by | Apr 7, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Years ago, when I was young and broke, I worked as a security guard in New York City. The job was in Harlem. My shift began at 7 p.m. and didn’t end until 3 in the morning. Each hour I had to take a lap around my designated building, then go back to the “guard station” — a wooden shack, not much bigger than a phone booth, with a bulky port-o-toilet inside.

Five nights a week, I would sit in that shack, under the light of a single bulb, and try to ignore the sickening smell of disinfectant and human waste.

I did not take the job to build a career. I took it because I needed the money. I could have qualified for welfare; the thought never occurred to me. I was healthy. I was willing. I worked. I got paid.

This memory came back to me last week, when I returned to New York City, and witnessed the fuss over a new proposal by mayor Rudolph Giuliani. His proposal called for welfare mothers — not all, just some — to work 20 hours a week in city agencies.

The jobs were not glamorous, nor permanent, but they were necessary. They ranged from answering phones to mopping floors to cleaning bedpans.

There was no pay, except for the welfare benefits. But if you refused the work, your benefits could be cut off. The requirement, by the way, was only for mothers with children in school. Those with infants were not included.

Some folks thought this was a great idea. After all, the work needed to be done. And the city was under pressure to reduce its welfare rolls. Besides, maybe this would inspire better work habits. At the very least, it would discourage deadbeats, right?

That’s not the way the critics saw it. The right not to work

One welfare mother, interviewed by a New York newspaper, said: “I won’t do it. Give us a real job. I already know how to use a mop.”

Of course, the logical response is: If you already know how to use a mop, why haven’t you found work using that skill? But in today’s political climate, that would be insensitive.

“This is slavery without shackles,” cried a Brooklyn councilwoman.

Of course, the logical response is: Slavery didn’t come with a guaranteed paycheck and a 20-hour-a-week limit. But saying that also would be insensitive.

Now, please understand. I am not one of those dittoheads who think anyone on welfare is a dumb, irresponsible drain on society. Nor do I believe that most welfare mothers sit around watching TV and ignoring their kids.

But I do believe that able-bodied people should not expect money for nothing, and that helping city agencies (with recent cuts, they certainly need help) not only gives something back to the source of your welfare checks, but also serves the community.

Sure, it’s not as good as a job-training program that would lead to permanent work. But nobody is saying do one instead of the other. Besides, is it wrong to ask for 20 hours a week in exchange for a check? Is there some law that says welfare should not include any heavy lifting?

What amazes me about people who say “How dare they do this?” is their inherent suggestion that a benefits check is somehow guaranteed by nature. The fact is, welfare, as we know it today, only came about in the early 1960s. Before that, you had to prove all kinds of hardship.

“Already know how to use a mop” would not have qualified. The right to work

As this story developed in New York, across the world, in Gdansk, Poland, a man returned to his old job at the shipyard. It was blue-collar work, fixing battery-powered carts. The pay was 650 zlotys a month, or about $85 a week.

The man’s name is Lech Walesa.

He used to be his country’s president.

“I like working,” Walesa said from the docks. He also had no choice. After he was voted out of office, his pension was denied and his bank accounts were frozen. He needed the money, so he went back to the shipyard. He didn’t demand a free check, although he’d certainly done more government work than most. He didn’t say, “Hey, this greasy-fingernail stuff is beneath me.”

Walesa is 52, and in far worse health than many Americans taking welfare checks today. But the difference is attitude. We have become a nation of blame, a nation that thinks the good life we see on TV is an entitlement, not a fantasy.

So we complain about putting something back in the coffers, and we attack anything that looks like exploitation — except if it’s the government being exploited, because somehow, the government deserves it.

I think back to that port-o-toilet in Harlem, and I remember hating every minute of that job. But I also remember the feeling I had when I picked up my check: I felt that I had earned it.

Does that even count anymore?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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