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Just how risky a wager is WeCare for those in its path? The worst case scenario, say advocates for the poor, would likely be a variant of the status quo: cumbersome, inconvenient and too often more of a hindrance than an aid.

If it succeeds, WeCare could launch a new era in how New York City takes care of its poor.

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Verna Eggleston makes something of a case for the term “compassionate conservative.” Black, openly gay and Republican, the Bronx native--a former public assistance beneficiary herself--took the reins of HRA in 2002 and now heads the nation’s largest municipal public assistance program. A former nonprofit executive director, Eggleston keeps a low profile. Nonetheless, her few public appearances have yielded frank criticism of the prior administration’s weaknesses, particularly its work-first myopia and “one size fits all” approach. At a February forum at New School University, Eggleston recalled her response to a colleague who urged her to focus on reducing the welfare rolls even further: “I said, ‘Why? To do what? To serve who? To say that I had a success like the Giuliani administration?’ I don’t think so. That’s not how we’re doing it.”

Instead, says Eggleston, here’s how they will do it: by working carefully with clients to determine the surest path to “maximum self-sufficiency.” Though the phrasing makes advocates for the poor leery--it’s common among supporters of the work-first approach--Eggleston promises a more thoughtful commitment to the idea.

Under Eggleston’s watch, the agency has dramatically expanded outreach efforts around food stamps; at nearly 1.1 million, the rolls have grown by more than a quarter during her tenure. HRA has explored ways to offer child care to extremely low-income workers, and created a new division, Customized Assistance Services, to coordinate comprehensive and individualized client services. Most notably, the agency has quietly begun to chip away at the assumption that education should always be secondary to work experience. After successfully lobbying the state to expand education and training options for single, childless welfare recipients, the agency began to offer the option early this year.

The central theme, says HRA, is that its current clients are a mixed bunch, and efforts to move them to work will necessarily need to address that. “We shouldn’t be in a position where we’re regulating what someone’s self-sufficiency looks like. Everybody’s level…is different,” said Eggleston. “I will not put down a gauntlet and [say] ‘Our thing is work first.’ It’s more than that.”

WeCare is the flagship initiative of this new approach, with a $200 million price tag for its first three years. After bearing years of criticism that the welfare system is too simplistic and too punitive, the city proposes to approach its clients in a “very holistic way…dealing with the family as a whole,” says Pat Smith, HRA’s first deputy commissioner who also served under Giuliani. Slated to be in full swing by July 1, WeCare is expected to screen nearly 46,000 clients in its inaugural year, more than one-fifth of the city’s welfare cases.

The approach is straightforward: Identify what’s keeping people from working and spend the time and money necessary to really fix it. That includes trouble-shooting problems that could make it hard to keep a job, like housing or child welfare. Then work to get clients into a job, even just part-time, or onto federal disability rolls. Even advocates for the poor, who’ve long criticized the city’s welfare programs, find the proposition encouraging. “We have an administration that at least recognizes very explicitly that the people they serve have a variety of abilities and needs,” says Ricky Blum, a Legal Aid lawyer who’s tangled with the city over welfare policy. “That’s a very positive step.”

If the city’s plan sounds familiar, it should. New York has long used city-regulated “wellness plans” for disabled citizens on welfare. A medical evaluator, HS Systems, assessed clients, handed them a plan to get well and sent them on their way--an approach characterized as “rather laissez-faire” by Dr. Frank Lipton, an executive deputy commissioner. It didn’t run smoothly. Advocates filed a civil rights complaint, alleging the system discriminated against people with psychiatric disabilities. Some clients filed suit; one judge, ruling in favor of a client last year, found HS Systems had been “arbitrary and capricious.” The starkest example of the system’s flaws came in 1997 when a welfare recipient died of a heart attack at her welfare work assignment. Despite a history of serious chronic heart disease, HS Systems sent her to work.

Though the system was flawed, it was not cheap. When Eggleston took over her post, she ordered a study of the city’s welfare recipients to help inform policy. The numbers spoke for themselves: In one instance, said Eggleston at the February forum, the city had spent more than $300,000 running a client through assessments, trying to prove the person could go to work. “I don’t want to spend time having a debate with people who are chronically ill and critically ill, wasting government money,” said Eggleston. “If I…got up enough gusto to come to you and ask you for anything, then let’s just make the assumption that I need something.”

WeCare is making an effort to do just that. When Andrews complained to her caseworker in April that she had strained her back, and that her high blood pressure was bothering her, the city transferred her case to WeCare; by mid-May, HRA had referred 5,164 cases to the program. Instead of going to her local job center, Andrews headed to one of the city’s three WeCare hub centers. (Two longtime welfare services contractors, Arbor and FEGS, are running the program.) There, Andrews got an appointment for a physical. She also sat down with a social worker to undergo a screening for mental health and social issues--child welfare, housing, child care, legal problems, substance abuse.

At the end of it all, Andrews was judged to be “employable with minimal accommodation.” She’s been linked with a city doctor, who’s suggested a stronger dose of her blood pressure medication. Five days a week, she sits through six hours of vocational evaluation and job readiness courses--one hour and two buses away. Andrews isn’t entirely sold on the program. Her own doctor advised her to stay home, she says, and, with a work history that includes eight years as an administrative assistant, she’s found the vocational program a bit basic. One day saw her class counting hundreds of screws, nuts and bolts; they later moved on to setting tables.