TOPICS > Politics

The Fate of Families After Welfare

February 14, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT
A report by Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston about families, especially single mothers, trying to get off welfare and into the work force in part one of a two-part series.

GWEN IFILL: Economics correspondent Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston has the first of two stories, about the fate of families after welfare, drawn from Jason DeParle’s new book “American Dream.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Thirty-eight-year-old Angie Jobe would seem to be a poster mom for welfare-to-work, the sweeping legislation passed eight years ago that tried to push welfare recipients into the workforce.

She’s a certified nursing assistant, earns almost $11 an hour, has a 401(k) and loves her job, loves her patients.

ANGIE JOBE: When one of them just says, “Thank you, I’m glad you helped me; I appreciate what you did,” that’s a good feeling.

PAUL SOLMAN: With his dad in prison, Jobe’s oldest son, 19-year-old Redd, also works and contributes to the upkeep of the close-knit extended family. In a sense, the Jobes exemplify the welfare revolution, which since 1996 has more than halved the national welfare rolls, from over 12 million families then to less than five million today. But is so-called welfare reform the success it would seem to be? Because you can rewind the very same scene we shot and look at it in a very different way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Angie Jobe left for work in the cold and dark of morning, 5:30 A.M.

REDD: You all got to get up. Come on. You all got to get up.

PAUL SOLMAN: Back inside, son Redd was groggy from his job, the late-night shift at a nearby Burger King, but he still had to rouse, feed and trundle his siblings off to school. Redd himself dropped out after ninth grade.

ANGIE JOBE: One, two, three.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even Angie Jobe’s work might at times seem more reminiscent of the cotton picking her mother and grandmother did in Mississippi than an upward step on the mobility ladder; and this for a woman with a bad back.

PAUL SOLMAN: What don’t you like about it?

ANGIE JOBE: I hate the lifting. I hate the cleaning up the BM’s, you know. I hate getting up early in the morning. I hate my back hurts.

PAUL SOLMAN: When co-worker Kathy Santoyo’s back got bad, she was switched to a desk job.

KATHY SANTOYO: It’s very hard work, and eventually your back starts hurting.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Santoyo, also a former welfare mother, has a high school diploma. Jobe doesn’t, and thus has no real alternatives to the heavy lifting. How then are we to evaluate welfare-to-work? Is it a boon for the poor and society or more nearly a boondoggle?

Fortunately, we had Jason DeParle to help sort things out. New York Times poverty reporter since the 1980s, DeParle spent the past seven years chronicling the lives of Angie Jobe and those around her during the move from welfare-to-work.

The book that resulted, “American Dream,” has been called “masterful,” “the exhaustive and authoritative account” by the left-wing Nation Magazine, “fascinating” by the right-wing National Review, which also called it “one of the best books on the underclass ever written.”

So we brought DeParle to Wisconsin as both tour guide and evaluator of so-called welfare reform. Did it work or didn’t it?

JASON DE PARLE: It worked fantastically well at putting low-skilled, single mothers to work. Angie is a perfect example. She had been on welfare for 12 years, she had no high school degree; she had four kids. She was exactly the kind of person that critics of the law thought would be damaged by it: You know, who would hire this woman? How could she keep a job? Who would take care of the kids?

And yet within six months she was off the rolls, she was on the job. Angie out-earned nearly nine out of ten women who left the welfare rolls in Wisconsin. Her story, economically, is about as good as it gets. Yet, three times in three years she lost her electricity. She lost her health insurance for three years even though she was providing health care to other people on a daily basis.

And she also ran short on food more often than — really more often than she would talk about. I asked her directly, you know, “Do you have enough food in the house?” She would well up and say, “Ain’t nobody starving around here.” But I slowly began to realize that a lot of the fights in her house ultimately centered around food.

PAUL SOLMAN: Everyday bills are also a source of unusual stress. So that bill, what is this bill for?

ANGIE JOBE: This is the light bill and the gas bill. It comes together, the light and the gas bill, which is $246.

JASON DE PARLE: Paul, at one point, in one of Angie’s previous houses, she was working double shifts, working overtime, and her electricity got cut off twice in three months.


PAUL SOLMAN: Is there more money going out than coming in? I mean, are you getting deeper in debt or are you…?

ANGIE JOBE: I think so. I try not to. I try not to. But yeah, it’s more money than I have.

PAUL SOLMAN: And this plays into Jason DeParle’s main reservation about welfare reform: That so far at least it gives no sign of breaking the cycle of poverty, improving the lot of the children.

PAUL SOLMAN: So where are we now?

JASON DE PARLE: We’re at Kesha’s house. Kesha is Angie’s oldest child, Angie’s daughter. She’s 21 years old, and she has two young daughters.

PAUL SOLMAN: So she dropped out of high school while Angie was working?

JASON DE PARLE: While Angie was working at the nursing home, Kesha got pregnant in high school and eventually left school. Had the baby but went to work as a checkout clerk.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, Lakesha Jobe spent much of her own childhood caring for her younger siblings, especially once her mother went to work.

WOMAN: Do you want to cook? You want to make Redd a sandwich and some pizza?

REDD: We’re going to have a big old tea party. We’ve got… we’ve got some cake, we’ve got some pizza.

PAUL SOLMAN: With a track record of financial responsibility, Jobe’s daughter became the family banker and remains a devout coupon-clipper who showers her kids with bargain toys. Yet she, like her brother, dropped out of school– in Lakesha Jobe’s case, when she got pregnant.

Was there any difference between life when your mom was on welfare and when your mom was at work?

REDD: I can’t answer that question because I don’t know nothing about welfare — I don’t even know when she got off welfare, when she started to get on welfare.

PAUL SOLMAN: So it’s not like your life changed dramatically or even enough for you to have noticed.

KESHA: No, not enough to notice.

PAUL SOLMAN: As we left, Jason DeParle reiterated his key concern: Whether welfare to work is likely to break the cycle of poverty.

JASON DE PARLE: On the margins most kids may be a little better off, but I would put the emphasis on “a little.” You know, what you don’t get from Kesha or Redd is a sense that their lives have been fundamentally transformed. If you’re telling the story of this family, you wouldn’t say, “Now Angie’s at work, and my god the kids are going to have a whole different life than Angie.”

I think you sort of feel like their lives are unfolding more or less as Angie’s life unfolded at the same age. Angie got pregnant at 17 and dropped out of high school and had a baby; and Kesha got pregnant at 17, dropped out of high school and had a baby. You don’t get the sense that something fundamentally different is happening in the family.

PAUL SOLMAN: So are the children better off or not?

JASON DE PARLE: Jason Turner was one of the first people I met when I came to Milwaukee…

PAUL SOLMAN: To further pursue the question, we went to the home and office of Wisconsin’s welfare-to-work architect. DeParle had featured Jason Turner in a Times story with welfare mom Opal Caples, through whom the reporter met the Jobes.

JASON DE PARLE: Here’s Jason Turner, the architect of the new system, his boss at the time, Governor Thompson, Tommy Thompson. Here’s Opal in the middle and her three daughters, Sierra, Kierra, and Tierra, skipping across the front cover as though off to a brighter future. Ten months later, Opal was homeless, pregnant and living in a crack house. How you doing?

SPOKESMAN: Good to see you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Turner built Wisconsin’s program around the theory that work has the power to save the soul. But, we asked him, has it actually improved the lives of the families and specifically of the children?

JASON TURNER: Well, it’s far too early to determine whether that will happen, and it may not happen as a result of welfare reform. Welfare reform was about getting people engaged in work, and my view is that that participation and culture of work will have an effect on family life and on children over time.

JASON DE PARLE: I don’t want to disparage the hopes that work would bring more social order and higher aspirations; I share them. I just haven’t seen a lot of evidence of it yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: So how do you respond to that?

JASON TURNER: Work has more than one function. Work not only functions to provide income to the household, but I would say even more importantly, work is one’s gift to others. It makes connections between the individual and other people.

And what we lost in the — among the dependent poor oftentimes are connections between work and giving to others through labor and to each other through family responsibility. Those connections have to be reignited, and work is the first step in that direction.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jason DeParle thinks that pertains to Angie Jobe, but only to a point.

JASON DE PARLE: Angie is in a better place personally now than she was eight years ago. She gets up in the morning; she has a place to go where she feels useful, where she feels like she’s contributing. Now, I was initially a little skeptical when Jason had that theory, and I have to say that in Angie’s life it has played that role.

But it’s only one part of her life, and she’s still poor, and their household is still full of chaos, and her kids have still been struggling. It’s a necessary first step but — and one worth celebrating, but it would be terrible if society heard that as though “problem solved.” There’s a lot more that needs to happen with her family.

PAUL SOLMAN: Our final exchange was with Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who objects to welfare reforms that, she says, force single mothers into low-wage jobs.

REP. GWEN MOORE: I think people are better off when they’re working when they don’t have to leave their 11- year-old child at home to baby-sit so they can go to work. I think people are better off working when, in fact, they’re working and those revenues will actually pay the rent, will actually buy them decent food.


PAUL SOLMAN: Angie Jobe arrived home from work, and the congresswoman greeted her warmly.

REP. GWEN MOORE: How you doing?

SPOKESPERSON: Great, how are you doing?

PAUL SOLMAN: Moore, herself a former welfare mother, had vigorously opposed welfare-to-work legislation when she served in the Wisconsin State Senate. She had used the AFDC welfare program to get a college degree to get elected to public office. And so she still defends the old welfare system as a ticket out and up for single moms.

REP. GWEN MOORE: Under AFDC, I could spend some time going to school instead of working, so it was possible…

ANGIE JOBE: No, I don’t want to stop working. Uh-uh.

REP. GWEN MOORE: You don’t want to stop working?

ANGIE JOBE: No, no, no. No.

REP. GWEN MOORE: Not even if it meant you could take a semester off and get your GED?

ANGIE JOBE: I enjoy working. That’s what I get up for.


ANGIE JOBE: You know, it just makes me feel good.


ANGIE JOBE: You know, to know I can get out and do something to help my kids, you know.


ANGIE JOBE: Not stop working. Maybe — maybe cut some of the days down, like I’m doing now, if I could go further, I’d do that, but I don’t want to stop working.


ANGIE JOBE: I don’t want to stop working.

PAUL SOLMAN: That sentiment sounded great– in fact, just what the welfare reformers had in mind. And yet, when we asked Angie Jobe, who’s also a writer, to read one of her poems to us, this is what she chose.

ANGIE JOBE: It’s called “Better Days.” “I am born of black color descendant of slaves, who worked and cried so I can see better days. Who fought and ran so I can be free to see better days. Better days are here, so they say. So why am I still fighting and crying and working and running? Maybe for my better days, or is it so my descendants can know of work I’m putting in for their better days?” And that’s it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Some might say then that the question remains: Will truly better days ever come? And if so, for whom and when?