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A little over a year ago, Joyce Bircham was spending her days scrounging Chicago’s North Side for drugs — whatever it took to get whatever she could. She spent nights passed out in shelters, on a friend’s couch, wherever she happened to land. Then 40, she’d had a string of part-time jobs, but they weren’t enough to keep Bircham clean and able to care for herself or her three children — whom she’d already lost to relatives in Atlanta. Bircham thought her life was over. But on a recent sunny morning in March, Joyce Bircham, well rested, groomed, and professionally dressed in a cream-colored sweater and dark slacks, walked the eight blocks from her downtown Chicago home to her job on the 12th floor of 120 South Riverside Plaza, in the accounting department of Chicago’s Arnstein & Lehr. After a year battling her addictions in a drug treatment program, Bircham began working as an intern in Arnstein’s mailroom for two days a week last February; she so impressed her supervisors with her commitment and skill that within a month, she was promoted. Now she handles accounts receivable, and has been promised a full-time job — with benefits — this spring. Working in a law firm was “a dream of mine,” says Bircham, musing on the glamorous images of a world she’d previously only glimpsed on television. “It’s a lot like L.A. Law.” It may be hard to imagine someone who’s been that down-and-out winding up with a view of the Chicago River from the posh environs of a corporate law firm. But Bircham — smart, soft-spoken, and serious — has remarkable fortitude. She’s also had the good fortune to hook up with Chicago BizLink, a nonprofit organization that connects welfare recipients with job training, social services, and, ultimately, full-time jobs. Attorney Joyce Moran (on loan to the program from Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s general counsel’s office) and Kyle Woodward (administrator at the Chicago office of New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom) helped start BizLink’s new law project in January. Funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, it has convinced 13 Chicago law firms to commit to employing interns whom most will hire into full-time entry-level jobs, with room for advancement. Dubious? Admittedly, welfare-to-work programs in the past have not always met with success. After Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, programs sprung up around the country to try to get public assistance recipients into the workforce. Although the rolls have declined by about 45 percent since President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” many families remain mired in poverty. A study by The Urban Institute of those who left welfare between 1997 and 1999 found that of the 64 percent who were working, average wages were just $7.15 an hour, nowhere near what it would take to lift them and their families into the middle class. And many states have done a poor job of distributing the federal block grants provided by the act to help low-income workers get the support they need to make it in the workforce. Welfare reform has raised a critical question that continues to confront the nation: How can we transform unskilled, poorly educated or otherwise troubled welfare recipients into self-sufficient, valued employees? Most states have offered welfare recipients some help finding work, but it’s often minimal. “In recent years a lot of states’ welfare-to-work programs have reduced their focus on training and instead encouraged people to take the first available job regardless of wages or opportunities for advancement,” says Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. Because many people lost their medical benefits and food stamps when they left welfare, new workers and their families frequently ended up worse off than they were before. As a result, many have ended up back on the rolls: 22 percent of those who left between 1997 and 1999. The Chicago law project, based on a successful model in San Francisco, holds out higher hopes. Unlike most programs, which emphasize resume writing and job interviewing, this one actually trains people for decent-paying jobs, with benefits, that are waiting for them when classes are over. Developed in collaboration with law firms, the project trains participants to meet the firms’ needs, as well as the workers’. And it provides the type of supports that welfare recipients typically require to get back into the workforce — help obtaining child care, transportation, and suitable work clothes, and mentors to talk them through the rough spots. As the new five-year limit on federal benefits approaches for many recipients, welfare-to-work programs are reaching a crossroads: Whether they lead participants down a dead-end path or toward a real chance at self-sufficiency may well determine the success of this precarious social experiment. Although the Chicago law project is too new to evaluate, that it’s modeled on the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Legal Employment Action Program (LEAP) bodes well. Since it started in 1998, LEAP has placed about 70 former welfare recipients in more than 50 San Francisco law firms. Of those who complete the training and internship, 85 percent have kept their full-time jobs, and half of those have been promoted within six months. Starting wages average $12.70 an hour, and 99 percent of participants receive health benefits, says Tanya Neiman, director of volunteer legal services at the city bar association and the program’s founder. Some have even gotten Christmas bonuses of thousands of dollars, she says. “Can you imagine the sense of fulfillment?” Stacey Troupe can. Eighteen months ago, Troupe relied on a $505 monthly welfare check to cover rent, food, and clothing for herself, her 5-year-old son, and a foster child. Today she’s an account clerk at San Francisco’s Folger Levin & Kahn — earning four times that much. Though Troupe had tried two city-run work programs before, “they didn’t do anything,” she says. One was a weeklong class that taught resume writing and job application; that got her nowhere. Another was about how to pound the pavement; she didn’t even bother to finish it. But the LEAP program, which spanned four months, was different. When she first started, “I didn’t really want to do the work,” says Troupe, who had grown accustomed to staying home most days. “But when I got in there, it was a challenge; it was something to do.” LEAP eliminated the excuses for failing. “They really worked with you,” says Troupe. JoAnn Buss, managing law clerk at Skadden, exemplifies how the Chicago project, like LEAP, goes a step further than typical welfare-to-work programs. Buss is a mentor for Delores Eason, the firm’s intern. “This can be an intimidating place,” admits Buss, a pale, earnest woman of 45, dressed in pastel linen and pearls. “Delores uses me as a sounding board.” That’s been a great help to Eason. Although in her mid-40s, personable, and with varied work experience, she was so nervous on her first day at Skadden that she cried. “Coming into a big, strange place like Skadden is tough,” says Eason, wearing a short, styled hairdo, conservative beige pantsuit, and gold jewelry. “I find myself whispering here. Kind of tiptoeing. At first, it seemed like I was being swallowed up.” But after spending two days a week for the past two months there, Eason is growing accustomed to her surroundings. Buss has helped, says Eason: “To have someone who I could stick my head in the office and say, ‘Hey.’ I just tell it like it is. That makes all the difference in the world.” It’s the participation of people like Buss, who says she’s in this with Eason “for the long haul,” that suggests that this project may succeed where others have failed. And it works well for the firms, because, between the training and the mentors, participants are specially prepared not only for a job, but for the idiosyncrasies of a law firm environment. Law firm supervisors say they often have problems with entry-level staff. They’re late, miss days, or don’t know how to get along with others. The participants in these welfare-to-work programs, they say, are better employees. “They work hard and come in on time,” says Lou Aidukas, the records and docket manager at the San Francisco office of Los Angeles’ Latham & Watkins, which has hired four interns out of LEAP. (Three have been with the firm more than two years and have received raises; one chose to leave after a few months.) “Often you find people who don’t know how to work or are doing it for a temporary time,” says Aidukis. “These people seem to be looking at it as a career path. They want to work, appreciate having a job, and are really good workers.” In part, that’s because participants in these programs are pre-screened. But it’s also because they view these jobs as a rare chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Jeneen Scott, who’s worked most of her adult life, says that in her past jobs, “there was no movement.” Most recently, as a phone operator at a Chicago hotel, “the women had been in the same position for 40, 50 years. There was nowhere to go.” Now, at 36, Scott’s preparing for a full-time job at the Chicago office of Milwaukee’s Michael Best & Friedrich. Sure, she’s starting at the bottom — sending faxes, making copies, entering data — but she doesn’t mind, she says, because she intends to prove she can do more: “I’m going to see where my expertise takes me.” In addition to the internships, the San Francisco and Chicago programs provide tailored job training and a variety of services designed to transform welfare recipients into professional, reliable law firm employees. During 13 weeks in the Chicago project, participants spend three days a week in class, reviewing basic reading, writing, and math, and learning computer skills and legal terminology. They also learn “soft skills”: time management, workplace relations, and etiquette — things like how to talk to a senior partner (with deference), and making sure to knock on a lawyer’s closed door before bringing in the mail. In a law firm, those skills can be key to keeping a job. Participants have caseworkers from local social services agencies who are supposed to help them obtain child care, transportation, public benefits, and whatever else they need to make it to class or the office each day. And through a local nonprofit, they get free (secondhand) professional outfits. The law firms, for their part, commit to provide mentors and pay at least $8 an hour; almost all have pledged to hire the interns full time at the end of the program. The new employees then receive the regular starting salary for their positions — usually between $18,000 and $22,000, plus benefits. Those who do well get an opportunity to advance. Chicago BizLink’s director, Thressa Connor-McMahon, is a onetime lefty lawyer turned business cheerleader. After a hectic morning of phone calls and meetings, and lunch with a vice president of United Air Lines, the 42-year-old, wearing cornrows and silver-and-turquoise jewelry, sits in her downtown Chicago office and recounts her own transformation. From legal services lawyer in Wausau, Wis. — “I was the only black person in town,” she says wryly — she went to Legal Services of New Jersey, then became an advocate against the death penalty, then went to Illinois where she became an administrative law judge presiding over employment discrimination cases. In 1994 she assumed the leadership of a Chicago antihunger coalition. Three years later she was asked to join Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s Welfare Reform Task Force. Though initially a skeptic of the whole concept of welfare reform, Connor-McMahon ultimately decided she had to accept the reality of “a new day.” Under the new federal law, “advocacy around welfare issues had to take a whole new tack.” Her first assignment on the task force? To draft a policy statement about why business should support welfare reform. “I had no idea!” she laughs, recalling the irony. “But I was committed to figuring it out.” As she began working with businesses, McMahon realized what they care about: “all the things that are going to affect their bottom line.” That included staff no-shows because of child care, transportation, and personal conflicts, all of which were problems that social services could solve. But, says Connor-McMahon, “there’s a huge disconnect between business and social services.” Welfare reform can link them, she insists: “Soon, I became an advocate and a zealot for why welfare reform is good for business.” Connor-McMahon, who’s given to phrases from the welfare reform lexicon such as “public-private partnership” and “win-win situation,” is a vice president of President Clinton’s 1997 initiative, The Welfare to Work Partnership, a group of U.S. corporations organized with the avid support of then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to encourage corporate America to hire public assistance recipients. Chicago BizLink is an outgrowth of the partnership. “The goal is to get as many people that can work to work,” says Rodney Carroll, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based partnership. “It helps us all out.” Conveniently, that’s also the theme of the welfare reform movement, spearheaded in large part by the former Wisconsin governor who is now Health and Human Services secretary. Though programs in his home state have had a mixed record in this regard, Thompson has at least publicly advocated the importance of investing in welfare programs that give recipients the support they’ll need to be successful and independent in the long run. But turning good ideas into well-functioning programs isn’t easy; and with a new administration in Washington, D.C., focused on shrinking government and a recession looming on the horizon, it’s not clear how model programs like BizLink’s will fare in the future. On a cold sunny Wednesday morning in March, at 9 a.m., eight adult students sit expectantly in a dreary cinderblock classroom at Malcolm X College, located in downtown Chicago. Two arrive late; two others never show up. (One is ill.) The first class of the seven-hour school day is math. Susan Grear, an instructor at the school’s adult education program, is teaching fractions. “Three-quarters divided by one,” she says, writing the equation on the blackboard. “Where is my divisor?” Her audience — a professionally dressed group of mostly women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom barely finished high school — struggles with the word. “What’s that?” one asks another seated nearby. If these students have any questions about how dividing fractions will assist them in their jobs at the law firms, they don’t ask. Though a few crack jokes, there is not a grumble in the room as they bend their heads over their equations. The next class is legal terminology. Today the lesson is on trusts and estates. Student volunteers write definitions on the blackboard. “Ademption = Extinction of withdrawal of legacy by testator’s act equivalent to revocation or indicating intention to revoke,” one woman copies from her notes. Others shout out the answers they find in their law dictionaries. To be sure, the relevance of such terms to entry-level clerical work is not evident. Neither is the definition of “testament” or “advance directive,” which other students dutifully copy from their notes onto the blackboard. Their instructor, Lizette Richardson, a college administrator who is herself a third-year law student, promises that next week she’ll teach them terms of procedure — motions, briefs, and affidavits, for example — which is more likely what they’ll encounter. After class, though, she says that she assumes the students are learning most of what they need to know on the job. (She also notes with a smile that some of the more obscure terms are a good refresher for the bar exam, which she plans to take next February.) The program’s teachers and administrators acknowledge that the curriculum needs to be better tailored to the students’ needs. It’s just one of several flaws they admit need to be corrected in the second round of this pilot project, and they pledge to ask students, teachers, supervisors, and mentors for their suggestions at the program’s end. In the meantime, some of the problems are serious. For instance, despite BizLink’s enthusiasm for public-private partnerships, the public end of this one often breaks down. Since it began, several students suffered cutoffs of their public benefits when the state welfare agency found out they were working, even just two days a week. That left them nothing more than two days’ internship income to support themselves and their families. And some — at least one of whom has a chronic medical condition that requires regular therapy and medication — have received notice they’ll be losing their medical insurance. “That’s not supposed to happen,” insists Connor-McMahon, who is working with the social services agencies to get the participants’ caseworkers to handle these problems. “We were not adequately focused on that from the beginning,” she admits. “But we are learning lessons every day.” Program administrators also admit the need for greater attention to punctuality and attendance. Those basics cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, although some students arrive at school early and never miss a day, others are frequently late or miss classes. So far, the consequences have been unclear, and some of the teachers, such as Grear, say they’re frustrated. “They’re not as committed as I would like,” she says. “If you can’t get to class on time, how do you make it to your job on time?” (BizLink organizers say they’re considering making graduation contingent on complete and timely attendance.) Despite the law project’s shortcomings, welfare advocates are optimistic. Greenberg, who focuses on welfare reform for the Center for Law and Social Policy, says the program’s training and placement in jobs with opportunity for advancement are encouraging: “If this program is successful in helping people move into $10-to-$12-an-hour jobs within 13 weeks, that’s significantly better than the circumstances for most families leaving assistance.” John Bouman, deputy director for advocacy at Chicago’s National Center on Poverty Law, which is hosting an intern from the law project, agrees. “It has all the look and feel of a successful program,” he says. “It’s identified a niche in the economy where there’s job availability for entry-level people that have a future and a realistic skill set.” Alfred Jackson says he feels “blessed and grateful” for his opportunity. An energetic, wiry man of 39, he spent 10 years “in the streets,” he says. “I would receive drugs — cocaine — at nine o’clock in the morning, delivered to me. I had no more after 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. So I would go out in Evanston and do odd jobs all day to get money to buy drugs.” Jackson slept in shelters and on trains that crisscrossed the streets of Chicago, “just roaming with no direction.” Though he spent years unhappy, ashamed, and exhausted by the lifestyle, he finally knew he had to quit when he had convulsions from overdosing. Jackson completed an intensive drug treatment program, and now lives in a home for recovering addicts. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Jackson is a computer technician at Schiff Hardin & Waite. “I love it,” he says with a wide grin. Jackson had some previous technical training, but he’s learning new skills at the law firm, is in class three days a week, and studies on his own time. A Schiff Hardin supervisor gave him a Compaq desktop computer to practice on, complete with technical courses on CD-ROM. “Coming from where I came from, to be able to learn what I did and be placed in a law firm, and to be accepted and be able to communicate effectively — it’s kind of mind-blowing to me,” says Jackson. And what does he think of the law firm environment? “It’s beautiful,” he says with awe, noting the “exquisite artwork” on the walls. And from the firm’s offices on the sixty-eighth floor of the Sears Tower, “I can see all of Chicago.” The law project will have substantial hurdles to overcome. The grant to BizLink from the Department of Labor ($10.5 million to fund welfare-to-work projects in five cities) expires at the end of this year, although Connor-McMahon is stretching the money out until the end of 2002. At that point she wants to make it self-sufficient, hopefully with financial support from area law firms. State money might also be available: Welfare reform, by slashing the rolls, has left most states more money to invest in these sorts of efforts. That assumes that a recession doesn’t boost the demand for welfare and crush law firms’ need for new staff members. But, ever optimistic, BizLink’s planners are already starting up similar law projects in Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, and Miami. While the law project survives, its most committed participants promise to take full advantage. Bircham, for example, is regularly early to class, completes her homework on time, and stays focused on her long-term goals. “The training has opened my mind back up,” she says. “I always wanted to go back to school. Now I think I could really do it.” And the law firm job? “I really like it there,” she says. “I look forward to Monday mornings.” Now how many lawyers can say that?

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