Doling for dollars

The Cold War over, defense giant Lockheed Martin mines another government program for profit -- the war on poverty

Sitting at a desk in front of the whole class, Electra plays the disappointed mother. But she doesn't exhibit a shred of assertiveness. She accepts the baby-sitter's edicts and quietly walks out.

"Why didn't you ask her to give you more notice?" Evans asks.
Electra smiles, as if the thought hadn't occurred to her.
The boisterous woman in the back volunteers her advice: "Whup your kids before you send them to the baby-sitter."

As the morning session wears on, Ms. Evans expresses her desire to sit down and give her assistant, Amy Henderson Charleston, a chance to teach. The assistant, however, hasn't exactly demonstrated a stellar work ethic for her class, arriving late, ducking out numerous times, and generally appearing bored.

And at the moment Ms. Evans tries to sit down, Henderson Charleston is once again inexplicably out of the room.

Ms. Evans carries on. She asks the group to identify the two basic types of skills applicants can offer an employer. The class is flummoxed.

After several minutes of prompting from Ms. Evans, Nathaniel Pipkins, a stocky 41-year-old, offers an answer that elicits one of Ms. Evans' broad smiles.

Pipkins is an ex-con and recovering drug addict. He served five years in prison on a drug charge, got out last summer, and found a job, but lost it a few months later. He explains that his daughter--the mother of his twin grandchildren--had disappeared for four days, leaving Pipkins to care for the youngsters himself. He missed work and got fired, then applied for food stamps.

In class, Pipkins says he'd tell a prospective employer he could work with his hands. Finally, Ms. Evans seems satisfied. "That's what I want to talk about--physical and mental skills," she says.

Just then, Henderson Charleston returns. Ms. Evans looks thrilled to get some relief.

The assistant asks the class to write down their likes and dislikes from high school days--an exercise designed to help them identify their employable skills.

As the students start writing, Ms. Evans jumps out of her seat and quietly pulls a chair in front of one student, an elderly man wearing a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and thick eyeglasses.

"Are you having trouble with that pen?" Evans asks in a discreet voice. "Here--let me see it for a minute."

The teacher leans over so she can read the form to her student. "This asks what you liked in high school. Did you like, for instance, math or science?" she asks softly. "I know," she says, after she sees him hesitate. "It was a long time ago."

The student, William Robinson, tells Ms. Evans that he liked woodworking and mechanical things. "You like working with your hands," she says. "That's your skill."

Born in 1939, Robinson was raised in Duncanville. He attended South Oak Cliff High School until the 11th grade, then took a job cutting timber in Nacogdoches.

What Ms. Evans had immediately figured out--prompting her to rush to Robinson's seat, sparing him the embarrassment--is that he cannot read. Under the state's welfare reforms, food-stamp recipients such as Robinson are not tested for literacy. TANF recipients, however, are supposed to be tested for reading ability and referred to literacy classes if necessary.

Ms. Evans says later that she recommended a literacy program to Robinson, but has no idea whether he'll follow up. Under the reforms, she's exceeded her obligations as his seminar leader. "We all do things like that on our job," she says. She can neither require Robinson to take a reading class nor question his work-ready status.

Robinson also says he has asthma, a condition that's contributed to his spotty job history in recent years. His wife, Alice, with whom he's lived for 11 years, does a lot of the talking for Robinson, who speaks so softly that he's difficult to understand.

Robinson admits he's had a hard time holding down a job in the last five years. He's bagged groceries at Kroger and assembled lights at a factory, but was laid off each time.

For 20 years, though, Robinson worked one job--as a custodian at the same apartment complex. "But then my boss died," he says, "and they laid me off."

When it's time for the students to read their lists of likes and dislikes, Ms. Evans, still seated next to Robinson, interrupts to volunteer his answers.

"This young man here," Ms. Evans says, gesturing toward Robinson, "has some things on his list."

Later in the day, Ms. Evans tells the class that she's disappointed that job referrals aren't coming in faster. She sends the students to the Lockheed Martin caseworkers--who are working on the job database in an office just outside the classroom--to start developing leads.

For those at the end of the line, Ms. Evans turns on a rerun of Good Times. Watching J.J. keeps them occupied, while Electra Taylor and another woman pore over the want ads at a side table.

Today in Dallas County, some 3,800 people are on welfare but have been told they need to get a job. Under the reforms, Texas welfare recipients are exempt from work if they have a physical or mental disability, a child under the age of 3 for whom they are the primary caregiver, or some other, rarer circumstances.

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