A West Virginia Town Picks Its Cops Off the Welfare Rolls, but No One Is Up in Arms

updated 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Clad in an officer's uniform and packing a .38 revolver, Zack Leon Mitchell helps to keep the peace in the town of War, W.Va. The uniform on his back belongs to the local police department, but the gun is Mitchell's personal weapon. In fact, Mitchell is not really a policeman. He is an unemployed miner required to work part-time for his welfare check under the state's Community Work Experience Program, a plan known as "Workfare."

Mitchell is one of five welfare recipients now working in War as a police officer. He is required to labor 76 hours a month—a number determined by dividing his $254 welfare payment by the minimum wage of $3.35. But Mitchell, a 33-year-old father of three, is so enthusiastic about the Workfare program that he works extra hours for no pay. "This is the best idea anybody ever came up with," he says. "I looked for a job at 37 mines in three states and couldn't find nothing. I felt like I was cracked over the head when I went on welfare. But now that I'm out there taking a chance for my money, I feel differently about myself."

Public officials in War, a depressed coal town with a population of 2,158, are equally enthusiastic about Work-fare. "It enables us to give the town round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week police protection without keeping our four regular police officers on call," says Floyd Jones, the Mayor. Police Chief Melvin Yost admits that he was anxious about the prospect of presiding over a squad of "welfare cops," but he too has been won over in the year since the War experiment began. "It makes me a little nervous having them on the street with guns," he says. "But we spent a lot of time talking that over. I tell them to use courtesy and don't jump into anything. We pick men with level heads, and we don't let 'em out without a regular police officer for up to a month." After receiving on-the-job training, they are allowed to make arrests. Thus far there have been no problems—well, almost none. "We did have one who ran a police car into a ditch going after a speeder," admits Yost, "but that's about all."

Workfare is an emergency program born of desperation in West Virginia. As the state's unemployment rate has soared to 15 percent, federal aid cutbacks have crippled local budgets for basic social services. Workfare was conceived not as a permanent solution to the welfare problem but as a way to use the army of unemployed to augment essential services. Leon Ginsberg, the state's Welfare Commissioner, explains: "We see this as a temporary measure to help maintain work skills, to perform useful community services, and to increase public confidence in assistance programs." To that extent, vouches Mayor Jones, the program is working in War and the surrounding county, McDowell, which has 35 percent unemployment.

Since last January 5,031 welfare clients have worked in part-time public service jobs through the program. About 150 welfare recipients have refused to work and been dropped from the welfare rolls. Although they are allowed an administrative appeal, none has taken Workfare to court and many seem happy with the program, which is unique to West Virginia. Diana Cooper, 36, a former fast-food store manager, now drives a bus for a senior citizens' nutrition center. Construction worker Allen Keaton, 27, cleans cages at an animal shelter. Ex-waterworks employee Frankie Mullins is repairing furniture for Goodwill Industries. House painter Robert Bare, 55, is now making signs for the city of Nitro. Maintenance man Kenneth McCune, 43, is patching up a children's shelter in South Charleston—and glad to be of service. "People should contribute towards their keep," he says. "I'm helping myself and someone else."

But Workfare is not without problems. One, of course, is money. "It costs more to put people to work than to just give them checks," says Ginsberg. "We estimate that our clients' expenses plus our administrative bills will cost the state an extra $538,000 in fiscal 1983." Money woes have narrowed Workfare's focus. In order to avoid the cost of day care for children of welfare recipients, the program gives preference to workers from two-parent families, so far exempting 20,000 single parents from Workfare. Consequently, some 97 percent of Workfare jobs have gone to men—most of them among the healthiest and most employable of welfare recipients. "When we expand the program to reach more of the hard-core unemployed," admits Ginsberg, "we may have more trouble placing them."

Thus far the program has escaped one potential criticism: that it is a scheme to cut regular employee pay rates by forcing welfare recipients to work at minimum wages. But West Virginia's union leaders are keeping a close eye on Workfare. "At the moment the program gives us no problem," says Joe Powell, president of the state AFL-CIO. "We would react if any reports indicate that they are replacing our people in jobs, but so far that hasn't happened. They have done everything possible to make sure the program isn't controversial."

Still, even for Zack Leon Mitchell, who loves his job as a Workfare cop, part-time work at a minimum wage hardly makes ends meet. "I can't care for my family the way I once did," he says. "I can see it in my kids' eyes." Mitchell hopes that his Workfare role may lead to a full-time job. So far 849 Workfare vets have gone on to permanent positions. "I'm gonna take the civil service test to become a deputy," he says. "I think I've got a future in police work."

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