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News: Work Won't Kill You

But the welfare regulations might

By Elizabeth Wu · January 24th, 2002 · News
  Catrina Weber (left) and Cassandra Denton (right) rally with the Welfare Rights Coalition in Cincinnati.
Catrina Weber (left) and Cassandra Denton (right) rally with the Welfare Rights Coalition in Cincinnati.

Welfare is supposed to be for people like Catrina Weber, a disabled 40-year-old struggling to raise her 5-year-old son.

"When I get home at night, it hurts so bad, sometimes I have to crawl on the floor just to get to the next room," she says.

But welfare reform has left the American social safety net full of holes. Weber, who has asthma, spinal problems and other degenerative bone and muscle conditions, has been victimized by rules set up not to help her, but to keep her off welfare.

When Weber's caseworker suggested she apply for social security because of her disabilities, she accepted the idea -- only to end up fined for doing so.

Welfare is an enigma for those who regulate it, receive it or reject it, a multifaceted program shrouded in stereotypes and statistics. Weber is not the only person hurt by so-called welfare reform, a reality the Cincinnati Welfare Rights coalition hopes the public will see.

Ending welfare doesn't end poverty
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The law sets a five-year lifetime limit for families to receive cash assistance and establishes work requirements for all adult recipients. The states are responsible for implementing and enforcing the rules.

Public assistance programs vary from state to state, so determining how welfare has changed and whether it is an improvement is difficult. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says reform is a success, citing increased employment and earnings for welfare recipients and a dramatic decline in caseloads. The department says 27 states qualified for bonuses in 1999 for moving welfare recipients into jobs.

But as caseloads diminish, unemployment is on the rise. Average welfare caseloads have declined by 53 percent since 1996, while the national poverty rate has only declined 13.9 percent, according to RESULTS, a non-profit grassroots citizen's lobby. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports the number of unemployed workers rose from 5.7 million in November 2000 to 8.2 million in November 2001.

Government incentives to propel welfare recipients into the workforce have more people competing for low-wage jobs, with harsher consequences for those who fail.

Under Ohio Works First -- the cash assistance program begun in 1997 -- TANF recipients must have children or be six months pregnant, begin work after a child is 1 year old and become self-supporting within three years, when cash benefits end.

If after two more years a mother is considered deserving, she might receive help for the additional two years allowed by federal law. After that she is only eligible to receive money from state funds and only for extreme hardship.

Because cash recipients must have children, most are single mothers. Besides struggling to make ends meet while raising families, they contend with stereotypes depicting them as lazy, mostly black, promiscuous teen-agers.

But in fact, most welfare beneficiaries are children, averaging two per family. Most welfare mothers are white. Only seven percent are teen-agers. Many are fleeing domestic violence. The face of welfare isn't what many think it is, nor is the life as good as it's rumored to be.

'Crying myself to sleep'
In 1997 Catrina Weber was pregnant and working in a restaurant when the owner lost the business. Because she made low wages, she didn't qualify for unemployment compensation. Her pregnancy wouldn't qualify for welfare for several weeks, so she lived on change she had saved and waited to apply.

After two years in the program, Weber was required to find work and leave her son in child care.

"It is not even safe to leave these kids," she says. "Once he came home with a knot the size of a golf ball on the back of his head and blood in his hair. The supervisor said she didn't seek medical help because it was 'only a scratch.' "

With her medical problems, Weber found it difficult to find work she could do for the required 30 hours per week.

"I'm looking forward to life in a wheelchair," she says. "I need work where I can move around. When I was at the restaurant, I was always on my feet. I was a good worker."

Weber wanted to take classes, but she would only be allowed to take 10 hours worth and would still have to work 20. Her caseworker sent her to programs designed to offer employment to those who can't find jobs.

"None wanted to hire me because of my disabilities and age," Weber says.

Her caseworker suggested social security. But in order to prove she was disabled, Weber could not work while her needs were assessed. Not working caused her to be penalized $50 a month in TANF funds. Living in a condemned building, she was forced to relocate, but was denied Section 8 housing assistance. Last October, her time ran out.

"I couldn't find a job," Weber says. "They cut me off completely and didn't even send a letter. When I asked my case worker for an extension, she told me I wouldn't qualify, but she wouldn't tell me why."

Facing eviction, she went from one public agency to another, trying to make rent. Finally, with the help of the Cincinnati Welfare Rights Coalition (CWRC), she managed to get an extension, which lasts until October.

"I'm tired of crying myself to sleep," she says. "How am I going to make money? I have to take care of my son."

Cassandra Denton, outreach organizer for the CWRC and a former welfare recipient, sympathizes. She, too, had applied for social security because of chronic arthritis. But she could not afford to quit work during the assessment period -- and was therefore denied benefits.

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Denton says.

Reforming welfare reform
Denton's biggest criticism is the system doesn't address individual needs.

"There are different reasons people need welfare," she says.

Some need child care, some need medical benefits, and some need a way out of an abusive household.

"We also need to educate the caseworkers," Denton says. "There are all these different entities that have no idea what the others are doing. The system has many women set up for failure."

How then can the government report welfare reform is a success?

According to RESULTS, poor Americans are moving off welfare, but not out of poverty -- partially because the emphasis is on obtaining jobs, rather than job skills. Without education, available jobs often do not pay enough to support a family, and many return to welfare even after finding employment.

The Food Research and Action Center reports that for a family of three in Ohio, the living wage is $29,725 and the poverty level is $13,874. The maximum amount of TANF benefits the family can receive is $11,904 per year. An adult who left welfare for a job paying $6.60 an hour -- the average wage, according to the Urban Institute -- would still be under the poverty level.

The TANF program ends this September unless Congress reauthorizes the program. Lynn Williams, an organizer for the Ohio Empowerment Coalition, hopes for change.

"We are a group of current and former welfare recipients seeking to mobilize people to make changes in Ohio policy," she says.

The coalition wants the law to allow post-secondary and vocational education to count as work, extensions for families trying to find employment and cash assistance for children until family income ends the children's eligibility.

Williams also hopes to educate the public about welfare and dispel the myth that beneficiaries have a poor work ethic.

"Raising a family is work," she says. ©



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