From welfare to where?

Beheaded by the budget axe, Clothes That Work packs up its shop

LAST DAYS Brid Power, program director of Clothes That Work, wonders how her needy welfare-to-work clients will afford proper business attire now that the program has been cut.

LAST DAYS Brid Power, program director of Clothes That Work, wonders how her needy welfare-to-work clients will afford proper business attire now that the program has been cut.

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s been almost a year now since Bobbie Sage walked into her job interview wearing a donated violet suit, but she still remembers the outfit well.

Nervous about looking “just right” for the interview and badly needing the job, Sage said it was the suit—worn with a white blouse and sensible shoes—that gave her the extra boost of confidence she needed. And it worked. She was hired on the spot as a care provider at an Oroville convalescent hospital. It wasn’t a perfect job, but she was thrilled to have it.

Sage, 25, couldn’t have afforded to buy the interview clothes or the nursing uniforms she needed after she was hired. New to Oroville from Southern California, Sage and her husband found themselves unemployed and receiving welfare checks to feed, clothe and house their four children while they looked for work.

They got the help they needed—in the form of professional interview clothes and a week’s worth of work clothes—from Clothes That Work. The program, which was operated by Butte County Northern Valley Catholic Social Services (NVCSS) and operated two stores in Chico and one in Oroville, closed up this month after the grant that funded it was abruptly pulled, a victim of the state’s $24 billion budgetary shortfall.

Looking back, Sage credits the agency’s help for much of her current success. She now works as a financial counselor at Oroville Hospital, and while she describes her life now as “fabulous,” she wonders where she would be if Clothes That Work hadn’t been there last year to help her learn to fit into a business environment. She doubts she would have made the transition as well by herself.

“There’s a lot of people out there who really need their help,” she said. “It’s a real shame they’re closing, because a lot of people are just going to be stuck.”

Bob Michels, director of NVCSS, worries that she’s right.

Since opening two years ago, the program has provided interview and business dress clothing to an average of 90 men and women a week. Clients were referred by the Welfare Department, which, following new and ever more stringent state welfare-to-work rules, require welfare recipients to spend at least 32 hours a week either working, looking for permanent work, or in an approved job training program.

Many of these people have little to no experience in dressing for office jobs, Michels said, with the emphasis on the “no.”

“They’re told they have to go out and at least look for decent jobs that will get them off of public assistance, but not exactly how to look when they’re doing it,” he said. “That’s where we came in.”

Each client received an average of $80 worth of clothing, most of it donated, Michels said.

“If these people were given $80 and told to go get something for a new job, most of them would get maybe two outfits … and most of them would be wildly inappropriate to wear at work,” he said.

The program also provided coaching for things as varied as interview techniques and hairdressing, he said. “We were teaching these people how to sell the whole package of themselves,” Michels said.

And they were successful. Given the current climate of the state’s budget, even with a modest budget of about $99,000 a year (provided in grant funds by the Private Industry Council), Michels fretted a bit that Butte County Clothes That Work would be modestly cut back. The program’s funding originated at the state level, in the form of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds given to counties as incentive to reduce welfare roles, and was administered in grants to social-service agencies working toward that goal.

Michels never expected the email he received on May 20 informing him that because PIC would be receiving $1.2 million less in TANF money than it budgeted, the program would be closed down completely. Also closed at the same time was WISE, a smaller pilot program that provided a volunteer job mentor for those coming off welfare into the workplace.

“It was a total shock,” Michels said. “Everyone here thought it was solid.”

Brid Power, Clothes That Work’s director, was equally shocked. She’s spent the better part of the past month packing up the program’s shops and is still looking for another job. She plans to stay in social-service work.

“The store looked so good when it was open,” she said, glancing around at the half-filled boxes and disassembled computers all over the floor. “We had it set up really nice, with partitions and everything.”

So what’s to become of the nearly 900 people a year who used the program? Michels doesn’t know. He worries about the clients and their kids, as the state requires more work to get the welfare checks they depend on but doesn’t provide enough money—or support programs—to help them really succeed.

There are even larger issues at play here, too. Michels acknowledges that since George W. Bush became president, faith-based social-service organizations like his are more popular than ever. He knows that with trendiness comes more money, but he also knows that trends don’t last forever and is afraid of starting up new programs just to have to close them when their funding dries up, à la Clothes That Work.

“It’s really frustrating," he said. "When we’re told we have the funding, we make a lot of commitments to help a lot of people, and then the political winds sway so we get cut out, and then all of a sudden the people we’ve made commitments to help are left out. It really brings up issues of morality for me."