Doling for dollars
The classroom signs promote happy thoughts, visions of love and work and well-being. "Wanted," one poster says. "Someone to love me for me."
The teacher, Wanda Evans, a middle-aged Lockheed Martin worker, has even tacked up one of her own messages: "A lot of good things will come out of this class because a lot of good people come in."
At 8:30 in the morning on the first day of class, though, the students--22 welfare recipients who've been told to get a job or lose part of their benefits--seem convinced of little except their need to be here.
Thanks to state welfare reforms, they've got six days to learn how to find a job and keep it with the help of instructors and case managers from Lockheed Martin, the huge private corporation chosen to run Dallas County's welfare-reform program.
Party Pass: Dallas Cowboys v Chicago Bears
TicketsSun., Sep. 25, 7:30pm
RESTAURANT: AT&T Stadium - Cowboys v Bears
TicketsSun., Sep. 25, 7:30pm
Southwest Airlines State Fair Classic: Grambling vs Prairie View A&M
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 4:00pm
University of North Texas Mean Green Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
That assignment is daunting for people who've been out of work for months or years, and the threat of consequences always looms before them.
But Ms. Evans, a slender woman dressed in professional garb, radiates confidence. A former Dallas Independent School District teacher, she quickly memorizes everyone's first name and strides purposefully around the white-walled classroom, trying to draw each student out.
"If your self-esteem was down, how would you handle it?" she asks her class.
A heavyset woman bellows her answer from the back: "Pray!"
Everyone laughs. Ms. Evans chuckles the loudest, seizing the opportunity for humor.
She then turns to Electra Taylor, a quiet woman seated on the opposite side of the room. "What do you do, Electra?" she asks.
The shy student murmurs an answer.
"Thank you, Electra," Ms. Evans says in her soothing voice. "She said she would do something positive to make herself feel better."
By the end of the five-hour session, through prodding, cajoling, and careful listening, Ms. Evans has made some small steps toward the day's two objectives: Building her students' self-esteem and improving their communication skills.
Gainful employment still seems a long way off. But the clock is ticking, and most of the students are determined to get work, and the state says they will.
So they will.
Welfare these days, as just about everyone knows, isn't what it used to be. Both the federal and state governments have put in place massive changes aimed at pushing people off the dole and into the work force.
Under the landmark welfare reform laws signed in 1996 by President Clinton, the U.S. government set a five-year lifetime limit on welfare aid and gave states permission to set even tougher standards.
The new rules allowed states to start experimenting with novel ways to administer the dole. As a result, Texas lawmakers established the Dallas County Development Board and 17 similar agencies across the state to manage welfare at the local level.
These agencies are free to choose outside contractors to administer welfare reforms in their area, and the Dallas board picked Lockheed Martin, a $28 billion multinational corporation better known for building fighter planes. Since the Cold War ended, Lockheed Martin has increasingly sought a new type of government contract--providing social services.
In June 1997, the Dallas board agreed to pay Lockheed Martin more than $5.7 million for a 15-month contract to get people off the dole beginning in June 1997.
Ms. Evans is one of 20 Lockheed Martin teachers in Dallas County charged with the task of transforming classrooms of welfare and food-stamp recipients into gainfully employed members of society.
In six days, Ms. Evans' students--who, in April, included an ex-con, a man who couldn't read, and a dozen single mothers--are supposed to reach an invisible threshold known as "work-ready." They're taught to write a resume, dress appropriately, and survive a job interview. Along the way, Ms. Evans gives numerous small nudges to their self-esteem.
If they stay the course, they're turned loose on a local economy ravenous for workers. Lockheed Martin case managers point students in the direction of "help wanted" signs. They apply for jobs, fulfilling a requirement for a certain number of personal contacts per week.
Some do get jobs--including most of those in Ms. Evans' April class. When students do get work, Lockheed Martin puts a tick in its book and reports success--another person off the dole.
The state adjusts its statistics. And a miracle is pronounced. A six-day miracle.
From a look at the raw numbers, Lockheed Martin is enjoying some success in Dallas County. It seems to have made the rather unlikely transition from government contractor to miracle worker.
People are getting jobs. In January, Lockheed Martin reported that it helped find work for 2,759 Dallas County residents who'd been getting government aid--including 14 percent of the area's welfare recipients. How long are they keeping those jobs? No one really knows, because our state Legislature hasn't deemed it necessary to track the long-term effects of Texas' welfare-reform program.
That has led to criticism that programs such as Lockheed Martin's merely skim off the small percentage of men and women who were ready to work anyway--people who temporarily needed government aid but have held jobs before.
What's left untouched, critics say, are the hardcore cases--lifelong welfare recipients, people who, in some cases, have never bought into the values of the working world.
That's only a theory, of course, as no one is keeping tabs on who gets helped and for how long. But it is clear that Lockheed Martin has no incentive to dip into the ranks of the hardcore. The state pays the company to get someone, anyone, off the dole, and when Lockheed Martin delivers the numbers, the state pronounces success.
A woman like Electra Taylor represents the program's potential as well as some of its unresolved questions. Taylor, a 28-year-old Midland native who dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, is raising three boys--ages 12, 9, and 7--by herself. She has been on welfare sporadically for five years and lost her most recent job last summer when the maid service for which she worked moved to a suburb, and she couldn't arrange transportation. Taylor loved Ms. Evans' class.
"You learned things you thought you knew," she says. "It wasn't like they were trying to brush us off. She makes you feel like you want to get up and go to work every morning."
Within two weeks of the class' conclusion, Taylor had found a job as a nurse's aide--making $5.50 an hour for 18 hours of work a week. Eight of her fellow students had also found work; Ms. Evans estimates that her students will be earning on average $6.50 an hour, exceeding the federal goal set for welfare recipients of $5.50 an hour (the minimum wage is $5.15).
Even with her new job, though, Taylor realizes that her Lockheed Martin-sponsored experience hasn't settled all of her economic issues.
She doesn't know, for instance, how much her new source of income will affect the $398 a month she gets in food stamps. The rule of thumb, state social workers say, is a cutback equal to about 20 percent of whatever new income she receives. Taylor isn't certain that it makes economic sense for her to work this job and doesn't know if she'll get health benefits for her family.
"I'm still looking," she says, "because I don't think it's gonna be enough."
Some of the people in Ms. Evans' class, of course, do not get jobs. They will remain in Lockheed Martin's database, and the case managers will still attempt to locate suitable work. Whether these men and women will fade away in the coming months, frustrated with the job hunt--or ultimately run up against the five-year welfare limit--no one knows.
But the loud woman in Ms. Evans' class--so full of brash enthusiasm at the beginning of the course--is one of those who seemed to drift away with time. When the Dallas Observer tried to reach her recently to see whether she'd found work, she made it known that such inquiries were no longer welcome.
Yet if anyone could extract a miracle from six days of part-time instruction, Ms. Evans could.
She expounds on the work ethic with the zeal of a street preacher, attempting to instill the skills and perseverance needed to get employed and stay that way, something most of her students have failed to do until now.
From 8:30 a.m. till midday, Ms. Evans talks about building self-esteem, maintaining adequate hygiene, asserting oneself, networking with friends, putting together resumes, and talking to prospective employers, all with an engaging, empathetic manner that never condescends.
On the first day of class, she assigns a piece of homework: "Spend at least 15 minutes pleasing yourself. Not your children, not your man, but pleasing yourself."
"Uh-huh," the loud woman says in a slow and sensual tone, drawing more laughs.
Ms. Evans smiles and adds sympathetically, "When you are looking for a job, that is a job."
Welfare administrators have warned all of Ms. Evans' students, who are receiving either cash assistance, food stamps, or both, that they must attend her class or risk losing some of their benefits.
The new state rules require that most welfare recipients, if they want to collect their full monthly benefits--a maximum of $188 in cash and $321 in food stamps for a single parent with two kids--must attend a seminar such as Ms. Evans'.
Along with the morning seminar, the students who are receiving cash assistance--known these days as Temporary Aid For Needy Families, TANF--are linked up to a Lockheed Martin caseworker who helps them search through the Texas Workforce Commission's computerized listings for job prospects. When the six-day seminar is over, the students are expected to begin beating the pavement to find at least a part-time job, contacting two prospective employers in person each day and documenting those meetings.
In Texas, unlike some states, welfare administrators never strip away all of a family's benefits even if both parents refuse to attend the class or seek work. But one parent can lose $78 a month for failing to participate. In two-parent households, the maximum penalty is $125 a month if both parents refuse to work.
With the consequences made clear, Evans' students show up promptly every morning. Meeting in a classroom on the second floor of a strip shopping center near the former Red Bird Mall, the students sit attentively in folding chairs. Only one woman, who lays her head on her arm, seems uninterested. Dressed in an army jacket and carrying luggage, she stops coming after three days, putting herself in jeopardy of losing benefits.
In Ms. Evans' April class, all of the students were African-American, with the exception of one Hispanic woman. In Dallas County, 65 percent of the 10,492 people who received TANF benefits in February were black, 16 percent were white, and 16 percent were Hispanic.
Toward the end of the first session, Ms. Evans makes a detour from her lesson plan because of a student's question. She has begun discussing in very specific terms what's required for the students' mandatory job searches. The class seems riveted. They're supposed to contact 10 prospective employers in person per week.
Ms. Evans tries to calm any fears about so much pavement-pounding. "I don't want you to concern yourself with the 10 contacts," she says. "Take it one day at a time. We'll call you and job-develop for you. You call us--we're here to serve you."
Nonetheless, she's blunt about her students' obligations to follow up on job interviews that caseworkers have scheduled. "If you don't," she says firmly, "it could result in a loss of benefits."
At the morning break, as the women stand on the second-floor balcony and smoke cigarettes--tossing the butts on the ground, even though Ms. Evans has specifically asked them not to--their teacher's other messages appear to have made a stronger impression.
The women discuss job prospects with what seems like a sincere eagerness to find work. The woman in the army jacket, who has one arm in a sling, explains that she has repeatedly broken her wrist during the past 15 years. "I can't make beds and wash dishes," she says, "but I can use an adding machine and type."
When the class resumes, Evans concocts a fun assignment. She divides the class--all women on the first day--into five teams and asks each to write a recipe for a "self-esteem cake."
"We are not an English class or grammar class as long as we can read it," Evans tells the groups as they huddle over large pieces of paper with multi-colored markers. "Um-ummm," Evans says as she wanders from group to group, looking over their shoulders. "I smell something good cooking."
The students take their assignment seriously, particularly Denise Phillips, a trim woman in a well-tailored maroon suit whose hair is pinned in a neat bun. Phillips, 40, wants to be the first to present her cake recipe to the class. She reads the ingredients: "A cup of motivation, a cup of appearance, 1/4 cup of good listening..." And then Phillips adds with a smile, "It don't matter what the cake looks like."
A Denver native who moved to Dallas two months ago to be close to friends, Phillips is raising a 9-year-old boy. She receives $198 a month in food stamps and has been getting government aid off and on for the past three years. She obtained her GED in 1977, and for many years worked in food service, but wants out of that field. "I got tired of using my feet all day," Phillips says. "I wanted to use my head."
Before she left Colorado, Phillips participated in a 12-week job-training program sponsored by a private nonprofit agency. Phillips credits her Colorado training for the job she eventually gets in Dallas--one of the highest-paid positions in the class. Phillips will earn $8.50 an hour to assist at an accountant's office.
"I know how to talk for myself," Phillips says about her good wage.
If she stays on, she'll eventually get health benefits for herself and her son. But she knows these dividends didn't come from sitting just six days in a Lockheed Martin seminar.
Ms. Evans' personal dedication aside, Lockheed Martin is obviously in the welfare business for money.
Not that it shouldn't be.
For the huge multinational company, welfare reform represents significant economic opportunity. Federal, state, and local governments spent more than $250 billion on welfare in 1996. About 28 percent of that was administrative costs. If privatization takes hold nationwide, there's some $28 billion in potential revenues for Lockheed Martin, according to a Harvard Business School study.
Texas has provided Lockheed Martin with some of its biggest opportunities. The company has contracts to administer welfare programs--like the ones it has negotiated in Dallas--with the counties surrounding Austin and those in the Gulf Coast area.
Ideally, Lockheed Martin would like to crowd as many government social services as possible under one roof, providing one-stop shopping for the needy. But the real reason is profit: A Lockheed Martin caseworker of the future might collect child-support payments for a single mother, then turn around and assist her in a job search to get off the welfare rolls.
Two years ago, Lockheed Martin made an extremely audacious--though ultimately unsuccessful--bid to overhaul Texas' entire system for determining eligibility for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and more than 25 other programs.
The state Legislature, with the urging of Gov. Bush, had passed a bill to get the project--known as the Texas Integrated Enrollment System (TIES)--up and running. Lockheed Martin teamed up with IBM and made a $500 million bid for the contract.
The proposal gained national attention as the first attempt to privatize an entire state's welfare system. But the controversial bid eventually became moot in 1995 when the Clinton administration nixed the TIES proposal, saying it went too far.
This spring, a similar proposal known as TIES 97 is winding through legislative oversight subcommittees. Lockheed Martin representatives have shown up at vendor forums, but exactly how the TIES pie will be split up this time isn't clear.
What's certain is that Lockheed Martin has a history of troubled relationships with state and federal governments. When the feds bailed it out of near-bankruptcy in 1971 to the tune of $250 million, U.S. Sen. William Proxmire coined the phrase "corporate welfare." Over the years, the company has been accused of foul play, bribery schemes, and deliberate cost overruns. Lockheed Martin, indeed, was the defense contractor that produced the infamous $600 toilet seat for the Navy 13 years ago.
With its newer social-services division, Lockheed Martin is having a tough time shaking the impression that it siphons off taxpayer dollars and, in exchange, often delivers poor performance.
In Baltimore, the company won a three-year contract to collect child support. But in its first year, Lockheed Martin failed to meet performance goals. In November, the company and the state of California mutually agreed to cancel a contract for Lockheed Martin to build a computerized tracking system for collecting child support. The system's projected costs had skyrocketed--from $99 million to $277 million.
In Dallas, however, Lockheed Martin has been able to put some polish on its image. In fact, the company presents Dallas nationwide as its big success story.
In a story about the problems companies were having nationwide in privatizing welfare, Time magazine cited Lockheed Martin's work in Dallas as the exception. In the March 23 article, Time reported that the company "had placed 76 percent of its clients in new jobs paying an average of $431 a week, exceeding federal goals."
Without question, people are dropping off the welfare rolls in Dallas and throughout Texas. Since the state launched its reforms in September 1995, the number of welfare recipients has declined by 32 percent.
In 1995, some 721,700 individuals in Texas--a figure that includes children--received cash assistance, food stamps, or both. In January of this year, only 501,866 were getting such benefits. Similarly, in Dallas, some 19,000 people were receiving aid in 1995. Now only 11,400 are getting it.
But local workers at nonprofits that help the poor share a more skeptical view of Lockheed Martin's supposed success and the shrinking welfare rolls.
"In this booming economy, we could mask just about anything including World War Three," says Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, a nonprofit agency that provides services to the needy. The unemployment rate in Dallas had dropped to 3.3 percent in February, almost two percentage points lower than the national average.
"Lockheed Martin gets a minimum-wage job for a mother of five, and that's a success," says Kim Olsen, an organizer at ACORN, a nonprofit organization that is trying to organize a union of welfare recipients in Dallas. Olsen says she has interviewed some 700 welfare recipients since the reforms took effect. Although she hasn't done a formal survey, Olsen believes that Lockheed Martin's tactics have left many aid recipients in the dark about benefits for which they're eligible--including educational and child-care subsidies.
Blaine has made similar observations. "There is more to this than telling them to get a job, shine their shoes, and brush their hair," she says.
Based on her own research, Blaine has concluded that those dropping off the welfare rolls are indeed going to work. She has received reports, for example, that temporary-job agencies have experienced a rise in applicants. But Blaine is concerned about the children of this new work force. "Where are the kids? We don't know," she says. She is puzzled because there hasn't been a corresponding increase in demand at child-care agencies, even though the state provides day-care subsidies for former welfare recipients in their first year off the dole.
Sandra Lamm, director of Child Care Group, the agency with which the Dallas Workforce Development Board contracts to provide this subsidized day care, is also concerned. Lamm cites an increase of 3,000 new subsidized day-care users since the reforms went into effect, but "that doesn't account for the nearly 8,000 that have dropped off the welfare rolls," she says.
The chief concern of many frontline poverty workers, however, is the lack of research on the consequences of welfare reform. No one knows for certain whether Lockheed Martin's success stories will end up back on the dole in a few years.
At its own expense, Lockheed Martin has tracked its program participants to date. Since it began its contract last year, Dallas project manager Jill Brown says, more than 70 percent of the six-day wonders have stayed off the dole.
Lockheed Martin's data, however, doesn't tell who's returning to welfare and why--potentially critical issues when the five-year lifetime cap for welfare starts playing a role.
During the second day of class, Ms. Evans teaches her students the difference between assertive, aggressive, and passive behaviors. On job interviews, she says, you want to be assertive--not aggressive.
Above all, never trash a former employer. "All you want to do in an interview," she says, "is brag about yourself."
To make sure she's nailed down the distinctions, Ms. Evans does a role-playing exercise. She asks Electra Taylor to act out a scenario in which a baby-sitter abruptly decides to quit caring for unruly children. The baby-sitter confronts the mother, who will most likely suffer consequences at work if she can't find another place to put her kids.
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.
"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.
In its contract with the Dallas County Development Board, Lockheed Martin is only obligated to keep 25 percent of able-bodied welfare recipients in its programs, and only 6.7 percent of work-ready food-stamp recipients.
These surprisingly low requirements reflect the focus of welfare reform. The main objective: Get people off the dole. Keeping people gainfully employed is clearly secondary.
The federal government, in fact, cuts the state and Lockheed Martin some slack even on those low percentages if substantial numbers of people somehow fall off the Texas welfare rolls.
Lockheed Martin, however, has a significant financial incentive to meet its modest participation goals. The company can be penalized $40,000 if it fails to meet the participation rates required in its contract with Dallas County. If it exceeds the goals, it gets a $40,000 bonus.
Lockheed Martin's Jill Brown says the company is currently getting 20 percent participation in its work program among welfare recipients--less than its contract calls for.
She quibbles, however, with the development board's method of setting the goal percentage and has taken her argument to the state.
A $40,000 penalty, she adds, would wipe out Lockheed Martin's profit.
From a social-policy standpoint, 80 percent of Dallas County's welfare recipients aren't participating, and the state doesn't particularly care as long as its welfare roll keeps shrinking.
These women and children who rely on welfare get none of Ms. Evans' instruction, none of the caseworkers' help, and none of the child-care and transportation subsidies for which they're eligible in the work program.
Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, doesn't have to pay for seminars to get them in the work force. But the company is somehow taking credit for getting them off the dole.
"Lockheed's prerogative is to knock as many people off as possible with as little benefits as possible," says ACORN's Kim Olsen. "That's it."
During the rest of her seminar, Ms. Evans covers networking, resumes, thank-you letters, and other subjects. At about 11 a.m., though, she adjourns the class to help students find job leads.
For her five food-stamp recipients, Ms. Evans relies heavily on computerized lists provided by the Texas Workforce Commission. Employers send openings to the state agency.
But Evans also develops leads on her own time. She says she rarely passes by a help wanted sign without going inside to inquire. Her 16-year-old son, whom she mentions several times in class, is annoyed by her constant vigilance. "Mom," he says, "do you have to do that today? You're not even working."
One Wednesday morning, Ms. Evans sits alone in her empty classroom. All of her students are out on referrals--except for the loud woman who sits in the back. She had called in earlier that day to tell Ms. Evans that her father suffered a heart attack. She wanted to know if her absence would jeopardize her benefits. One day doesn't matter, Ms. Evans said. But after two absences, the woman would have to start the class all over again to continue receiving full benefits.
Ms. Evans says she believes the Lockheed Martin program works. She rarely sees students return to her classes. "I tell them point-blank--I don't want to see them in my class again," she says.
Ms. Evans admits she once received food stamps herself, while she was in college. "I treat people the way I want to be treated," she says. "These people are no different than me--except they are unemployed."
She also supports the state's welfare reforms. "I'm all for reform," she says. "I think everyone has a work ethic." But she bends a few rules to make things work. Her food-stamp recipients are supposed to work at least 30 hours a week unless they have small children. But "If they're working part-time, we work with them" to retain their food-stamp benefits, Ms. Evans says.
Even outside of class, Ms. Evans brags about her students. "The one I am most proud of," she says, "is William [Robinson]. He has three referrals."
A week after the seminar ended, Robinson would be among those who'd snagged a job. A church hired him as a groundskeeper for $7 an hour, plus health benefits.
Ms. Evans found the job on the computer and made an initial call. She didn't tell them about Robinson's reading problem. "I don't go into that kind of detail," she says.
It is Good Friday, the last day of Ms. Evans' seminar. She asks the class what's significant about this day.
The room falls silent. Then one woman raises her hand and says it's the day Jesus Christ was born.
Audible tsks can be heard, but no one volunteers the correct answer. For once, Ms. Evans seems a little taken aback. "Come on, you guys," she says. "It was the day Christ was nailed to the Cross."
Before wrapping up her seminar--when she lavishes praise on her students for staying the course--she distributes a handout titled "It's easy to keep that job!"
Just then, Nathaniel Pipkins, the ex-con, barges into the classroom. It is 9:05 a.m., 35 minutes after class began. Pipkins is wearing a torn gym suit and sneakers. "Sorry," he says. "I had a rough night."
Ms. Evans gives only a playful warning look. "I guess he knows because he's starting work on Monday, he can come in late," she says. Pipkins has gotten a job operating a forklift for a company that makes car interiors. His pay is $6 an hour, but he expects to get a raise in about a month--when he'll also begin receiving health benefits. "I want them to see that I want this job," Pipkins says.
In class, the loud woman in the back comes to Pipkins' defense for his tardiness. "I think an employer doesn't mind if you're just like five or 10 minutes late," she says.
Wrong answer. Most of her classmates moan their disapproval.
Ms. Evans states in no uncertain terms that punctuality matters. "If they open their office at 8, they need you there," she says. "Imagine if I were always late--what would you think of me?" she asks. A few cast quick glances at her assistant, who has been late more than once.
Then Evans returns to her handouts. "You see the money signs on these sheets?" she says, pointing to the symbols in the upper and lower page margins. "You cannot make those unless you keep the job. We don't need a workshop for job-search skills. You can all get the job. You need to keep it."
The handouts offer some useful advice. "Call you [sic] boss NOT the secretary or a co-worker--if you will be late or absent," reads one of nine items on a list.
But the last item seems cruelly tautological: "Avoid the 'Reasons for being fired.'"
"Call us," Ms. Evans tells the group, "if you want to say profanity at the supervisor. Do not leave that job unless you get another job. I don't want to see your faces in here."
On the board behind her, Ms. Evans has inscribed the names of her 18 graduating students with "CONGRATULATIONS" written in huge letters. Four of the 22 who started the seminar, including the woman with the broken arm, have missed two or more sessions and must sign up for another seminar or face a reduction of their benefits.
"Denise," Ms. Evans asks, "would you like to tell us your good news?"
Denise Phillips tells the group, "I'll find out Monday if I get the job at the hospital, and if I do, then I'll have to choose between two." (She eventually chooses the position at the accountant's office.)
The garrulous woman in the back, who has returned to class after her father's illness, pipes up to no one in particular: "Mr. Tommy at Dillard's has told me there are some management positions open."
The woman, who asked that her name not be used, had not found a job by the end of the month.
Before dismissing her students on the last day, Ms. Evans went over the rules for filling out the forms needed to prove that the students--if they hadn't gotten a job yet--had visited at least two prospective employers a day. The teacher's assistant helps Robinson complete his paperwork.
When Ms. Evans begins calling students up to the front of the class to receive their graduation certificates, she calls Robinson first. He looks over the document. "Thanks," he says, with an expression of obvious satisfaction on his face.
At the end, as the students begin to file out the door and into an uncertain world of work, the talkative woman can still be heard in the back of the room. "I got a whole lot of certificates and awards," she says. "I keep them and let my boys see them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.