Uhhhgggg…. This Podcast has officially become too Regressive for me. Sound the Death Knell of Classic Liberalism.

    And also Roman, just so you know, the coin check might seem like a cool nuanced thing for you, but those if us who actually served the coins we have actually mean something…. so that was obnoxious too.

    Peace out!

  2. Guy

    This story was annoying. Particularly, the women’s story at the end. She clearly benefitted and the tax payers funding her welfare benefitted by her getting a job. Her decision to not seek additional education over the next 20 years is hers alone. To suggest she could have received training to be a nurse (a RN specifically) is laughable – why not give her training to be an astronaut while we are at. Becoming a nurse requires significant training and intelligence. I’m not suggesting the women was inept, but nursing isn’t really a career the government could train general welfare recipients to do. What’s wrong with expecting people to take some personal responsibility for their situation?

    1. Daryl

      The education programs that they had before “Welfare to Work” would have precisely provided her with the educational opportunities that would have been a pathway to something like a career in health. Of course they wouldn’t just magically make you a nurse or whatever, but they would give a clear ladder for someone to go through the program, to community college, to gainful employment as, if not a nurse, something more aligned with her career aspirations. The difference here is where you draw the line between “personal responsibility” and “lack of opportunity”, which is what welfare is meant to bridge. Whether you like it or not, the Education and Training model has proven, (not just in the states but internationally) to be more beneficial in the long term to the career prospects of participants, as well as the economy overall (more high-skill workers).

      I think a lot of this comes from an inherent “sense of fairness” that people have different sensitivities to, and it’s something that is frankly hard to step outside of. Humans have an inbuilt, evolutionary bias to despise “free-loaders” or people they think are “gaming the system”, as well as a host of other deep-seeded heuristics. Unfortunately, sometimes these instincts are ill-suited to practical realities in the contemporary world, which is far more complex than the tribal situation we’re all hard-wired for.

  3. John Stafford

    I really, really need a copy of this album. I’ve done some googling and come up empty. If anyone has any info on where/how I can get a copy, digital or otherwise, I’d greatly, greatly appreciate it…

  4. Bill Q

    Hey Roman – the gentleman interviewed in the podcast referred to a list of sayings about work he had collected. Is that list available anywhere?

  5. YGK

    Wow, I was not expecting to hear a POS track at the end of that podcast. Or any podcast really. I can see how POS would listen to 99PI, and how roman would listen to POS, but it’s still a surprising connection.

    For anyone curious about POS, the track on the podcast is representative of his more recent work, which taps into his punk-rock roots and has a rougher feel to it. His earlier work generally is generally more polished and “clean” sounding (I mostly refer to the production and beats, his delivery and lyrics are always an interesting combination of aggressive and intelligent).
    For an example of his earlier style, I’d recommend his 2009 album “Never Better”, which you can listen to for free on the label’s website here: http://www.rhymesayers.com/neverbetter/

  6. Kimberly

    Thank you 99% Invisible and The Uncertain Hour for this episode. This is a good introduction to the failures of welfare reform or “workfare.” In fact, there has been even more follow-up research done on the effects since the 1990s that show the negative impact these policies had. I can imagine it was uncomfortable for your reporter to ask about the “stereotyping” of welfare recipients — she shouldn’t be because research and scholarship has established that race and gender have impacted not only the development of welfare programs in the US but also contributed to a feedback loop to stigmatize its recipients as “undeserving.” Also, I also want to point out that the work-first approach, into low-wage jobs, is also how our refugee resettlement program works. We measure success based on entrance into low-wage jobs and getting off of welfare. We don’t help professionals get re-credentialed, and in the long-run that hurts the refugees, their families, and reduces the amount of taxes they pay because of their lower incomes. It wasn’t always like this. We did offer education to training to Cuban refugees in the 1960s. It’s a shame that stereotypes, biases of “fairness,” and a lack of political will get in the way of giving people a meaningful way to get themselves out of the cycle of poverty. This is what education should do for people.

  7. Javier

    I was very disappointed with this episode. It exaggerates both parts of the story for the sake of entertainment. Things are not black or white. A big part of Mr. Townsend’s approach makes a lot of sense to me and his motivation and passion are something you seldom find in public workers.

    My experience is that entering the job market as soon as possible is as important as ongoing education. That’s the base of apprenticeship programs. Maybe Mr. Townsend missed part of the equation (continuous education) but he still deserves significant credit for his work.

    In my opinion good journalism is dissecting and explaining complex problems, not reducing them to a good/bad choice.

  8. I’ll bet you that 99% of the inspirational quotes he collected were not from people who were forced into the labour market without the benefit of a decent education.

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