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Struggling to get out of the welfare way of life

Patricia Capell’s experience with welfare reform in Missouri was largely positive. Working with Missouri’s Futures program, she signed a “self-sufficiency pact” and was sent for job training and classes on how to make food stamps go further and prepare more nutritious meals all things that helped her become more self-sufficient, she said.

But other recipients, all unmarried mothers, told NCR they have had less luck with the changed welfare system.

Geraldine Romero, who has been receiving welfare benefits off and on since her first child was born 17 years ago, has struggled with sanctions and what she called the “negative attitude” of Missouri caseworkers since Temporary Assistance for Needy Families replaced Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Now 35 and with five children, she told NCR that her Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits were first reduced when her oldest child moved out, then further reduced because of sanctions after Romero missed appointments for the Futures program.

“The class was from 9 to 3, but my kids had to be in school in Grandview [Mo.] by 9,” she said. “They let me change the appointment one time. The second time I missed it because I was moving” from Grandview to Kansas City to find more affordable housing.

Now she’s waiting for her case to be transferred, to find out if she can get her sanction lifted and when she needs to go to another appointment. “Every time I call, they don’t have the information,” Romero said. “I’m assuming they’ll send me something letting me know what’s going on.”

Under the old welfare system, caseworkers were “more considerate,” she said. But now, they don’t seem to care about clients, and they haven’t kept her informed about what could provoke sanctions, Romero told NCR. “I don’t even like going to the welfare building. I don’t like to deal with the negative attitude.”

There aren’t many jobs available near her central city home, she said. “Some good paying jobs are out far” in the suburbs and she doesn’t have a car, she said. “I have too many kids going to school. If anything happens, how can I get back here to my kids?”

Trying to do the right thing

Kimberly Diibon said she knows from experience that the old welfare system kept people in destructive dependence. “Welfare paralyzes people, gets them crippled, gets them lazy,” Diibon told NCR as she waited for groceries at a food pantry run by the Bishop Sullivan Center, a Catholic social service agency in Kansas City, Mo. From her observation, it hasn’t changed much. She said she sees friends who aren’t working still receiving benefits.

“But even working, you end up in places like this,” said Diibon, who spent over five years on welfare before the 1996 law was in place.

Diibon signed up when she got pregnant as a teenager. She didn’t have to worry about rent and groceries, but she “felt stuck.” Bored from sitting at home all day, she fell in with the wrong crowd and into drug addiction. Finally, in 1996 she was sent to prison for selling drugs.

“Just like doing dope, welfare is a way of life,” Diibon said, and when she was released from prison in 1998, she was determined not to do either. She got a job that paid $9.25 an hour. She also called to inquire about the Futures program. She was told she didn’t qualify because she made too much money.

“That made me angry,” she said. “I’m trying to do the right thing and get everything back together. They say they want you off welfare, but don’t do anything to help you get off.”

Through the Bishop Sullivan Center, Diibon has been working on her GED (general equivalency diploma), and when she is finished with that, she plans to obtain a real estate license.

She received subsidized childcare, but still had a hard time paying the $1.75 per child per day for her two children. She ended that when she decided the kids, now 12 and 14 years old, were old enough to care for themselves while she was at work.

For six months she received food stamps, but would not renew it because of her anger at being refused help from the Futures program, she said. “I won’t deal with it,” Diibon told NCR. “I’m not going to air out my business to them, not for $134 of food stamps a month. I should have had help going through school.”

‘I’m worth the investment’

Vivian Hain of Oakland, Calif., said she was denied educational assistance by CalWorks, California’s welfare system. Instead, caseworkers wanted to force her into clerical work at wages that do not meet the cost of living, said Hain, who has been receiving TANF funds off and on since 1999.

On her own initiative (“I never once got a call from a CalWorks employment counselor”) she took a course in Web design through Jobs Consortium, an agency serving the homeless. The instructor encouraged her to pursue further education for a career in multimedia design. “I thought, I have to call my counselor and tell her I know what I want to do and it pays a self-sufficient wage.”

She contacted the employment counselor, who told her to come in for an assessment. “I scored high on reading, writing and math,” Hain said. “It allowed me the opportunity to show my stuff, to prove that I’m really worthy of going to school I’m worth the investment.

“I went back a week later, and one person she’s like God told me that you’re going to do what I want you to do with your future. She said I was reinventing the wheel going back to school because I have clerical certificates from the early ’90s, and I needed to go out and find a job.”

Nevertheless, in the fall of 2001, Hain obtained a Pell grant and enrolled full-time at Vista Community College in Berkeley studying multimedia design. In spite of the obstacles substandard housing, lack of transportation, struggles with depression Hain finished the semester with a 4.0 grade point average.

She is currently enrolled at the college, in addition to starting volunteer work mandated by CalWorks in order to extend her time limit on benefits for one more year. Her 7-year-old daughter can receive benefits until a 5-year limit is reached.

Her 14-month-old daughter, however, receives no aid under California’s “family cap” policy that does not give cash benefits to children born while the parent is receiving welfare. Hain said she was working (at a company that later went out of business) when the baby was born, but because of her low income was still receiving monthly $10 in food stamps and $28 supplemental income.

“I felt criminalized for my pregnancy,” she told NCR. “The first thing they said was, ‘Are you considering terminating this pregnancy?’ before even congratulating me.” Hain recently found out she is pregnant again and has experienced the same reaction, she said.

The baby’s father, an immigrant and recovering addict, lives with Hain and the children. For more than three years, they had been paying $250 rent for an abandoned industrial site with no heat, hot water, kitchen or bathroom. At the end of February, Hain secured a three-bedroom apartment through the Oakland Housing Authority. Hain, who lobbies for affordable housing in Alameda County, was offered the low-rent apartment after threatening to picket the Housing Authority with activists and local media.

She is also appealing CalWorks’ decision to force her to work instead of supporting her education. A hearing was to be held Feb. 22.

“I’m not one of those moms who wants to sit on her ass at home,” Hain said. “I’m working toward something, to be able to hold up economically. Making a small wage isn’t going to get me out of here. Going to school is the only thing giving me hope, and CalWorks is not supporting that.”

-- Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002