I See Embarrassment in Your Future

You've probably seen those late-night ads for psychic counselors. They feature breathless testimonials from satisfied customers. In one, a customer proclaims, "My psychic told me that love was in my future. Sure enough, I met the man of my dreams the next day." Another features a tarot-reading psychic telling an amazed caller, "You're boyfriend's old enough to be your father, isn't he?" Well, the pitch is clear: For just $4.99 a minute -- plus applicable federal, state and local taxes -- you can see into the future, and get valuable insights into the direction of your life. Salvation is just a 900 number away. But shades of Dionne Warwick! It turns out that Madame Sasha (or whatever the psychic calls herself) is nothing of the sort. In fact, chances are pretty good that she's a participant in the most outrageous Welfare-to-Work scheme I've ever heard of. A few days ago, the New York Times reported that New York City's welfare department had entered into an unusual business relationship with the Psychic Network. The department recruited welfare recipients to work from home as "psychic counselors." Recruits were paid $10 an hour to answer calls from souls thirsty for wisdom from someone on intimate terms with the Cosmos. You may be wondering: What qualified these welfare mothers to be psychic counselors? The Timeswondered the same thing. So, they called New York City's Human Resources Division and were told that "clairvoyance" was not a job requirement. To qualify, all an applicant needed was a high school diploma, "a caring and compassionate personality," and the ability to speak English. Those without psychic abilities need not worry, according to the bureaucrat who spoke to the Times. The Psychic Network would train employees in the art of psychic readings and reading Tarot cards. Since last April, the Welfare Department had helped at least 15 welfare recipients enter the exciting and promising career of psychic prognostication. That is, until the story broke and the Giuliani administration terminated the arrangement. Three cheers for the mayor. Now, as funny as this story is, it does raise some important issues. I seriously doubt that this was what the architects of Welfare Reform had in mind. The original goals focused on helping people make the transition from dependence to being contributors to their communities. Sadly, the psychic tactic undermines those goals. It treats sitting at your kitchen table, dispensing bogus advice, as the equivalent of going to work as a welder, a factory worker, or a janitor. The latter three make real contributions, but playing Gypsy Queen doesn't. In addition, by recruiting workers for what is, essentially, a fraudulent enterprise, the government was sending a message that New York State doesn't care how people make a living. But government should care, because work is about more than a paycheck. It's about the importance of virtues like thrift, self-discipline, and reliability. Honest work shapes character; conning the gullible doesn't. This is the lesson we need to take from New York's now-infamous experiment in Welfare-to-Work. For programs like these to be a true success, just getting a check isn't enough. Recipients have to learn lessons about life -- and that's something it doesn't take a palm-reader to understand.


Chuck Colson



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