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New York City's poor fight for decent jobs
What's wrong with "welfare to work"

Review by Amy Muldoon | August 23, 2002 | Page 9

DOCUMENTARY: A Day's Work, A Day's Pay. Produced by Kathy Leichter and Jonathan Skurnik. Showing on WNET in New York on September 2. Check your local PBS station.

THERE ARE few places where the stereotype of welfare recipients as lazy, stupid and greedy doesn't dominate. A rare, inspiring exception is the documentary A Day's Work, A Day's Pay by Kathy Leichter and Jonathan Skurnik. The film shows both the everyday challenges of finding jobs and childcare, and the struggle in the streets of New York City against the Work Experience Program (WEP).

WEP forces welfare recipients to work up to 70 hours every two weeks for the basic welfare benefit of $68.50 a week plus food stamps. Following Bill Clinton's Personal Responsibility Act in 1996, which enforced strict work requirements on welfare recipients, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani enacted one of the country's toughest "welfare-to-work" programs.

Dressed up as job training, the program forced tens of thousands of recipients into dead-end positions. Other more meaningful jobs were filled by WEP workers in an effort to bust the city's powerful unions.

Because WEP workers are labeled "trainees" or "volunteers," they have no basic protection or redress against unfair treatment, such as unsafe and unsanitary conditions, sexual abuse and being thrown off benefits for speaking up.

A Day's Work follows WEP workers Jackie Marté and José Nicolau. Jackie is one semester short of a college degree when she's told she must report for work. She can't attend school full-time, work the hours and pay for childcare, so her education is derailed.

José shows why workfare is more a stigma than a stepping stone. In one scene, he recounts the "helpful" advice of a city job placement agency: "'Don't tell [employers] that you're on workfare.'So what good is workfare if you can't tell them that you have experience in sanitation, parks department or building maintenance?" José asks.

But A Day's Work doesn't pigeonhole welfare recipients as victims. Much of the film documents organizing meetings, strategy sessions and rallies to fight workfare.

The third focus of the movie is Juan Galan, a former WEP worker who is an organizer for the community group ACORN working on a grievance procedure for WEP workers. Juan and José encourage other workers to take action, organizing walk-ins to confront site supervisors who won't provide safety gear and uniforms.

A Day's Work, A Day's Pay makes it glaringly obvious that workfare has failed to deliver on any of its promises. And that ordinary people have the biggest role to play in challenging it.

JOSÉ NICOLAU died on September 20, 2001, shortly after filming was completed. He had found a job, but it didn't offer him complete medical care. He couldn't afford the medicine for a chronic liver condition that was previously covered by Medicaid while he was on welfare.

José's death is a brutal reminder of the horrible toll of poverty. José was a talented organizer and will be greatly missed.

The media's lies about welfare

Socialist Worker spoke with Kathy Leichter, one of the makers of A Day's Work.

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How does your film counter the mainstream view of people on welfare?

THERE ARE so few films that allow welfare recipients to speak for themselves, as opposed to reporters, historians or academics.

We wanted to counter the stereotypes in the media: that they're lazy, that they don't want to work, that it's just a "cycle of dependency." Those stereotypes are made by the media…which is no surprise because the people who own the media are very wealthy.

Who do you see as your film's audience?

A Day's Work was funded by the Independent Television Service and a myriad of small foundations and individuals. ITVS funds social-issue films that take creative and political risks. They're part of PBS, so we envisioned it being seen by the PBS audience across the country.

And we envisioned it being used on a community and grassroots level. We pictured it in rooms across the country where people could watch it and talk and argue…and come up with better ways to get people out of poverty.

We're distributing the film through the Workfare Media Initiative. We're training welfare recipients in political analysis and welfare history so they can screen the film with community groups, communities of faith, unions, schools, corporations and the general public.

It's a way to build on people's skills and have them get paid for taking the film out there in a more political way than just having us do it.

To order a copy of A Day's Work, contact New Day Films at 888-367-9154 or visit To request a screening in your community, contact Shirley Liu at 212-952-0121, ext. 222, or by email at [email protected].

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