Respond to this Article September 2004

Dream Deferred

The most inspired employee in America's most lauded welfare agency can barely do his job.

By Jason DeParle

Mi-ike!" she rasped. She stood so close it was all he could do to keep from backing away. She talked with such a loud lisp he thought she might be retarded. She was missing half her teeth, and her skin looked almost plastic. If she weren't so big in the butt, he would have guessed she was smoking crack. That's the thing he had noticed about addicts: Their butts were the first thing to go. As her sandpaper voice silenced the room, even the receptionists stopped to stare. "I need a coat, Mi-ike! You're my caseworker now, Mi-ike!" Michael Steinborn felt his loathing for his job surge to new highs. "She's a mile a minute with the 'Mikes,"' he thought. "My new best friend."

American Dream
by Jason DeParle
Viking Books, $25.95

Since inheriting her case months earlier, he had known her only as a computer code. She hadn't answered his appointment letters. (Typical.) She hadn't complained when he docked her check. (Not typical.) Now here she was in shirtsleeves in January, with the wind-chill factor 24 below. Coats weren't part of Michael's job on the front lines of Milwaukee's famous welfare experiment. That's what the office had its high-priced "community outreach" team for. But given days to produce, the outreach team had produced only excuses. "They haven't gotten you a coat?" he asked. "Look at me, Mi-ike--does it look like I have a coat?" There was a thrift shop down the street. Michael promised her a coat. He was halfway out the door when he spotted the hole in the scheme: He only had $4. He climbed back up the stairs, bummed a loan from a coworker, and ran four blocks through the snow. The drifts swallowed his office-worker shoes and buried his toes in ice.

The thrift store was out of coats. There was another thrift store two blocks away, and another sprint left him surrounded by coats--blue coats and black coats, long coats and short coats, so many coats that he was losing his way when a voice came into his head. It was the familiar voice of self-reproach, his You Idiot! voice, and it reminded him that he wasn't there to make a fashion statement: just pick one, you idiot! He chose a blue ski jacket with a pink collar, nicer than anything he had expected. It cost $11. He had $9. The clerk made a show of contempt, but let the difference slide. It wasn't exactly a landmark in the annals of social work. But Michael allowed himself a frisson of satisfaction. The nail filers in outreach had sat around all week; Michael Steinborn, can-do guy, had gotten something done.

She lifted her arms over her head and made a sour face. "It's a little snug when I do this, Mi-ike!" The slapstick line came to mind: "Then don't do this!" But the coat had another problem. The zipper didn't work. Back he went, six blocks through the snow. Back to the sign that warned: "No Exchanges. All Sales Final." What was he supposed to say? Special exceptions for dumb-ass social workers with ice in their shoes? A bit of groveling brought a lined denim jacket and a zipper that zipped. "Mi-ike!" she said. "The other one was better looking than this!"

Mi-ike wasn't going back out in the cold. Mi-ike wasn't wearing a coat himself. He left his at home because his clients' kids kept wiping their Cheeto hands on it. Mi-ike was done talking about coats. "Okay, Mi-ike," she said. How about a bus pass? Four days later, in shirtsleeves again, she told Michael's supervisor that no one would help her find a coat.

A social worker! Michael Steinborn couldn't believe he was a social worker! Six months earlier, he was an unemployed jack of the building trades, drinking vodka for breakfast and wondering how he and his pregnant girlfriend were going to get by. Now he was a caseworker--er, "Financial and Employment Planner"--offering indigents career advice. He hated the grip of starched collars on his throat. He hated the office's new-carpet smell. Above all, he hated feeling responsible once again for the fiascos of ghetto life. Raised in the central city, the son of a small-time landlord, Michael had patrolled the ghetto since grade school, when his father first dispatched him to help collect the rents. "Son, take it from me," Ted Steinborn had warned, after another tenant had skipped out on a debt. "They'll take and take, and then they'll spit you out." Michael took pride in never ducking a fight and had his nose broken three times. The last thing he brought to his profession was a sentimental view of the poor. "I never wanted to be a sucker for a sob story," he said.

Yet as a caseworker, Michael was surrounded by sob stories, and like his father he believed some of them. He could carry on about his clients' bad-faith betrayals, but sometimes he felt he was lying, too, talking up the promise in their going-nowhere jobs. "People will call and say, 'I got a job!' I feel like saying, 'You're going to have a really fucked-up time living on $6.41 an hour.' But my job is to bullshit them, to say, 'Hey, that's great, it's a first step."' Clients liked Michael. Clients trusted Michael. To an extent rare among the city's 150 caseworkers, Michael's career served as a tutorial on what conscientious casework can (and can't) achieve.

The 1996 welfare bill, a landmark in social policy now up for renewal before Congress, has been widely deemed a success. And on one level, the praise is deserved. After 60 years of federal control, Congress handed new authority back to the states, with fixed funding, work rules, and time limits of no more than five years for most recipients. The states responded by cutting the rolls and raising employment rates, each dramatically. Poverty plunged for its target populations--children, minorities, and single mothers. The late '90s economic boom gets part of the credit, and so does an unsung expansion of workers' aid, including child care, health care, and tax credits. But the timing and the depth of the employment surge puts the welfare law at the center of the trend.

If the welfare law has worked, however, it has largely worked as a deterrent, creating enough hassles that those with other options make other plans. Some states require a month-long job search before applicants can collect benefits. Some, including Wisconsin, route recipients through rounds of job-search and motivation classes so tedious they make the competent flee. It is much less common for the system to do what it often claims, to provide individualized services that get at the underlying issues in poor women's lives, like drug abuse or depression. With the rolls down 60 percent, there has been lots of talk about the "hard to serve” cases that remain, without much serving of them.

In part, that's because poor women themselves are resistant to the idea. "Personalized casework" means a stranger dipping into their business. In part, it's because lots of front-line workers, particularly in the big cities, aren't a whole lot more capable than their clients. Some, good and bad, have just come off the welfare rolls, and I've met more than one caseworker who returned to public aid. Even good ones like Michael often find themselves trapped in unsupportive bureaucracies. Some of the lawmakers reconsidering the law have now recognized that the bureaucracy needs to do more. But their solution--demanding that states ratchet up the number of clients routed through the current programs--ignores the quality of the programs themselves.

I spent seven years following a group of families through Wisconsin Works, or "W-2," the most lauded welfare program in the country and one now being emulated as far away as Israel. With generous funding, small caseloads, and the clout of the state's four-term governor, Tommy G. Thompson, W-2 is often thought of as a best-case look at the welfare bureaucracy. It wasn't a reassuring one. Behind the scenes, the celebrated program compiled a disturbing and largely hidden record of financial waste and human neglect. If the law is going to live up to its billing--"the greatest social policy change in sixty years," said Thompson, in his current job as Secretary of Health and Human Services--the system can't afford to rest on a record like this.

"Our dismal performance"

Some social-work careers begin in flights of youthful idealism; Michael's began in 1998 at Ladies Night at a Milwaukee pickup joint. He was out with a high school friend, Jose Arteaga. Growing up together in the inner city, they used to have long, philosophical talks about how the ghetto had gotten so screwed up. Now at 30, Michael was poor and screwed up himself, and Jose was a rising star--director of case management--at Maximus, Inc., one of the five private groups running the Milwaukee welfare program. Jose had an inspiration: Michael should come aboard as a caseworker. Yeah, Michael thought. Right.

It was late, and they were drinking, but they each had a reason to act like they were serious. Michael's reason was simple: He needed a job. In the decade since he had dropped out of Marquette University, he had driven a taxi, delivered pizzas, swabbed toilets, rushed into a marriage, had a son, and gone through a bitter divorce. He had started a landscaping business with a friend and gotten cut out just as it took off. In the two years since, Michael mostly had brooded and drank. He owed 10 months of back child support, and his girlfriend was due to give birth in a week. He needed some cash.

Jose's motives were more complex. Among the five Milwaukee agencies running W-2 (including the YWCA and Goodwill Industries), Maximus was the only national, for-profit company--a welfare agency that traded on the New York Stock Exchange! By allowing states to privatize their programs, the 1996 law set off a gold rush among such firms; one Wall Street analyst saw more than $2 billion a year up for grabs. Formidable rivals like EDS and Lockheed Martin, the aerospace giant, were fighting for the business, but with a longer record and tighter focus, Maximus was thought to have an edge. The W-2 contract was a coup. No welfare program was followed more closely, and Maximus hoped to leverage the publicity into market share nationwide. The company went public on the eve of W-2's launch, and the stake of the founder, David Mastran, soared to more than $100 million.

But behind the scenes, the Maximus program was soon in disarray. W-2 was built on the theory of "full engagement": 40 hours of weekly activity, of which 30 would involve actual work. Yet many clients waited months for assignments. Others ignored their assignments and got paid anyway. Six months after the program's start, Steve Perales, the second in charge, warned that "virtually no referrals are being made to the CSJ unit," the one that assigns community service jobs. While 1,100 clients were supposed to have assignments, just 507 had gotten them, and "only about 88 are actually participating." That is, in the country's most famous work program, only 8 percent of the clients were working. "What they were doing, I don't know," George Leutermann, the head of the program, later told me. "They were doing nothing."

One reason was the shortage of caseworkers. Under state rules, each "Financial and Employment Planner," or Fep, was supposed to manage no more than 55 clients. Some Maximus Feps had more than twice as many. Ten months after the program's launch, the state took its first quantitative look at the agencies' performance. The audit, called a 740RC report, was of interest not only as a mid-term report card, but also because it hinted at the criteria the state would use for contract renewal the following year. With Maximus using the Milwaukee program as a national exhibit, a failure to keep the contract would wreck the business plan. All the Milwaukee agencies performed poorly on the report, but Maximus did especially badly: 67 percent of its clients had no work assignments. Railing about "our dismal performance," Leutermann wrote a memo blaming subordinates for "a major setback" that "portends continued problems." But after months of refusing, he also agreed to hire more caseworkers.

A few nights after their drinking session, Jose showed up in Michael's kitchen with a bottle of tequila and a sheaf of paper. Taping flowcharts to the wall until 1:00 a.m., he offered a crash-course on W-2, as it existed in theory.

Point Number One: Only Work Pays. Free money was gone. Clients had to earn their checks in a simulated workweek. The bulk should be spent actually working, while the rest could be devoted to activities like training, treatment, or classes. For every hour clients missed, their checks got reduced by $5.15, the equivalent of the minimum wage.

Point Number Two: W-2 Provides the Jobs. The jobs progressed along a four-part ladder, with each a step up in difficulty and pay. At the bottom rung, even the physically or mentally impaired might, say, perform light assembly tasks in a supervised setting. At the top was the ultimate goal: regular, unsubsidized employment. In between, most clients would be assigned to community service jobs--answering the phone at a food bank, perhaps, or sweeping a school. In addition, the state provided child care, health care, and transportation, the support services that workers needed.

Point Number Three: Casework Is the Key. There was no casework in the old system, just a stream of checks. W-2 promised every client an individualized employment plan and a caseworker to help see her through. Part sheriff, part shrink, the Feps were supposed to monitor progress and get to the bottom of things. "More of the success of Wisconsin Works will ride on the talents … [of the] financial planners than on any other collective feature of the new design," the original W-2 proposal had said. Yet most of the front-line staff had been brought in from the old system. Jose thought too many acted like data-entry clerks, tidying their software screens but forgetting the client. He saw Michael as a no-bullshit guy, tough but empathetic. The kind the system needed.

As the kitchen course came to its inebriated close, Michael liked the theory. But as for his own role as an agent of reform, he had no enthusiasm at all. Office work dealt a blow to his muscular self-image. Office workers had soft hands. Still, the $28,000 salary was more than he had ever earned. Leaving for the first day of work, he kissed his baby goodbye. "Your daddy's going to make some money," he said.

The boss's mistress

It started poorly and went downhill from there. His first battles weren't with clients but with the computer system that tracked them, a befuddling Wisconsin institution called CARES. The central nervous system of W-2 (most states have an equivalent), CARES had more than 500 screens, each known by an opaque four-letter code. Need to change someone's work assignment? Go to WPAS. Issue her check? Type "Y" in AGEC, but change the date in SFED, otherwise the check may not go out, even when AGEC said it did. For all the talk of making Feps bold problem solvers, fluency in CARES was particularly prized since it was the sole repository of the data that would govern contract renewal. It didn't matter when Michael used his lunch hour to drive clients to job interviews; there was no CARES screen for that. (He pictured one: "SCKR," for "sucker.") What mattered was whether he had correctly coded their employability plans.

Facing a parade of addled clients, Michael found himself thinking more about keystrokes than the substance of what they said. His befuddlement reached its dark apogee with the arrival of a large, sobbing woman free-associating about her troubles. Michael dutifully posed the questions on his screen.

Sobbing Woman: I got into it with my sister's boyfriend....
Michael: What are your employment goals?
Woman: … he hit me in the head with a two-by-four...
Michael: Foreign languages? Written or verbal?
Woman: … we're out of food …
Michael: Volunteer work or hobbies?

Volunteer work or hobbies! "No, I don't want to hear that you've been at food pantries for the last two months," he thought. "What I want to know is whether you play volleyball!" A coworker suggested the information might help him guide a client's job search, but Michael kept picturing a gnome darting out of the computer room: "A knitter!

A knitter! We've got a knitter, folks!"

In pitching welfare privatization, Maximus had promised to outdo government with "a professional work environment that is more conducive to employee productivity." Michael thought the place was coming unglued. At least two caseworkers were addicted to crack. Another was hospitalized for job-related stress. A Fep with whom he shared an office went off on gambling jags, staying out at a casino all night, then sleeping at her desk. "Baby, I gotta take a little nap," she'd say, locking the door. He wondered if he were just a magnet for misfits, but the memo traffic in the bosses' suite showed a broader turmoil. Leutermann, the office chief, warned one caseworker was "going off the deep end lately," causing "all kinds of problems about his behavior in the bathroom." Another Maximus worker chased his supervisor from his office when she told him to clean up his files. "I am a Marine combat veteran that deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," he wrote. "I lost my head." A flirtatious caseworker, rebuffed by a colleague, walked into his cubicle and bit him.

Given the power that caseworkers exert, welfare offices need to use caution; predatory workers may pressure their clients for sex or drugs. Sometimes no pressure is needed. "If you give me the chance, I'll ride you like a horse," one of Michael's clients wrote. Not everyone summoned his self-restraint. A workshop teacher was quietly pushed out the door after a client complained that he was urging her and others to join a drug-peddling scheme. An internal report explained: "She said some of these women have told her that they have had sex with him because they are afraid he will cut off their benefits." A caseworker resigned when his client announced she was carrying his baby. "Dumb ass … should have paid for the abortion like I asked him too!" she announced in the Maximus office, angry after she heard another client boast that she was sleeping with him, too.

Maximus encouraged the hiring of family and friends, calling it an effective way to lure and keep talent. As head of the office, Leutermann certainly practiced what he preached. He put his wife, his son, and his niece on the payroll, along with his mistress and his mistress's mother. The gossip about the boss's affair reached the point that Leutermann urged subordinates not to mention it in front of his wife. In a memo labeled "Rumors and Soap Operas," Leutermann wrote: "Our office continues to suffer through a problem of useless, superfluous, and often insidious rumormongering… MAXIMUS does not have time to fixate on this type of drivel." Leutermann's girlfriend, a senior Maximus manager, was pregnant with his child when he hired her; at the time he circulated the memo complaining about rumors, they had an eight-month-old son. The woman who rose to the number-two job in the Maximus office, Paula Lampley, had her son on the payroll, too, until he drew thirty years for reckless homicide. "In all of our projects, we never had personnel problems like we had up there," David Mastran, the Maximus CEO, later told me.

Perhaps he was thinking of Corey Daniels, the caseworker assigned to train Michael. He wore a platinum Dennis Rodman do and watched soap operas at his desk. Playing his voice mail on the speakerphone, he deleted clients' messages as soon as he heard their names. Bo-rring! Heard that! "The guy's a flipping goof," Michael said. A background check would have shown that Daniels was also a convicted forger, with an arrest record that included kidnapping, battery, and impersonating a police officer. Maximus hired him while he was on parole. A few months after his tutelage of Michael, Daniels was back in court, charged with extorting nearly $4,000 from his clients. (In a trial that largely pitted his word against theirs, he was acquitted.) Michael wondered what he had gotten into: "Drug abuse, check kiting, knocking up people--what is it about this place?"

W-2 buys the crack

Tracking a Maximus client named Opal Caples, I was developing my own concerns about the W-2 bureaucracy. We met in the summer of 1997 at another W-2 agency, a non-profit grassroots group called the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC). It, too, was a mess. I spent an hour in a room of corralled indigents, listening to a job counselor read from an almanac of occupations. It was social work as farce: "Mathematics: reading graphs and stuff like that--it gets real deep when it comes to mathematics...Agriculture: that thing with cows, gets real deep--giving them hormones?... Social studies: like socialization, only you studying it...Forestry: why don't we see any more wolves? Somebody eating them?"

I included Opal in an article about the challenges W-2 faced, and she wound up posed with Tommy Thompson on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. She was also, secretly, a cocaine addict in the process of relapsing. Six months later, her addiction was out of control. She auctioned off her furniture to drug dealers. She smoked up her food stamps. One day, she failed to pick up her three little girls from the day care center that kept them after school. "I didn't forget--I was just high," she said.

W-2 variously ignored and abetted her demise. Her original caseworker, Darlene Haines, left OIC for jobs at Goodwill and Maximus. Then she got convicted of check forgery and wound up on the other side of the desk, as a W-2 client herself. With Haines gone, Opal went months with no caseworker at all. Facing eviction, she finally showed up at OIC's door, wild-eyed and wasted, begging to be seen. Had the re-ceptionist bothered to look in the file, she would have known that the thin disheveled woman seeking help was a mother on drugs. (A previous caseworker had documented it a year earlier.) Instead, she said the office didn't see walk-ins.

A cousin called Opal's mother, who came from Chicago and got the girls. Opal fled to a drug den. With her new address in Maximus's district, OIC transferred the case, and the monthly checks continued to flow. Opal, the W-2 poster child, was pregnant and living in a crack house. And Wisconsin's celebrated program was buying the crack.

Golf balls, Melba Moore, and clowns

Whatever Maximus could blame for its problems, it couldn't blame a shortage of cash. As Opal was spending her money on drugs, Maximus went on a much grander binge, showering the town with more than $1 million of billboards, TV ads, and corporate tchotchkes, virtually all financed out of welfare funds. Like a mafia wiretap or the Watergate tapes, the bookkeeping has the lurid appeal of shabby sin exposed to daylight. The company spent $100,000 of program money on backpacks, coffee mugs, and other promotional fluff. It spent tens of thousands on employee entertainment. It spent $3,000 to take clients roller-skating and $2,600 for professional clowns. Though Maximus later agreed to repay $500,000 to the state and donate another $500,000 to community groups, the true extent of the waste will never be known because the records were in such disarray. For any welfare program to spend money like this defies comprehension. Why would a profit-seeking enterprise indulge in such chaos and waste?

The answer starts with the financial incentives of W-2. It was designed as a risk-management system, much like an HMO. Each agency got a fixed payment to serve its region; in return, the agency financed everything from benefits to telephone bills. Just as HMOs were supposed to profit by keeping people healthy, W-2 agencies were supposed to profit by keeping them employed. The more an agency cut its caseload, the more its profits would grow. Yet faced with the work rules, so many clients walked away--the state budgeted for 50,000 cases, but only 23,000 enrolled--the agencies were rolling in dough. The catch is that unrestricted profits were capped at 7 percent of the contract, or $4.2 million in Maximus's case. After that, the agencies kept only 10 percent of any leftover funds, so they had little incentive to cut costs. In other words, Maximus found itself with a big pot of someone else's money to spend. Spend it they did, in an attempt to burnish the company's image.

There were Maximus water bottles and Maximus visors. There were Maximus golf balls, towels, and tees, for all those golfers on the Maximus rolls. A succession of minority fairs and fetes wound up with a Maximus check. There was a Maximus jingle. Make that two Maximus jingles; the first, rendered in a minor key, was recommissioned after a consultant warned that in "keeping with the Maximus image, the music should not reflect sad or dark tones." In one of Leutermann's wilder schemes, Maximus spent more than $23,000 to bring in Melba Moore, the once-upon-a-time Broadway star for what flyers called an "exclusive inspirational concert for Maximus families." The sparse attendance translated into an average ticket cost of about $125.

Maximus wasn't the only agency taking a joy ride on welfare funds. OIC spent $67,000 to sponsor the Ray Rhodes Show, the weekly football rundown hosted by the coach of the Green Bay Packers. Another disturbing report at Goodwill, which ran two Milwaukee regions and therefore was the state's largest W-2 agency. Auditors found it spent more than $270,000 of program funds outside the state, mostly in an unsuccessful attempt to win a contract in Arizona; the contract went to Maximus.

The waste, though concealed for years, finally came to light. Not so with the deeper problem of W-2, its neglect of so many clients. What George Leutermann called "our dismal performance" on the state's first client activity report, didn't tell Maximus anything its managers hadn't known: Casework was weak to nonexistent, and most recipients were idle. Keith Garland, the Maximus manager of quality control, said that out of a caseload of nearly 1,500, "We had maybe 100 people doing something." As for the rest: "We didn't have a clue."

A few months after Maximus learned of its results on the client activity report, the state announced the criteria it would use for contract renewal. There were, among other standards, three major measures of casework. The Feps could each handle no more than 55 clients at a time. They had to keep their employability plans up-to-date. And they had to make sure 80 percent of their clients had a full slate of assignments. This was more bureaucratic bunk. The state didn't ask whether Opal got a job--it asked whether she had an employability plan. Plus, it was easy to manipulate the data: The state's sole source of information was CARES. The state had no way to know whether the assignments in the computer were real, much less whether clients were doing them. For months, Maximus tried to round up its clients and give them something to do. But if all else failed, state rules did permit another option: Just type something in the system and send the client a copy. The client might never even know.

Opal certainly didn't. Finding her stale file in his first stack of cases, Michael Steinborn quickly sent her an appointment letter. He needed to update her employability plan, since without one, her case would fail to meet state standards. When she didn't appear, he simply went into CARES, wrote a plan, and stuck it in the mail; it showed her aspiring to become a teacher's aide. He didn't know she was addicted to crack. He didn't know she was pregnant. He didn't know she was living in a drug house while her mother raised her kids. He had never met her. But with that, Opal's case was now passing W-2's standards. "CARES is a fantasyland," he said. Maximus got its contract renewed. And the following year, W-2 won a prestigious Innovations in American Government award from the Ford Foundation and Harvard, which dispatched a researcher on a whirlwind Wisconsin tour. One of the qualities the award officials praised was W-2's financial efficiency. The other was its casework.

$3.91 an hour

About six months into his tenure at Maximus, Michael felt something strange happen. He decided he might be good at the job, and that the job might do some good. Casework requires a balance between inspiration and caution; balance wasn't Michael's forte. He stayed up past midnight to rewrite one woman's résumé. (She didn't show up the next day.) He offered to babysit while another enrolled in a training program. (She still didn't go.) When a client showed up desperate for diapers, he blew off his plan for a beer and gave her his last $10. Michael had a calculator routine. Follow along, he would say. W-2 pays $673 a month. There are 4.3 weeks in a month and 40 hours in a week. Pivoting the calculator, he would show what welfare paid: $3.91 an hour. "Do you think you can do better?" He was waiting to see someone change.

Michael thought he had seen it all, but some things hit him afresh. One seemingly demure 21-year-old always had new hairstyles and clothes. He wondered how she was getting by. One day, she burst into tears and told him; an old man was paying to kiss her between the legs. Michael was stunned to discover that another client had a terminal liver disease. He had pegged her as a malingerer until the doctor warned she had five months to live. What's more, the county was threatening to drop her from Medicaid. Michael stood over the county supervisor's desk, ranting so wildly she started to call the security guard. In retrospect, Michael began to think of this period as a crazy jaunt, his SuperFep stage. "I started thinking, 'Maybe I could make a difference."'

And then she was back: the woman without a coat. She reappeared, unscheduled one day, loud, raspy, and coatless still. He tried to act indignant about her claim that he hadn't helped. But his resolve melted in a hail of denials and her loud, sing-songy Mi-ikes. "I never said that, Mi-ike! I never told a lie about you!" She popped up in his office, talking gibberish--God is money, the Devil is deaf--but in between, her story trickled out. She was 39, with a grown daughter and a 10-year-old son. Her mother had been a church woman and her father had kept a job. Then a decade ago, she went to a party where people were smoking something new. She figured it couldn't hurt to try it. She stole, she whored, she slept in the gutter. Only her mother's death, two years ago, gave her the resolve to stop. "I lost my soul on crack, Mi-ike. I'm about business now, Mi-ike, I'm about business."

At first, Michael wasn't sure if he cared. But her stories had a morbid pull, and there was something obligating about her trust. Oddly, he started feeling half pleased when his train wreck of a client would arrive. While Michael didn't say so, she wasn't the only member of the tandem who often felt desperate about getting through the day. At one point, she brought him a crinkled sheet of greeting-card verse: "Obstacles are only what you see when you take your eye off the goal." He tacked it to his wall.

Bonding was one thing. Binding her to the scaffold of W-2 was another. In January, Michael assigned her to sort clothes at the St. Vincent dePaul Society. She never showed up. In February, she announced she was going to be a nursing assistant. She didn't follow through, but "I just didn't have the heart to cut her off," he said. In March, when she got an eviction notice, Michael grew newly concerned. Maximus had a unit to deal with evictions, but it was the same one that dealt with coats. The landlord removed her front door. It took Michael weeks, but he found a solution. A nonprofit group would pay her security deposit. In exchange, it would become her "protective payee," cashing her W-2 check, paying the landlord, and giving her whatever remained. All she had to do was to pick an apartment. SuperFep had gotten it done!

But she didn't pick an apartment. She moved to a shelter. And the next thing Michael knew, she was sitting in his boss's office, complaining that no one would help her. Michael erupted. What was she doing in a homeless shelter? Her answers didn't make sense. All the vacant houses were on the south side, she said. "I can't live on the south side, Mi-ike." She was acting so goofy it was almost enough to make him think she was back on drugs. He started to taunt her: What, are your connections on the north side? She taunted him back: I walk by my connections all day! He hadn't been serious. She wasn't still using? She wasn't still smoking crack? "Yeah, I'm smoking crack!" Earlier she had told him she had been clean for two years. "I told you what you wanted to hear."

Michael felt the room spin. He had poured some subconscious drive for redemption into a crackhead who had scammed him. "I felt really stupid and really useless as somebody who was supposed to be helping her," he said. "And I felt very sad for her son." More shouting followed, then a parting embrace. He needed to refer her to a more specialized caseworker. "Do what you got to do, Mi-ike. I always do."

Backsliding into sadness

He went home and told his girlfriend he was looking for another job. His clients bear out the cynic's adage: No good deed among Feps ever goes unpunished. He got no argument from his g irlfriend, Jai. Her own mother had spent years collecting welfare, while sending her to live with relatives. "I'd tell them their sorry ass was always gonna be in the gutter," she said. "He calls them 'job seekers,' I call them 'money seekers.' I'd cuss 'em out and lose that job!" Michael was going back to hanging drywall. You nail it, and it stays in place. His midnight resolve faded with morning; he had rent to pay. To boost his spirits, he hung up a "Certificate of Completion" that belonged to a woman he hardly knew. Angiwetta Hills had walked in at closing hour, looking as ragged as her tale. She was living in a shelter and a caseworker's error had cut off her check. Michael braced for the tirade. Instead, she apologized that she hadn't been able to change her clothes. Michael spent hours restoring her benefits. Then she surprised him with perfect attendance in a motivation class. It wasn't a new life, or even a new job, but the surprise ran in both directions. "He said, 'Everything's going to be all right, Angiwetta. You put in your half, and I'll put in mine,"' she said.

His expectations of Dinah Doty ran just as low. At 23, she was a high school dropout, pregnant with her fourth child, and about to be evicted. He rushed to get her a special grant, but she got evicted, anyway. Once her maternity leave expired, he gave her the calculator spiel: $3.91 an hour, can you beat it? The next week, she announced she had a job at a homeless shelter for nearly $8 an hour. And she seemed so--he felt embarrassed to say it--proud. "Michael gave me that motivation to get up and basically open my eyes," she told me. "Michael understands where I'm coming from." On that, she may have been more right than she knew. He had lost his business, wrecked his marriage, and wasted his shot at a college degree. There were days when he couldn't look in a mirror. "I say, 'I know what it's like to be down and out. I know what it's like to not even be able to get out of bed,"' he said. Convinced he had nothing left to learn about ghetto life, Michael learned something, anyway. "They don't want to be perceived as vulnerable," he said of his clients. "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."

The case he saw as his biggest success can be seen as a tribute to either his ample gifts or his lowered expectations. Shelley Block had collected $6,000 the previous year without doing a thing. Inheriting her case, Michael sent letters. Michael made calls. Michael took away her check. That made his telephone ring. "What--you don't give out checks?" she said. He told her to come see him in the morning. "I don't do mornings," she said. Finally, she darkened his door. Literally. She weighed more than 300 pounds, with a pierced tongue and a tattooed neck. Michael found her enchanting. When she talked about becoming a nursing aide, Michael told her the truth: She was too fat to stand up all day. "I respected him for that," she told me. He arranged a work assignment at Maximus, to keep her in sight. They talked--about her boyfriend, his crack problem, her days in a gang. "He made me feel like he actually cared," she said.

After a year on Michael's caseload, Shelley Block got a job. It was nothing that either one of them would mistake for a social triumph: a part-time job at an after-school program, driving a bus. It paid $7.25 an hour. It might lead to something better. But probably not. "Fep of the year," he said to himself. "A part-time bus driver. Big deal." Not long after, one of Michael's coworkers was down in the dumps, griping about the caseworker's lot. The clients don't listen. The system's a mess. The whole thing's a big con. Michael stunned himself with his response. "We do God's work here" he said. For a moment, he believed it.

"The irony kills me"

Michael Steinborn remained at Maximus, though he stopped working directly with clients. Burned out on their crises, he moved into a job trying to line up prospective employers. Soon he saw welfare from another angle. He split up with Jai after they had a second child, who needed months of hospitalization. As a single mother with a disabled infant, Jai no longer felt able to work, and she and the kids went on W-2. Michael said he felt ashamed to have his own children on welfare. But he also said the checks helped nurture their daughter to health. "The irony kills me: I'm telling people this isn't the way, and my own family ends up on the system," he said. It was an illustration of what he had long suspected, that the line between Michael and his clients was thin.

The broader bureaucracy remained troubled, too. As the evidence of its financial mismanagement surfaced, Goodwill withdrew from W-2. Bleeding red ink, the YWCA did, too. United Migrant Opportunity Services ran up big casework fines. Then OIC, where I first met Opal, wound up in the news, after $270,000 of program funds were discovered in the bank account of a corrupt state senator. The politician, Gary George, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges, after acknowledging he took the money while serving in a position to influence the awarding of state contracts. In the case of OIC, those contracts totaled $140 million. The OIC president, Carl Gee, has been indicted for his alleged role in the kickback scheme. Maximus, meanwhile, has expanded its turf; running two of Milwaukee's six districts. Far from offering an anomalous look at the troubled bureaucracy, OIC and Maximus now combined account for nearly three quarters of the state's caseload.

Jason DeParle, a former Washington Monthly editor, is a reporter for The New York Times. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nations Drive to End Welfare, to be published this month by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright Jason DeParle, 2004. For more, see www.jasondeparle.com.


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