December 29, 1999
Wisconsin's welfare recipients are nearing the end of a two-year program that requires them to work in exchange for benefits. Elizabeth Brackett reports.
BRACKETT: This young single mother is facing more than the usual pressures
of the morning rush these days. As she puts 2-year old Laria in the
JENNIFER CHRISTOFFERSEN: I am about two to three months away from the end of it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How nervous does that make you?
JENNIFER CHRISTOFFERSEN: It scares me terribly, because if I don't take care of what I need to take care of I won't have a way to support my child.
|A test of a national prototype for welfare reform|
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hazel Walker is also up against her two-year deadline. She has a part-time tutoring kids in an after-school program. The tutoring job evolved out of the community service job she held at the school. After two years in community service jobs, clients are expected to be ready to join the workforce full time. For Walker the deadline provided the push she needed to look for a full-time job when her check stops.
HAZEL WALKER: I've worked before, and I can work and I know I can.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And that deadline -
HAZEL WALKER: My deadline is February, but I am pushing and motivated and know I can do it.
SPOKESMAN: This has got to stop! This has got to stop now -- not next --
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The deadlines brought angry protestors to Madison worried that hundreds of welfare recipients will be left without checks to support their families. It's a major test for a program that has been the prototype for national welfare reform. The program's architect, Wisconsin's governor Tommy Thompson, says the deadlines are a fundamental part of the program.
GOVERNOR TOMMY THOMPSON: We'll look at their concerns but we're not going to go back to the failed system of AFDC when we had 100,000 families trapped in poverty and now we're down to less than 8,000 that are receiving any kind of cash benefits.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When Thompson became governor in 1987 there were
about 98,000 people on the welfare rolls. In 1997 when W2 was introduced,
there were just over 34,000 people. Today the number has dropped to
just over 7,000.
STATE REP. JOHN GARD: You can get child care, you can get food stamps, you can get medical care, and you can get job training, you can get educational help. But at two years you're going to have to be out there with some sort of attachment to the private sector. That's the goal of the program.
|Some ready for work, others need more time|
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Vicki Selkowe researches local policy issues at the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. She says her research shows that clients who work in community service jobs in order to get a check have not been well prepared for the job market.
VICKI SELKOWE: We found that the majority of people who were in these positions were doing make-work assignments. They were sorting hangars, they were packing boxes, they were pulling parts off assembly lines. In short, it was nothing like what the program on paper spelled out, that these positions would consist of. They were supposed to be doing real skill training and education to help improve their skill levels. And instead they were stuck in these make-work jobs, week after week, while their time clock ticked and time ran out for them.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Wisconsin's two-year deadline is harsher than the federal five-year one. Selkowe would like to see the two-year deadline extended for at least another year. But the woman who oversees the W2 program in Wisconsin says the deadline is essential.
LINDA STEWART: I think it's unrealistic to establish a program that has an open-ended, unlimited participation on cash benefits. That's the same as welfare. And it also means that people will always be in that situation as opposed to striving harder, putting forth effort to get themselves into a situation where they can ultimately get out of poverty.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Clients still on the rolls who are facing deadlines, like Jennifer Christoffersen, are among the most complex cases. Christoffersen's problem is her health. Diagnosed with lupus two years ago -- a debilitating auto immune disease -- she is unable to hold a full-time job. She has applied for disability benefits from Social Security but has yet to be accepted. These are the clients welfare advocates across the country have been the most concerned about.
JENNIFER CHRISTOFFERSEN: I can understand the time limit, but there has to be exceptions to the rule. I can't do anything about it, so I think, like an extension of just -- you know, I'm at it where if I an accepted in SSI, I'll be at my time limit like a month, maybe a month and a half before the end of -- after the end of my program. So I would only need that amount of time extra to take care of my business.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Caseworkers can ask for extensions for clients like Christoffersen. Debra Broughton, Christoffersen's caseworker, has 10 clients hitting the two-year deadline. She has asked for an extension for Christoffersen and one other client; all the rest will lose their monthly checks.
|Some will lose a safety net|
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So in essence these people will be without a safety net at all?
DEBRA BROUGHTON: Pretty much.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And what do you think will happen to them?
DEBRA BROUGHTON: A lot of them will end up in shelters, homeless, their children will be taken, or on a more positive note, some will obtain full-time employment or obtain SSI.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And do you think that's the way the program should work?
DEBRA BROUGHTON: Yes and no.
SPOKESPERSON: Customer A, she's a 24-year-old; she has got four young children -- at least one eviction -- and she's got some financial management issues.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That ambivalence extends to the senior case managers as they discuss whether or not to ask for extensions in the most complex cases.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mary Ann Nunn is one of those complex cases. Twenty-three years old, the mother of four, she is a second-generation welfare recipient who's been receiving a check since her first child was born when she was 14. She's held two jobs -- one lasted three months, the other one day. Both jobs ended after fights with her supervisor. She did go through two training programs, like this one in welding, also one in baking. But they didn't lead to jobs.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How are you going to keep the job the next time?
MARY ANN NUNN: It all depends on how a person come and talk to me. If they come and they have an attitude or whatever, I'm going to ask them, and then if they got to say something smart -- hey, I'm not going to take it from nobody. I don't care who it is.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nunn's caseworker felt that her training had made her job-ready after two years and did not ask for an extension. Her case is one that tends to inflame both sides of the debate. Representative Gard sees Nunn as someone who has used the system's resources and should now be able to fend for herself.
STATE REP. JOHN GARD: My assumption is, just knowing the current economy and various things, is that there are things that have prevented that individual from staying in the work place. But I don't think it's been because there isn't jobs out there. And I think, you know, people have a responsibility to their family and to themselves to assume responsibility and to help raise their kids and financially pay at least part of the bill. But at some point if time limits are meaningless, then we might as well just get rid of them and go back to the old AFDC program.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But state Senator Gwendolynne Moore, who has introduced legislation to extend Wisconsin's two-year deadline to the federal five-year limit, says it is clients like Nunn and her children who are being harmed by the program.
STATE SEN. GWENDOLYNNE MOORE: I think that a woman in 1999 who has a 10th grade education and four children who had her extension denied will show up somewhere in the system eventually. We may see a request for foster care because she can't provide for them any longer. We will find her at some other point, maybe in a more expensive alternative in the system.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Jennifer Christoffersen is likely to get her extension. Two hundred and six clients have hit the two-year deadline through October. Caseworkers have asked for extensions for only 64 of those clients. The state has not yet turned one down. By April, 1,200 more clients will have come up against the two-year deadline. For each client the state must balance the pressure to grant extensions against a desire to see welfare clients achieve self-sufficiency. As the numbers grow higher so does the pressure to find that balance.