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FEATURE No Choices BY MICHAEL KING “I feel very depressed, betrayed, disillusioned, and destroyed.” Angela Flores 1 n early October, as the fall election campaign entered its final month, Angela Flores wrote a letter to Governor Bush, asking for his help. She had watched his commercials proclaiming the success of his “welfare reform” programs, and heard his promises to use the money he had saved on social services to improve the public schools and teacher salaries. Flores, a program specialist in the privately-operated Texas Workforce Center in Lubbock, supported both welfare reform and public education, but she had considerable reason to believe that she and her co-workers had been required to pay more than their fair share for both. “You plan to better the school system and give the teachers a pay raise,” she wrote to Bush. “It just doesn’t seem fair to save money in our program area through salaries and give it to someone else that is currently on a higher pay level and full state benefits.” In the aftermath of Bush’s overwhelming re-election, it remains to be seen whether the Governor’s promises to support public education will be fulfilled. But Flores and her colleagues until recently long-time, loyal, and exemplary state employees firmly believe that the state of Texas has failed badly in its promises to them. Before July 1, Flores and more than two dozen of her co-workers were employed directly by the state, through the Texas Workforce Commission \(formerly the Texas T.A.N.F. Choices program, which provides educational and job assistance to welfare clients of the federal block grant now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Although loosely described as a “welfare” program, Choices is more precisely an employment assistance program. T.A.N.F. and Food Stamp recipients are required to participate in Choices, and case managers like Flores and her col leagues \(in the words “NOW MY WHOLE LIFE’S PLAN WAS of the official program DESTROYED WHEN THE STATE OF TEXAS SOLD ME & MY FAMILY OUT work-related activities TO A PRIVATE CONTRACTOR.” and support to assist eligible participants to prepare for and retain employment and avoid becoming or remaining dependent on public assistance.” In short, the Choices caseworkers provide employment and educational information, job connections, day-care and transportation support, all with the explicit and direct purpose of moving people off welfare and putting them back to work. And should a client fail to “participate” sufficiently, the Choices caseworkers are charged with sanctioning her out of the program that is, ending her public assistance. By all accounts, the Lubbock Choices workers did their jobs Angela Flores Michael King very well, and as a group the office was regularly ranked among the best in the state for client participation and employee productivity. That ended in July when \(under a statewide mandate from the vate non-profit agency, the South Plains Community Action Association. The Choices employees despite prior assurances from their state supervisors that under privatization their jobs, salaries, and benefits would remain much the same were laid off by the state and invited to “re-apply” for jobs with the S.P.C.A.A. Those who were hired are doing much the same work as before but under much more difficult circumstances, and for much less reward. Flores is forty-six years old, and has worked for the state in various positions for twenty-four years. She told the Observer, “My income went from $2345 to $1652.80 per month…. A coworker’s pay loss was $1000.00 per month.” Her colleagues tell similar stories. Several of them provided the Observer with brief written summaries of their circumstances following the layoffs from T.W.C. Joyce Wallace is fifty-eight, and has worked for the state for thirty-five years. “Our salaries and benefits have been decreased immensely,” she wrote. “Not only has it been hard financially, 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 4, 1998