Labor Games

San Francisco is spending $5 million on a flag-waving, candy-bar-giving, feel-good course called Express to Success, hoping it will move welfare recipients into jobs. But no one is measuring the success -- or failure -- of the program itself.

Rough Diamonds or Cubic Zirconia?
Snapshots of dozens of smiling, happy people adorn the walls at the entrance to the city's Express to Success Center on Van Ness Avenue, headquarters of the welfare-to-work program that is the gem of San Francisco's Department of Human Services (DHS). Every Polaroid shows a beaming Express to Success "graduate" holding a PayDay candy bar.

The pictures are meant as testimony to the success of this seven-week motivational job search program -- the cornerstone of the welfare department's $5.2 million job search, education, and training program for San Francisco residents on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

San Francisco's 14-month-old program follows a model developed by Curtis and Associates Inc., a steadily expanding, for-profit "employment communications" consulting firm based in Nebraska, with 65 offices across the country.

The Curtis curriculum includes basic job search skills such as resume-writing and interviewing, but the heart of the welfare cure is a strong dose of est-ian esteem-building and motivation. The program begins with a six-day classroom workshop, followed by six weeks in a job "network" center. It covers child care and bus passes, as well.

The philosophy is simple: Any job is a good job. Those who work hard and believe in themselves will succeed. Motivation, not job training or skills, is the key.

This, the welfare bureaucrats say, is the program that will move San Francisco's 31,000 AFDC recipients off government assistance before new two-year time limits take effect. But this much-touted "gem" may be little more than a mail-order zirconia.

Express to Success is by no means a proven success. The numbers given as evidence of its effectiveness are hardly convincing: Only 35 percent of the roughly 800 AFDC recipients who participated in the San Francisco program between last February and September actually found jobs.

More significant, the city has no statistics whatsoever on the program's long-term effectiveness. The Department of Human Services has not tracked past participants to see whether they have kept the jobs they found, or whether they have fallen back on welfare. In other words, Express to Success could take no one off the welfare rolls over the long term, and city administrators would never even know the program was a complete failure.

And the DHS admits it has little current interest in knowing the long-term efficacy of its program. Patrick Duterte, manager of the department's employment and training services, says, "If we wanted to find out, we could. But tracking is not our focus right now."

Instead, the "focus" is moving bodies -- Duterte hopes for 1,000 placements this year -- through the Express Center.

Day 1: Sweet Potato Pie
Tall and statuesque, Express to Success trainer Briana Moore strikes an imposing figure as she stands at the front of the classroom waiting for her students to settle in. It is 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, Day 1 of a six-day workshop called "Steps to Self-Sufficiency."

Colorful posters with motivational mantras -- Controlling the Interview, Show Liking, and Green Flags among them -- are posted along the classroom walls. In the hallway outside, a poster that features a smiling sun and a pastel rainbow says, "Tomorrow's Success Begins Today!" Down the hall near the kitchen area, there is another slogan posted squarely above a garbage can: "I AM THE CENTER OF ABUNDANCE."

Moore begins the class in sonorous, commanding tones. "Good morning. I want to say I am glad to have you here," she says. "I want to affirm and acknowledge how beautiful each of you looks."

Several of the women cast quizzical looks at one another and at this formidable woman, who resembles an African queen from a warrior tribe. Nobody has ever talked to them like this before. Affirmations and acknowledgements will become familiar lingo in the next few days; they are part of the program's esteem-building component. The instructor will emphasize over and over again that anyone with a positive attitude can succeed.

The 18 women in this class are veterans of the welfare system. They range in age from 24 to 48, though most are in their mid-30s. Some have been on AFDC for more than a decade. Some do not even know that minimum wage is now $5 an hour.

One woman, wearing all black, leans back in a corner chair with her arms folded tightly across her stomach. She hides behind mirrored sunglasses and a shaggy veil of long red hair.

"Remove your shades," Moore orders. "We're going to be working on transforming your lives. I've got to see what's up." The woman sighs, and takes off her glasses.

Moore explains the drill for the days ahead. The sessions will run 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with breaks for coffee and lunch. An unexcused absence will mean repeating "Steps" from the beginning. After "Steps," each person will have a resume and a master application, and the class will move into the Job Network Center for up to another six weeks.

She points to the flip chart on the table beside her. "Remember what this was?" The chart, introduced to the women during a daylong orientation to the Express to Success program, depicts a pie graph titled "Success in an Interview." Several women in the class nod. "A sweet potato pie."

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