RENEWING AMERICAN COMPASSION: A Citizen's Guide

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9780684830001: RENEWING AMERICAN COMPASSION: A Citizen's Guide

In a ringing call to churches, community leaders, and ordinary citizens, the Editor of World, a weekly Christian news magazine, points the way to a reinvented war on poverty and a renewal of faith-based charity.

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About the Author:

Dr. Marvin Olasky is a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, and a senior fellow at The Progress and Freedom Foundation. He is the author of nine books of history and cultural analysis, and the editor of World, a weekly Christian news-magazine.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter I

Conventional Welfare Reform

The Kenosha County Job Center, located in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, with Lake Michigan to the east and the Illinois state line to the south, is the shiny face of state-level welfare reform, and its presence has launched a thousand trips. Twelve state delegations, dozens of reporting teams from networks and national magazines, and welfare managers from all over have come and marveled at 54,000 square feet of calibrated administration in color-coordinated offices.

Operations Manager Larry Jankowski notes that the Washington Post has come once, the Los Angeles Times twice, and Dayton, Ohio, officials four times. Even bureaucrats from Tanzania have taken the tour. Kenosha is important because it is said to be The Future: a successful attempt to provide social services with a human face. It is now widely understood that the primary problem of the modern welfare state is not its cost, but its tendency to treat people as cows whose feeding troughs need periodic refilling. Wisconsin, seeing human beings on the welfare rolls, has instituted a twenty-hour-per-week work requirement for many AFDC recipients, a two-year time limit on many welfare benefits, and a plan to eliminate cash benefits before the third millennium begins.

Those steps sound promising to conservatives -- but Wisconsin has coupled them with a package of social worker-intensive programs that will continue to keep the welfare world safe for bureaucracy. Other states are doing the same: Michigan and New Jersey have Wisconsin-style programs and Massachusetts even hired Wisconsin's social services director to head its Department of Health and Human Services. Since Wisconsin's welfare reform generally, and the Kenosha County Job Center in particular, have become such popular poster children, Kenosha deserves a closer look; we'll then check on the progress and prospects of welfare reform plans in several other states.

Kenosha County itself is an hour's freeway drive from notorious Chicago slum high-rises like Cabrini Green, and a semibucolic world away. The county's population of 130,000 is 90 percent white and the unemployment rate is at about 3 percent. On the way from the interstate to the job center, drive-by shootings are not a concern, and drive-through fast-fooders are easy to find. Past Ponderosa Steakhouse, past the Big Buck Building Center, past the Stars-N-Stripes Restaurant and a home with a Jesus is Lord yard sign, the job center emerges, dominating a neighborhood of modest but tidy homes with well-kept yards and trimmed hedges. The center itself anchors a small shopping mall that includes a software store, a hobby shop, and a cinema fourplex. The parking area next to the center's main entrance has a few old cars on a Monday morning, but lots of clean Plymouth Voyagers and Ford Aerostars. This is the land of minivans, not clunkers leaking oil.

Next to the center is Aladdin's Castle Family Entertainment Center, and the facility itself has a Disneyland feel. On the way from the parking lot to the reception area, a sign on one wall promotes a workshop on self-esteem: "You are scheduled to begin an exciting adventure next week." For those used to welfare offices with bulletproof glass, scarred linoleum, and cramped cubicles, the reception area is a revelation: light wood, bright walls with prints of water lilies, purplish heather carpeting, circular wooden tables with padded blue seats, and an 18-foot ceiling with an overhead fan to complement the air conditioning. Next to the reception area is a bright and spacious children's playroom that has lots of toys and good books such as Where the Wild Things Are.

Further in, the adventure continues. Light blue-gray panels distinguish modular office areas in wide open spaces. Few welfare clients -- no, they are called "participants" -- need to wait for meetings with caseworkers; asked about the absence of lines, Program Director George Leutermann observes, "We're not into crowds." Posted newspaper headlines inform participants that they are visiting a site that will be historic:"Country looks to Kenosha for welfare reform ideas." Caseworkers convey to participants the sense that they are beneficiaries of an experiment that could change the nation, and the state employees themselves are encouraged to think of themselves as heroes.

Leutermann, receiving recognition at age forty-eight after a career in social services, recalls, "I told our people that their kids will be reading about them in the newspaper. They said, 'Sure. That's crap.' But they are getting what we promised." Jankowski, at fifty-one also a veteran manager of employment programs and welfare systems, tells employees, "If we can be successful here, that is your ticket to a job anywhere." Staffers know that the good press their program receives can translate into advancement in other states, should they choose to become evangelists for the Wisconsin welfare gospel.

That gospel is a crowd pleaser so far because it has three sides: liberal, conservative, and feminist. The liberal side of the equilateral triangle proposes big government programs, but with an awareness that bureaucratic hauteur is out, provision of services is in: "We treat our participants like kings and queens," Leutermann says, and he makes sure that the monarchs have a panoply of valets. "If they have a remediation problem, they can go to that instructor. If they have a training problem, they go to that person. We have a brokering process whereby the case manager helps participants access services." The Kenosha goal is not to bond the needy with caseworkers, who average 150 participants under their care and see each participant an average of once every three months; the goal is to place participants under the care of government-paid specialists, who at the job center are conveniently housed under one roof.

The conservative-sounding side of the triangle is the work emphasis. Participants quickly go through vocational assessment and receive information about careers, labor markets, job retention, and financial planning. They are required to develop a job-finding plan, and after an initial four-week module designed to build motivation and "self-esteem" to get on with the task of finding a job. Instructors stress, Jankowski says, that "there's a place in the job market for everyone. The unemployment rate is not the issue. The issue is motivating people to take the jobs that are available." Participants are required either to find a job or to put in a "simulated thirty-two-hour work week" of job readiness courses, practice interviews, etc.; the mushiness is evident, but at least participants are supposed to report on time. Those who do not cooperate lose $90 per month in benefits; that sanction pushes three-fourths of AFDC recipients to come to class regularly, and 90 percent of that final quarter to show up following sanction, according to Leutermann.

The base of the equilateral triangle is feminism, with chunks of New Age subjectivism thrown into the broth. Computer-printed signs dominate the walls of two large Kenosha training rooms: "A family doesn't need a man to be whole." "Stop waiting for Prince Charming, his horse broke down." Asked about the usefulness of dumping the Prince Charming goal -- yes, AFDC moms should not be passively waiting, but marriage is the most-used exit from the welfare rolls -- Jankowski says, "We tell them straight out that marriage is not the answer." Other signs suggest the answer: "I have the power within me. What I focus on expands." "You're a one-of-a-kind design."

Since that last exhortation seems to suggest the existence of a designer, a question logically follows: is something like the Alcoholics Anonymous concept of a "higher power" acceptable? "There's absolutely no reference to a higher power at this center," Jankow

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