The Will to Work

December 01, 1992|By HOWARD KLEINBERG

MIAMI COL HOWARD KLEINBERG — Miami.--The scene would be startling were it not so common. Where an expressway spills onto an urban main thoroughfare, a man stands poorly clad and holding a sign: ''Will Work For Food.'' Immediately behind him is a fast-food restaurant which also has a sign: ''Now Hiring.''

The creators of both signs, presumably, are oblivious of each other.

In another part of town, a near-toothless woman walks between cars at a red light holding up her sign: ''Mother of Four Needs Food. Will Work at Anything.'' She, too, is parading in proximity to a fast-food restaurant that has a ''Now Hiring'' sign in its window.

Surely, the messages of these examples are clear. Something is wrong with the system. It isn't working, and Bill Clinton is going to have to figure out how to sort things out, or little that he has pledged from the stump will come to fruition.

Were the sign-bearing man and woman incorrigible vagrants, not at all intent on carrying out their declarations? Or had they answered the restaurant appeals for help only to be turned away based on their appearances, a hacking cough, an unstable resume or the refusal to submit to a drug test?

There are many thousands of people seeking work in America and many thousands of jobs available. The problem is that for one reason or another they don't match up. There are as many thousands who prefer to panhandle rather than rejoin society. Once upon a time they may be been productive, but no more. Among them are not just deadbeats but the disenfranchised and mentally wobbly.

When Mr. Clinton reinvents New Deal programs to require service of habitual welfare recipients, it is hoped that he understands that the issue is not simple. You cannot force work from a hopeless derelict, nor should you reward the derelict for his chosen lifestyle with my tax dollars. On the other hand, Mr. Clinton will have to deal with the cheap labor markets who ask too much of a down-and-out, but willing individual.

Certainly none of us today cares to enter a restaurant where the workers look sloppy and poorly groomed; it doesn't help the appetite. In this matter, we have changed. I can remember years ago when the best hamburger stand in town was worked by an old wino who stood over the burgers with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, removed only when he had to cough over the grill.

Today, our society demands more in the way of sanitation and our low-paying pool usually is staffed with recent immigrants or high school dropouts. The old vagabond who coughed over my hamburger is on the outs, left to live in a cardboard box under an expressway and scribble signs that he will work for food, which he will not any more because he doesn't want to.

If welfare pays a person as much an hour for not working, why should that person go to work? Mr. Clinton is tackling a huge monster and one hopes that he has both eyes open.

In addition to putting welfare recipients into public work projects, an available-for-work class needs to be defined and trained in concert with a flexible business establishment. The incorrigibles, however, cannot be left to continue drifting. They need to be picked up out of the gutter, dusted off and pointed -- or kicked -- in the right direction.

That's a tough task. Had World War II not come along to practically evaporate unemployment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt probably would have failed at it as well.

Howard Kleinberg is a columnist for Cox News Service.

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