For Caseworker, Helping Is a Frustrating Struggle

By JASON DePARLE
The New York Times
December 10, 1999

MILWAUKEE -- Many people consider themselves experts on this city's war on welfare, but few have ridden its highs and lows as intensely as Michael Steinborn.

Shortly after he became a caseworker last year, he ran four blocks through the snow to buy a coat for a freezing client. She sold it to buy crack. He worked past 1 a.m. to polish another client's resume. She skipped her job interview. He listened to one woman reject a work assignment with an indignant explanation: "I don't do mornings." He listened to another explain how she had coped with the loss of her welfare check -- by selling her body to an old man for $50 a day.

Then again, once in a while, he sees something that really surprises him: Clients he thought would never work have gone out and gotten jobs. "All the sudden, the little light in their head goes on," he said. "It almost makes it worthwhile, at least for that day."

Eighteen months ago, Mr. Steinborn was an unemployed jack of the building trades, down on his luck and in need of a job himself. Improbably enough, he is now one of the system's most attentive caseworkers -- "my guardian angel," a client said -- and a de facto authority on the nation's most famous welfare experiment. To an extent that is rare among the city's 150 caseworkers, Mr. Steinborn embodies the personal insight and attention the system claims to dispense.

In theory, personalized casework was supposed to be a hallmark of Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program, called Wisconsin Works, or W-2. In practice, most poor people see their caseworkers as distant, or even antagonistic, enforcers of unpopular new work rules. Yet with little formal preparation outside his own street-smart past, Mr. Steinborn, a white man whose clients are mostly black women, has shown a knack for earning their trust.

"Like a brother," said Dinah Doty.

"My friend," said Shelley Block.

"A blessing," said Angiwetta Hills.

A self-deprecating man who can talk at length about his sense of failure and futility, Mr. Steinborn, 31, is not one to see himself starring in a sunny story of social progress. He took the job in skepticism ("I thought there was going to be an in-the-streets revolution."), graduated to despair ("I thought, I'm not going to last a week."), and found himself steeped in resentment ("You're lied to on a constant basis.").

Indeed, to see W-2 as Mr. Steinborn does -- case by painful case, 10 hours a day -- is to grow newly wary of simplistic efforts to reduce its impact to slogans.

"Is it working?" he said, repeating the obvious question, after multiple efforts to deflect it. "The honest answer is I don't think we can judge by the people who are in the program now. We'll know when their kids are working age."

While Mr. Steinborn's experience offers a candid look at the struggles inside W-2, it is also revealing in a more personal way. Across the country, the new welfare laws are reshaping not only the poor, but also society's perceptions of the poor. Mr. Steinborn, a man who has been mulling inner-city poverty virtually all his life, is an intriguing case in point.

The son of a central-city landlord, he was raised in the same neighborhood as most of his clients, among them yet apart. He began chasing tenants for his father's rents when he was 10. He took pride in never backing down from a neighborhood fight and had his nose broken three times. The last thing he brought to his new occupation was a sentimental view of the poor.

"I never wanted to be a sucker for a sob story," he said.

But Mr. Steinborn said casework has taught him something he missed in street fights and lease disputes: the hidden hurt that most of his clients feel.

"There's a lot of sadness and a lot of depression in the people I deal with," he said. "They don't want to be perceived as vulnerable. But when you cut away the exterior, they're sad -- sad for themselves, sad for their children, sad that they haven't done more with their lives. And they're just aching for you to listen -- not necessarily to solve their problem, just to listen.

"I'm not sure if I knew this before and chose to forget it, or if I'm learning it for the first time."

The Link
Going to World Wise From Computer Wise

Caseworkers were supposed to be the stars of the new program, which began in 1997. "More of the success of Wisconsin Works will ride on the talents, training and strategic deployment of the new group" of caseworkers than on any other aspect of W-2, its designers wrote in their initial proposal.

The redesigned caseworker was seen as a teacher, preacher, friend and cop -- an all-purpose partner to guide poor parents into jobs. To attract new talent, the state put the program up for bid, with five private agencies (two profit-seeking and three nonprofit) winning the contracts in Milwaukee.

The vision was more exceptional than it sounds. Personalized casework all but disappeared from the welfare system two generations ago, derided by welfare rights advocates as paternalistic (the poor need money, not advice, they said) and shunned by budget offices as frightfully expensive. By the late 1960's, the typical caseworker was a clerk, churning out checks to hundreds of families while knowing almost nothing about them.

W-2 sought to get personal, specifying that each worker serve no more than 55 families at a time. Yet the role of the caseworkers is different from that of traditional social workers who push clients toward education or counseling. With a focus on immediate employment, caseworkers steer as many clients as possible into regular wage-paying jobs, while assigning others to a workfare program in exchange for their monthly checks of $673. To emphasize the new get-a-job ethos, the caseworkers have a new name: financial and employment planners, or Feps.

While W-2 is more personal than the system it replaced, most caseworkers still function in a largely administrative role, still more like clerks than confidants. In part, that is because most clients are reluctant to disclose personal problems (like drug abuse or depression), especially to an authority figure who controls their monthly checks.

In part, it is because relationships are often short-lived. Cases are assigned geographically, so clients who move, as the poor often do, typically get a new caseworker. And much of the caseworker's job still involves managing data, not people; they are largely judged on how well they keep records in a complicated state computer program.

"The concept of the Fep was fantastic," said Keith Garland, a manager at Maximus, one of the two profit-seeking companies that run the program in Milwaukee. "But I don't know that overall the system has had the type of people who have fit the bill."

In the summer of 1998, Mr. Garland set out to find a different kind of caseworker, someone less computer-literate than world-wise, someone like Mr. Steinborn.

At the time, Mr. Steinborn needed employment planning himself. He was a 30-year-old, jobless, blue-collar guy with an ex-wife, a 4-year-old son and a pregnant girlfriend. He had dropped out of college, driven a cab, hung sheet rock, started a business mowing abandoned city lots and lost it in a fight with his partner. Then he sat at home, brooding.

A high school test had predicted he would make a good social worker, but Mr. Steinborn had scoffed. "I said, 'You think I'm going to be some underpaid, overworked social worker?' " he said. But over a beer one night, a friend told him that Maximus was hiring, with annual salaries at nearly $30,000. He borrowed five dress shirts from his father and swallowed his pride as a guy who avoided desk jobs. "I needed the money," he said.


The Super Worker
Becoming Addicted To Helping Clients

In two months of training at Maximus, Mr. Steinborn had one thought: "What have I gotten myself into?" He had no problem talking across economic or racial lines (both his ex-wife and girlfriend are black) but the policy manual was inches thick, and entering the wrong computer code meant a family might not get a check.

He winced at his mistakes and laid awake at night. He dreaded going to work so much he kicked a hole in his bedroom wall. Meanwhile, the caseworker assigned to train him was arrested for asking clients for kickbacks. (That caseworker was acquitted by a jury in October.) Mr. Steinborn's supervisor caught him filling out an application for a job cutting plate glass.

"This isn't like putting up dry wall," Mr. Steinborn said. "You're messing with people's live."

Then something strange happened. He entered what he now self-mockingly calls his "SuperFep" stage. "I began to think I could solve everyone's problems," he said.

When a client dragged her feet in applying for a job, Mr. Steinborn drove her to an interview. (She did not get hired.) When a client needed child care, Mr. Steinborn arranged to meet her son at school and drive him to a day-care center. (She skipped her training program anyway.)

One day, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy arrived in his office. By the book, Mr. Steinborn was merely supposed to offer her a list of specialized child-care centers. Instead, he spent three hours placing calls, until he found a promising lead.

His client never visited the child-care center. But she did visit a legal aid office, to complain that Mr. Steinborn had failed to appreciate the needs of her child. She dropped the complaint at the ensuing hearing, saying she had gotten confused. ("I felt sorry for Michael -- he really did try to help me," she said in a recent interview.)

The planning manual urged caseworkers to teach the poor to solve their own problems -- to "empower" rather than "enable" them. Then again, the theorists had never met the Woman Without a Coat.

"Mi-ii-ke," she yelled by way of introduction on the coldest day of the year. "Mi-ii-ke, I need a coat."

She stood too close. She talked too loud. He thought she might be mentally retarded. When a check of clothing programs turned up nothing, Mr. Steinborn ran four blocks through the snow and returned from a thrift store with a $9 coat.

Wrong size, she complained.

He went back and bought another.

Wrong color, she complained.

A few days later, coatless again, she told his supervisor that no one would help her.

Mr. Steinborn spent months listening to her rambling monologues until he assembled the outlines of her story. She said she had been reared by a respected church-going family and lowered to prostitution by drugs. She said she had been sober, though still poor and addled, nearly two years.

When she was faced with eviction, Mr. Steinborn arranged a special grant and found a housing counselor to help her. She cursed out the counselor and told Mr. Steinborn's supervisor she had been abandoned.

SuperFep lost it.

When he asked if she was still smoking crack, she said she had been clean for three days. "Three days," he screamed. "You told me you hadn't used in two years."

He urged her to seek treatment and she angrily refused. Instead, she and her 8-year-old son moved to a homeless shelter, and her case was transferred to another agency.

"A small part of me knew it the whole time, but my whole heart really sank into my stomach," Mr. Steinborn said. "I felt really stupid and useless. I felt betrayed, even though it wasn't about me. I was almost as addicted to helping her as she was to crack."

He vowed to go back to dry wall.


The Surprises
Very Hard Cases Yield Small Triumphs

He also tried to lower his expectations.

With the welfare rolls in Milwaukee down 85 percent, most of the remaining cases are hard ones. Among his clients, about 1 in 8 get a job each month, and most quickly lose them. Success -- at least the kind of life-transforming success he once hoped to see -- is rare. "Sometimes I just have to be happy that someone showed up," he said.

Still, there are surprises.

Mr. Steinborn keeps tacked to his wall a copy of a certificate from a woman he barely knows, Angiwetta Hills. He spent hours untangling the computer transfer of her case from another agency, allowing her to receive her first check in months. Ms. Hills, 23, who was living in a homeless shelter, surprised him with perfect attendance in a motivation class, an achievement that is not quite a new life (or even a new job), but still a morsel of encouragement.

The surprise ran in both directions. Having spent months in limbo between two agencies, Ms. Hills had not expected to find a worker willing to help. "He said, 'Everything's going be all right, Angiwetta -- you put in your half and I'll put in mine,' " she said. Now out of the shelter and at yet another agency, Ms. Hills dramatized her view of most caseworkers' attitude by dialing her new worker's number. The voice mail said, "Try to call only once a week."

Likewise, Mr. Steinborn had few expectations of Dinah Doty, 23, who arrived with a scant work history, no high-school degree and on the verge of having her fourth child. Then after a few months of talks, she walked in one day and said she was employed. In this case, Ms. Doty did seem transformed. "She was almost glowing," Mr. Steinborn said. He insists he contributed nothing but Ms. Doty disagrees. "Michael gave me that motivation to get up and basically open my eyes," she said. "Michael understands where I'm coming from."

In that, she may be more right than she knows. After a decade of mourning his own failures -- in college, marriage and business -- what most surprises Mr. Steinborn about social work is how deeply he identifies with many of his clients.

"I can relate to the desperate part of them, the part that doesn't even know how you're going to make it to the next day," he said. "Because I've felt that more than once in my life, and it's scary."

To the outside world, the case he calls his proudest success may not seem like much. Shelley Block, the woman who did not "do mornings," is now a part-time bus driver at an after-school program. But without Mr. Steinborn's help, she said, she would not be working at all.

When she arrived in his office last January, he encountered a 300-pound woman with a pierced tongue, a tattooed arm and what she herself calls a "really bad attitude." He took to her right away. He coaxed her into a work assignment inside the Maximus office, where they talked, all the time. "I would say, 'Michael, I can't believe I'm telling you this," she said. When she confided last summer that her boyfriend had beaten her, Mr. Steinborn delivered the finest you-are-somebody lecture Ms. Block had ever heard.

"He said, 'I can see you behind a desk some day, making sound money,' " she said. "He said, 'Don't ever let anybody put you down.' He gave me so much confidence I cried -- I did -- when I walked out."

Not long after, Mr. Steinborn was in another trough. When he told Ms. Block he wanted to quit, the pep talk this time was hers. "I told him people were depending on him," she said. "I told him, 'Don't quit!' "

Mr. Steinborn, the bruised idealist who sometimes thinks he is a cynic, listened, for now. "I still go back and forth between, 'I can help them change their lives' and 'Who am I kidding?' " he said. "There's no happy-ever-after as a caseworker."

Copyright © 1999 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

 

 

 

 

 
 
  

 

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