|WORKING OFF WELFARE|
July 7, 1998
LEE HOCHBERG: One year into welfare reform social workers in Oregon are trying to figure out why some recipients remain mired in the system.
CASEWORKER: What is it you want to be?
DARLENE MILLS: Well, I did work in the criminal justice-the criminal investigative--
LEE HOCHBERG: Darlene Mills, a 38-year-old mother of three, has been on aid for four years. She gets $700 a month. When she met caseworkers in March, she blamed a car accident and her long bout with epilepsy.
DARLENE MILLS, Welfare Recipient: Many types of careers you can't have epilepsy with. Law enforcement was my field. I was going to college for it, and it's not--it was an expectation, was a dream, and I just--
LEE HOCHBERG: Marianne Koop said she'd also had a car accident. She's also struggling to cope with her critically ill father's bone cancer. She's dyslexic, has trouble processing numbers. She said her father, her ex-husband, and male employers belittle her as stupid, and she's lost six fast food and other service jobs.
MARIANNE KOOP, Welfare Recipient: And I tell them don't put me on the till, whatever you do, please, I beg you, do not put me on the till, because I'll screw up. I know I'm going to screw up. And then the boss gets ticked. What, I have to show you again? You know, you're too much work, too much time, too much hassle.
LEE HOCHBERG: Shawna Rascoe, a 25-year-old mother of three, remember her mother was on welfare. Today, Rascoe gets benefits of $1,000 a month. She blames anxiety, stemming from a house fire and child care problems, for keeping her on welfare five years.
SHAWNA RASCOE, Welfare Recipient: I get stomach aches, and I get sick, I call in, today, I'm sick, I don't feel good. The next day that happens. Sooner or later you're fired.
LEE HOCHBERG: And that's happened?
SHAWNA RASCOE: Yes. That has happened. That's happened a couple of times.
LEE HOCHBERG: People like these are today's major welfare challenge. Nationwide, states are pairing down their welfare rolls. President Clinton recently praised the welfare-to-work partnership, an effort of businesses to hire off welfare for hiring 135,000 welfare recipients. But it's the most employable recipients who are getting the jobs. Many of those left behind are more daunting clients, with what welfare officials call barriers to employment. Oregon welfare program manger Elizabeth Lopez.
ELIZABETH LOPEZ, Oregon Welfare Program: It seems that this population has just as soon as we get rid of one barrier, we have another one, and then we have another one.
LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon has cut its caseload in half, moving 20,000 people off welfare, but ¾ of those who remain suffer from mental health problems. Many have multiple problems. Half abuse alcohol or drugs; half have been beaten or sexually assaulted. Oregon's experimental approach to these people is to provide social services like transportation and child care to help solve surface problems, then offer counseling for the deeper problems that really cause chronic unemployment.
CASEWORKER: Is your doctor a specialist like a neurologist?
DARLENE MILLS: No.
CASEWORKER: Have you been to see a specialist at all?
LEE HOCHBERG: In this meeting with Darlene Mills caseworkers promised to get her better medical treatment for her epilepsy, an obvious problem. But when they offered her a volunteer job at a nearby jail, it became clear Mills wasn't ready to commit to the workplace.
CASEWORKER: Maybe doing a short volunteer-
SECOND CASEWORKER: Marion County.
CASEWORKER: At Marion County--and that has an opportunity of possibly becoming a regular job, a regular un-subsidized job.
DARLENE MILLS: If I'm doin' something I'd like to-
CASEWORKER: Get paid.
DARLENE MILLS: I want to get paid for it. Yes. That's the reward. That keeps me going.
LEE HOCHBERG: The caseworkers said they'd ask jail officials to waive experience requirements and get Mills a salaried job. But Mills still resisted.
DARLENE MILLS: I just don't think that works with me, not me. I want to work, but I don't want to have to prove myself and prove that I'm experienced at something just because on paper I don't have much-
LEE HOCHBERG: Experience.
SHAWNA RASCOE: I had to drop my daughter off and then go straight there, and it was always like five or ten minutes.
LEE HOCHBERG: With Rascoe too, there were hints of hidden issues. She said child care gaps prevent her from working. The state offered to provide child care and transportation. But Lopez suspected another issue.
ELIZABETH LOPEZ: We aren't convinced that there isn't some sort of substance abuse issue. She was very fidgety. She said a year ago she had stopped, that she had kicked the habit, except that we recognize she's still here. So what is that? What are the real issues?
LEE HOCHBERG: Marianne Koops' meeting was more promising. Her caseworker offered therapy to hope her cope with her father's illness and money for car repair and daycare. And the two discussed finding her a low-pressure job that minimizes work with numbers and work with men.
MARIANNE KOOPS: Right now I know more about animals than I do anything else.
CASEWORKER: Have you ever had an interest in being or working in a veterinarian's office?
MARIANNE KOOPS: That's what I like. I like the animal part, something that I don't have someone, you know, pushing me. And that to me is more my speed than done with people on a regular basis.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Oregon approach is patient and nurturing. That disturbs critics like Don Michel of Portland's Union Gospel Mission, who says it only perpetuates clients' neediness.
DON MICHEL, Union Gospel Mission: What I see the state of Oregon doing is attempting to meet the needs of an individual, but what we really got to do is get people to become productive citizens. And that doesn't happen when you give somebody a check.
LEE HOCHBERG: At the Portland Mission a work program for former welfare recipients uses a tough-love approach, with demands that clients work for their shelter. Michel says, while his program builds accountability, the state welfare program promotes dependence by allowing clients unlimited time to work out personal problems, all on state aid.
LEE HOCHBERG: What has kept you from getting off welfare?
DARLENE MILLS: That's a good question. That's a good question.
LEE HOCHBERG: With another month having passed now to consider her situation, Darlene Mills sees no quick way out of her vexing problems.
DARLENE MILLS: What's kept me from getting off of the system is not knowing how. You get used to it one way, a routine, and you don't know how to change it.
LEE HOCHBERG: Mills says she once was happily married, but after her husband lost his job in the timber industry, they lost their home and then their marriage. She insists she wants to work in the corrections field but now admitted she was reluctant to accept her caseworker's job offers because of a paralyzing fear of having a seizure in the workplace. After one more month Mills stopped working with the system.
CASEWORKER: She knew how important this meeting was. She knew that her grant in June was based on this meeting. She's not here.
LEE HOCHBERG: She didn't show up for this meeting with caseworkers, where she was supposed to explain why she missed interviews for both volunteer and paid jobs at the jail, and why she missed the state-arranged medical appointment for her epilepsy. Because she didn't explain her absences, she had her benefits reduced from $500 to $450 a month, a disciplinary measure built into the program. But manager Lopez said she believes Mills will turn it around when she's emotionally able.
ELIZABETH LOPEZ: If we took the hard-nosed approach of okay, we're offering this, you don't want it, so you're going to close your grant, that wouldn't do anything to impact poverty.
DON MICHEL: When she doesn't show up for that job interview, when she doesn't show up for that volunteer position, when she doesn't do the things that she needs to do to fix her life, we should pull back as a society and say, fine, you-in America you can live this way, but not on our tax dollar.
LEE HOCHBERG: And yet, the states says money is one more reason to keep after its hard-to-serve clients, even trying home visits, while the average time spent to employ clients has jumped from nine months to one year and the average cost from nineteen hundred dollars to twenty-eight hundred dollars per client, state welfare chief Sandie Hoback says Oregon saves three dollars in public aid for every dollar it spends on this long-term population.
SANDIE HOBACK, Oregon Welfare Administrator: The payoff in terms of this investment is going to be very cost-effective, because as we move these folks off of assistance, you really have broken a very long-term cycle, both for the adults and hopefully for the children attached to those adults.
LEE HOCHBERG: At the end of four months none of the three women have made it off the rolls. Shawna Rascoe also missed several appointments and had her benefits lowered. She then agreed to enter mental health counseling. Confirming the state's suspicions, she tested positive for marijuana use, but argued it didn't affect her employability.
As for Marianne Koop, the state hasn't yet been able to find her a low stress job working with animals. It says it hasn't yet forged any relationships with pet stores. In the meantime she got state-funded job training on a cash register at a monitored work site with a supportive supervisor.
MARIANNE KOOP: (at cash register) Dawn, I overrang. I charged her for the two.
MARIANNE KOOP: I am not happy doing it. It's more drudgery for me than it is to do this, but I know I need the experience. I need at least some kind of work experience, and I'm willing to do that.
LEE HOCHBERG: As for Darlene Mills, she cut off communication with the state and is still receiving reduced benefits. She's filed a protest with the state, arguing her poor health prevented her from attending meetings. She's applied to the federal government for disability.