TOPICS > Politics

Revisiting Welfare

May 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Three years ago, Nicole Drury was barely hanging on. She had no job skills, she lived with a man who abused her, she was a new mother, and back then, economic survival came in the form of a monthly welfare check.

NICOLE DRURY: Where was I then? Struggling in a home that was so unhealthy for my daughter. We just were robbed three times, it was just so unsafe. It was unbelievable.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But today, Drury has a full-time job as a receptionist at a Bridgeport, Connecticut Economic Council. The abusive boyfriend is history. So is welfare.

NICOLE DRURY: I am able to make ends meet. I was able to purchase a car, my very first car. I was able to purchase a wonderful condo in a beautiful neighborhood that I just love living in. And it’s just so wonderful, and a lot more healthy for my daughter.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since welfare reform was implemented five years ago, more than 34,000 people in Connecticut like Drury have come off the welfare rolls– a 60% drop in caseload. Reformers say that’s dramatic evidence that the 1996 welfare reform law is working. In Connecticut, the state’s reformed welfare program is called Jobs First.

SPOKESPERSON: That if you did decide to go on to nursing or something more advanced in the medical career, you’ve already gotten a foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Almost everyone who goes on welfare in the state has to take part in a program designed to help them learn a skill, then to move them into a paying job. When they go to work, they can keep their new paycheck, along with their welfare checks, for about two years. Connecticut also has the toughest time limit in the country, 21 months. Even though more than half of recipients get some kind of an extension, when those are up, welfare is cut off for good.

Teisha Ford says the time limit was a powerful motivator.

TESHA FORD: It makes you move. It makes you get going. You know, you don’t sit around. You know you have until this time, and you do whatever you have to do to make sure you meet that, you know, that deadline, because when it’s done, it’s done.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the debate over whether welfare reform is working is far from over. Success stories like Ford’s and Drury’s are just one part of it. Critics say Connecticut’s robust economy deserves a lot of the credit for creating all the new jobs for welfare clients. And they say that many who got those jobs who left welfare for work aren’t that much better off economically.

As proof, they point to the first and only study done of any state’s welfare population. It was paid for by the state of Connecticut, and was conducted by the Manpower Development Research Corporation of New York City. It put welfare recipients into two groups: A control group that got conventional welfare and the jobs first people.

DAN BLOOM, Manpower Development Research Corp.: Well, what happened is we compared the two groups to one another. And the group that was subject to the welfare reform, in terms of their income, it’s not that much different than the group that was not subject to the welfare reform. They’re more likely to be working and they were less likely to be on welfare, but they didn’t especially have more money, no.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what does that say to you?

DAN BLOOM: Well, it says that when people go to work and get fairly low-wage jobs, and their welfare benefits ultimately are reduced because of the fact that they went to work, they may not end up with that much more… that much more income.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In other words, people like Cherie Mazzoni. She’s not economically better off than she was on welfare. Her 30-hour-a-week job pays just above the minimum wage. She’s still living in poverty, just one step away from disaster. Recently this single mother of two lost her childcare supplement because the school wouldn’t accept her school-age daughter.

CHERIE MAZZONI: I was caught in a catch-22. I’m not eligible for the money because she’s school-aged, but the school that… this school, you know, like the West Haven Board of Education School, said she can’t come because she’s going to get left back. She’s not ready. So now I have to pay $100 a week, and I have to do this and then I have to sit there and wonder, where’s my food coming from? You know, how am I paying my rent? What am I going to do?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Twice a month, Mazzoni shares her frustrations with other members of Mothers for Justice, a new haven group of current and former welfare moms. All of these women have gone to work in the past few years, but like Mazzoni, they are living on the edge, with complicated everyday life problems. And they don’t think the reality of Jobs First lives up to its official promise. Michelle Caldwell tried to get a job as a bus driver.

MICHELLE CALDWELL: The training at most of these places is unpaid. So you’re going for training. I’m hearing that I can get child care, but I’m not really working because I’m not getting the paycheck, and they don’t want to give me child care unless I really have a job. But I have a job, it’s just not paying me. Then it’s not a job. But no, if I walk away from it then I don’t have a job. Well, it’s not a job. So what do I do?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Connecticut’s top welfare reform official admits getting off welfare can be complicated, but believes reform has done what it set out to do.

PATRICIA WILSON-COKER, Commissioner, Conn. Department of Social Services: I think that the MDRC survey said to me said that we were on the right track in many regards with welfare reform; that the goals of the program that we established were largely met, we did succeed in replacing welfare checks with paychecks, and that people were not hurt in the process.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The debate over welfare reform has heated up because time has started to run out for hundreds of Connecticut families, when job opportunities are shrinking because Connecticut’s unemployment has risen to eight percent. Since families have started losing benefits, New Haven’s Christian Community Action Organization has seen a big increase in the number of people coming to its shelters and food pantry. Executive Director Bonita Grubbs says she’s getting four or five calls a day from families needing emergency shelter, the most she’s experienced in 13 years with the organization.

REV. BONITA GRUBBS, Director, Christian Community Action: What we’ve seen is just an increase in the number of individuals with no income, whose problems are much more complicated, whose situations are much more difficult to deal with, and not only that, but the individuals who are coming to us have increased in the last couple of months. So we’re seeing an increase in homelessness. It seems to be in direct relationship to people being cut off the system completely.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shelley Geballe is co-president of Connecticut Voices for Children, whose organization studied the case files of 94 New Haven families with 270 kids who were cut off welfare last October.

SHELLEY GEBALLE, President, Conn. Voices for Children: And they had nearly 270 kids, more than three kids on average. What was striking was that three out of four had no job at all. And the ones who were employed, the one in four that were employed, were working on average 25 hours a week at eight dollars an hour. So that’s about $10,000 a year of annual income. So basically, on October 1, we created 270 kids where there was no income coming into the household in any meaningful way in a city like New Haven where the cost of living is exceedingly high. And since then, statewide there are about 40 to 50 families losing cash assistance every month who face similar circumstances.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Geballe says Jo-ann Ndiaye is typical. A single parent with five children, she was cut off on February 25. Ndiaye is currently living in one of Grubb’s emergency housing apartments because she is also homeless.

WOMAN: That is the most outrageous thing I ever heard of.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ndiaye worked for a year, but lost her job when her daughter’s baby sitter quit. Then she took a course to get to get a child development associate degree, but lost her apartment just a month before taking the state licensing exam.

JO-ANN NDIAYE: This is one of the most scariest times for me of my life, you know. This is… I try not to be afraid, you know, because I’m a person of faith and stuff. I try to believe that God brought us this far, He’s not going to see me and my children out on the street. So I try and not be afraid, but it can really get scary sometimes. You wonder what’s going to happen next. You know, being off welfare, being cut off from the cash assistance and not having a job, you know — not having day care, not being able to get day care because I don’t have a job. That’s a catch-22.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Bush Administration’s top welfare reform official says nationwide, most of people who’ve left welfare are not in Ndiaye’s desperate circumstances.

WADE HORN, Assistant Secretary, HHS: First, the Administration believes that welfare reform has been a tremendous success. We have seen caseloads drop over half. We’ve seen increased earnings for single-headed households. And we’ve seen a substantial drop in child poverty. About two-thirds of them are working, are working in $7-$8- an-hour jobs. If they’re working full time, they are with income combination with the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and transitional medical benefits; are substantially better off than they were on the old system.

JO-ANN NDIAYE: I suggest that we keep a daily correspondence so I can let you know how he does in class, and you can let me know how things are at home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Congress begins writing a new law later this year, with both sides ready to do battle over the question of whether elimination of poverty should be a stated goal of welfare reform.

JO-ANN NDIAYE: Let you know when something’s going on and you’re not completing your work in class, right?