On July 12, the Obama Administration issued a directive to gut welfare reform of its work requirements. But those who work closely with individuals in need understand the critical principles of personal responsibility and self-reliance.
Rachel Morrison, founder of a remarkably effective Washington, D.C.–based prison re-entry program titled EFFORTS (Employment for Former Offenders Receiving Treatment), explains that reciprocity, personal responsibility, and work are keys to upward mobility and the rise from dependency. Once a guard at Lorton Prison, Morrison knows of the obstacles that former convicts face when they come back into society, and she has committed herself to help them overcome those hurdles—specifically through job training, computer-skills classes, and guidance in applying for a job.
“Some people come out of prison with a lot of anger inside, because they feel that society owes them,” she says. “They think society is supposed to take care of them. We help them to understand that they have to go out there and get a job, help take care of their family, be on time, and go to work every day. Society doesn’t owe you anything; you have to earn whatever it is that you want out of life.”
Among the hundreds of individuals empowered through EFFORTS is Michelle Staten. The product of a broken home and victim of domestic violence, Staten became addicted to drugs. Her children were taken from her and put into foster care, and she was living on the streets when she first came to EFFORTS. Today, Staten is married, has regained custody of her five children, and is employed with security services at a major government agency.
Also in D.C., the ministry of Bishop Shirley Holloway—whose outreach addresses homelessness, drug addiction, and alcoholism—likewise entails some form of work requirement for all of the hundreds of men and women she has served. Among the beneficiaries of Holloway’s programs is Angela Woods. Once addicted to drugs and wandering the streets with her two children in a one-seat stroller, Woods is now married and works with her husband, James, in Holloway’s City of Hope. They are the proud parents of five children and grandparents of four.
Another beneficiary of Holloway’s outreach is Rachel Hicks, who had spent more than a year moving through a series of homeless shelters after she was laid off and lost her home to foreclosure. Hicks credits Holloway with helping her find a job at an IHOP, creating a budget, and restarting her life with her daughter and grandson.
In the words of one director of a county Department of Social Services, “We are talking about trying to boost our referrals to [Holloway’s] facility because…it seems like a very effective program. The mandate that she puts on the residents is ‘You can’t just lay in your room and not be productive.’ She really likes to promote productivity.”
Instead of weakening the successful 1996 reform, which resulted in nearly 3 million families moving out of dependency, Washington should bolster work requirements. Doing so would recognize the capacities of the people it serves and give individuals and families hope of achieving a life of independence and the satisfaction of productivity.