Intangible benefits

February 02, 1994|By Linda Seebach

ASK successful people about their first job, or their worst job, and chances are you'll hear a bunch of horror stories. But the stories will be gleefully retold by the survivors, who were fortunate enough to find out early on that those awful jobs aren't dead ends -- they're stepping stones.

Truth to tell, most of us were probably pretty awful employees to start with.

This everyday wisdom is in danger of being lost in the debate over welfare reform and work. The chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on welfare policy, Democrat Harold E. Ford of Tennessee, thinks no one should have to give up welfare benefits for jobs that pay less than $9 an hour.

"We can't expect welfare recipients to flip hamburgers at $5 an hour," Mr. Ford told reporters the other day. "That won't come out of this committee."

A congressman enjoying a six-figure salary can afford to be disdainful of low-paying jobs, I suppose. But the attitude he's expressing is disastrous to inexperienced or unskilled people who desperately need to learn about the intangible benefits of working. And it is deeply contemptuous of the millions of people who work faithfully at such jobs, most of them in the expectation that they will move on to better things as their skills improve.

My first job, the summer after I graduated from high school in 1957, was at New York Life Insurance Co. in Manhattan. It paid minimum wage, no benefits, and it sure wasn't rocket science. The company kept its records on 52 million Hollerith cards (you know, the ones with the little rectangular holes punched out). Each morning I was handed a stack of pink carbon copies of policy changes, and I had to find the card with that policy number and take it out of the file so a new one could be punched.

Less demanding than flipping hamburgers, probably, but there were still a lot of things to learn. I was so naive I didn't know people stayed until quitting time, even if they finished their work sooner. My father was a lawyer, and I knew he worked hard, but I also knew he could arrange his own hours. I had assumed without thinking about it that all jobs were like that.

I can hardly imagine the difficulties faced by someone from a family which has been trapped in welfare for one generation or several in adapting to the workaday world.

Another thing I learned from my father, also without consciously realizing it, was that any job can be dignified by doing it conscientiously. He graduated from law school in 1930, and with no hope during the Depression of making a living at what he'd been trained for, he worked summers as a lifeguard at Jones Beach and winters repairing furnace boilers. He was proud of that.

The insurance company had a lot of summer employees, not so && much because they needed what little work we were qualified to do, but as a way to locate prospects for permanent jobs. The informal curriculum included getting to work on time, office dress, commuting, budgeting and a whole complex of social and behavioral habits called "employability."

You don't learn those habits in job-training programs, because they aren't special to any one job.

I could have had a permanent job. I was twice as fast at finding cards as my co-worker, who chose not to recognize that putting the pink slips in numerical order was more efficient.

But I was starting college in the fall, and didn't want to stay on. Financially speaking, I didn't even need to work that summer. My parents would have been pleased to have me at home. But I would have missed out on the chance to practice real life while it was still safe for me to mess it up. By the time I actually needed to support myself, I earned a decent salary and I was worth it to my employer.

Nobody uses punch cards any more, but start-up jobs are just as valuable as they were in earlier years. During the '80s I ran a small printing business, and I hired high school students part-time for simple jobs like making photocopies and packing books. We paid a little above minimum wage. My employees liked it because the hours were more flexible than at the local McDonald's, but they wouldn't have scorned "flipping hamburgers."

Mr. Ford's unrealistic proposal ignores these non-monetary benefits of learning how to hold a job, even a low-wage job. Many welfare recipients are women who find themselves in those circumstances because they became pregnant while still in high school and never graduated. They have limited skills and no work experience, so the jobs they are qualified to do don't pay as much as they need to support themselves and their children.

It's a trap. Welfare policy has two imperatives. One is to extricate the women who are already in the trap. The other is to make certain the trap doesn't become even more alluring. The idea of guaranteeing $9-an-hour jobs to people to get them off welfare surely creates a perverse incentive for anyone who works, but earns less, to quit.

Many people, with better qualifications than most of those currently receiving welfare, do earn less. An hourly wage of $9 works out to about $18,000 a year, which according to a recent survey is just about the average starting salary for journalists.

It's a lot quicker, easier and cheaper to get pregnant in high school than to graduate from college. Far too many girls have already done that. As Congress struggles with the question of how to reform welfare, its members need to realize that it's not a good idea to encourage more people to walk into the welfare trap.

Linda Seebach is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

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