Nearly three-and-a-half years after the enactment of federal welfare reform, government officials across the country are touting its success. The Clinton administration recently boasted that national welfare rolls declined from 12.2 million in 1996 to 6.9 in 1999, resulting in the "fewest number of people on welfare since 1969."
Here in North Carolina, the rhetoric and its underlying trend are much the same. According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), since 1995, "some 69,000 families have moved to self-sufficiency from welfare dependency as part of Gov. Jim Hunt's Work First initiative." The state's welfare-reform initiative requires participants to get a job or be in short-term job training within 12 weeks of going on welfare. There is a two-year cap on cash assistance.
"The culture of welfare has changed its emphasis from entitlement to one of personal responsibility and self-sufficiency," says Peter Leousis, assistant secretary of DHHS and an architect of Work First.
But the program's results cast serious doubt on those claims--particularly the idea that large numbers of North Carolinians are becoming self-sufficient.
"Success is largely being measured by how many people they can get off the roles, rather than looking at how former clients are actually doing," says Sorien Schmidt, a public-interest attorney and welfare-policy analyst for the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center. "Success should be measured by the number of people moving themselves and their families out of poverty."
How many are getting out of poverty? The Maximus study, released last spring and named for a Virginia-based consulting firm hired by the state to evaluate Work First, paints a decidedly mixed picture. The good news: The study found that 80 percent of former Work First families recorded job earnings greater than what they received on welfare. That sounds good, anyway, until you realize that the annual welfare payment to a family of four was roughly $3,600.
"Folks are working, but are they making enough to get out of poverty?" asks Dan Gerlach of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, an advocacy group for low-income citizens.
The Maximus study offers a less encouraging answer to that question: More than 80 percent of those removed from the welfare roles as a result of the program's time limits were found to be living at or below poverty level. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $17,050 a year. Worse, Work First participants were doing no better in the job market than folks who went off public assistance before the welfare-reform initiative began. In fact, they earned less. The annual median earnings of Work First participants was $10,280 a year, compared with $10,608 for welfare recipients who got jobs prior to the institution of the program.
The type of jobs Work First "graduates" can get is a problem as well. The state Division of Social Services reports that of the 41,622 people exiting Work First by 1997, 35,603, or 86 percent, had jobs a year later. But the vast majority of them were low-paying positions in the service and retail trade industries (in other words, a lot of fast-food workers and sales clerks). The average annual income for these 35,603 workers was $8,590.
Gerlach thinks the upshot is clear: "Instead of the non-working poor, we now have the working poor."
State officials remain upbeat. "You've got to look at the progress you're making," insists Leousis. "Any job is a dead-end job if you don't keep building your skills. You may not be out of poverty, but you're better off than you were on welfare."
Other welfare-reform advocates agree that a low-paying job is better than none at all. "Even if they are still poor, you want them to be working steadily," says John Hood of the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. "Poverty is largely behavioral, and long-term, chronic poverty is a result of bad decision-making. The goal of public policy should be to discourage decision-making processes that result in people having children out of wedlock, quitting school and declining to work."
What about the program's goal of helping recipients reach financial independence? Hood, like others, agrees that is a fundamental objective of Work First. But first things first, he says. "Being off of welfare is a significant component of self-sufficiency."
But while state officials tout their newfound success at giving people "personal responsibility and self-sufficiency," many are concerned that so little progress has been made toward increasing the financial stability of Work First participants. "If these reforms were helping people out of poverty, then we'd be doing OK," says Schmidt. Instead, "there is certainly cause for concern. Many folks are not doing so well. And some are doing worse."
What's it like trying to support yourself and your children through Work First? The Independent talked with three local women about their experiences with the state's welfare-reform program. All say they want to be self-sufficient. Their stories illustrate some important reasons why they, and others like them, are not.
Janique Williams knows her way around a computer. As a ninth-grader at Commerce High in Springfield, Mass., the honor-roll student "fell in love with them. I was so taken by symbols, numbers and basic programming that I knew it was what I wanted to do." Her interest eventually led her to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she received a degree in computer maintenance in 1992. She was hired directly out of college by Massachusetts Mutual financial company, and three years later was making $50,000 a year as a computer repair specialist.
Two months ago, Williams, now a Raleigh resident, accepted a data-processing position with N.C. Disability Determination Services in Raleigh making $15,360 a year.
"I never expected to be on public assistance," says the 33-year-old, holding her 8-month-old baby, Eriq, in the lobby of a housing complex she describes as "transitional." Although she declines to elaborate on her current living arrangement, out of fear that she could lose her apartment, Williams doesn't hesitate to talk about Work First.
"I'm not saying that the program doesn't work," she says. "But in my experience it hasn't."
After accepting a severance package when Massachusetts Mutual downsized in 1996, Williams moved to Raleigh to join her new husband, a construction worker she had met on a previous visit here. They moved into an apartment in town, and Williams immediately found data-processing work through a temp agency. She liked the temp assignments because they allowed her to make frequent trips back to Springfield to visit her now 12-year-old daughter, Nija, from a previous relationship.
By January 1999, Williams was pregnant and continuing to work various temp jobs. But she and her husband were mired in marital and financial programs. They separated just before Eriq's birth, at about the same time they were evicted from their apartment.
"I didn't have any money, I didn't have a place to stay and I didn't know how I was going to take care of my baby," says Williams. Considering the success she'd had in Massachusetts, she characterizes her downfall as "a pretty big jump."
Once Eriq was born, Williams and her baby enrolled in Work First. Initially, her experiences were positive. She was assigned an "excellent" case manager--the person who explains the program and its requirements to participants, and monitors their progress. "If I had a question concerning what was expected of me or about anything else," Williams says, "she'd have an answer to me by day's end."
But not long after her enrollment, her case manager was promoted and a different one took over. As she tried to get help navigating her way through the system, Williams says things quickly turned into "a living hell. I would call her constantly and she wouldn't return my calls. I would go in person and, if lucky, I'd catch her in her office after hours."
Wake County Social Services declined The Independent's requests to interview Williams' case manager, saying the relationship between a client and a case manager is "confidential." Barbara Harris, a Work First program manager for the county, was disappointed but not completely surprised to hear about Williams' experiences. "I won't say that things like that never happen, but I don't think it's widespread," she says. Harris admits things "can get frustrating at times" for Work First participants. "We do give priority to people who come in person," she says. "But we don't want any client feeling like they haven't been served."
Seven months after joining the program--the 12-week job requirement is dropped for up to one year for new mothers--Williams landed her current position after her first interview. But she got the job, she says, "on my own." She did receive some encouragement from a job counselor; Work First counselors are, according to the program guidelines, supposed to act as "guides" in the employment process, supplying leads and advice. But Williams says she coordinated her own search and interview process. Fortunately, with her education and her computer experience, she was able to pull it off without much guidance.
But once she had a job, Williams needed help with transportation costs, housing and child care. Determined to get off public assistance as quickly as possible, she says she's been hindered by a lack of timely and pertinent information from her case manager about getting to work, finding a decent place to live, and getting quality child care. Her salary, combined with the $72 a month in cash assistance she still receives, cannot pay for those things.
Although Williams owns a van, for instance, it is a constant struggle keeping the 13-year-old vehicle on the road, what with the costs of gas, maintenance and insurance. "There should be something set up where these costs can be subsidized," she says. "Anything that is going to get a person into a paying position and keep them there should be fully supported by the system."
North Carolina has "no comprehensive program that assists former recipients with transportation to work," notes Sorien Schmidt. Instead, as part of the "decentralizing" of state welfare, each county receives a small portion of state funds that can be--but don't have to be--used to help in some way with transportation.
"Transportation can be an ongoing problem," admits Tom Hogan, director of services for Wake County. The county does offer some assistance with work-related transportation--bus passes and gas vouchers--to people who bring in less than twice the federal poverty level. But Hogan hastens to add that this service is "not an open door," and that funding decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
Williams says she has received no information about this program. She was also unaware that she qualifies for assistance in finding licensed child care under the state's Smart Start early-education initiative. Eriq has been staying with an unlicensed daycare provider. Williams says she's also had trouble finding information about housing alternatives.
Harris says this kind of information is supposed to be communicated to welfare recipients through two sources: the case manager, and client orientation sessions offered twice a day. "Hopefully, they are getting it from both," she says.
But a recent study indicates that Williams is far from alone in lacking critical information. According to a National Campaign for Jobs and Income study issued in February, only 18 percent of eligible families in North Carolina are receiving child-care subsidies. And despite the establishment of the Children's Health Insurance Program, 27.8 percent of children in families earning less than twice the poverty level still lack insurance. That's a lot of people who are apparently unaware of benefits they still qualify for in the age of welfare reform.
"I'm still finding my way, and I'm probably not asking the right questions or talking to the right people," says Williams. "But step by step, I'll work my way back to self-sufficiency."
It will not be an easy task, given that she's working outside her chosen field of computer repair and earning almost $35,000 less than she did before with a child to support. While Williams pushes herself to get out of the system as soon as she can, her experiences have diminished her expectations about the help she can get from the state.
"I understand what Work First is trying to do," she says. "However, they really need to explore some options that will better help those of us who are really trying to get ourselves together."
Marceia Lyons lives in the brown-brick subsidized housing complex on Umstead Street in Durham, just across from W.G. Pearson Elementary School. Given the low-income status of its mostly African-American inhabitants and the drug deals plaguing its surrounding neighborhood, many people call it "the projects." But this single, 43-year-old mother of four, who has been on and off public assistance since having her first child at 17, doesn't see it that way.
"By definition, the word 'project' means unfinished," she says, glancing about her small living room as if looking for signs of ongoing construction. "It sure looks finished to me."
Lyons' welfare benefits were also finished when she reached Work First's two-year time limit this past October. Aside from a food-stamp allocation of $321 per month and sporadic income from her home sewing business, the severe diabetic had no other income to support the three children who live with her.
"It would have been nice if they could have helped me with my business," Lyons says after removing her arm from a home health-care aid sent to check her blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels. "Instead, they wanted me to do 35 hours of work a week. And they told me that I didn't even qualify to get bus tickets."
Since her mobility was hampered by her illness, Lyons was able to get the Durham County Division of Social Services to recognize her home business. This effectively eliminated any outside work requirement, and allowed her to continue receiving $297 a month in cash assistance. But it did little to put her on the road to self-sufficiency. Durham County does offer a program through the Small Business Administration, in which welfare recipients can get training in running a home business, but Lyons says she never heard about it.
Lyons says her frustrating experiences with Work First began after she took a non-paying teacher's assistantship through the program in the fall of 1998 (the 12-week requirement applies equally to paying and non-paying jobs). After working for a few days at Durham's Operation Breakthrough, which houses the city's Head Start program, Lyons noticed that a paying assistant's position had opened up. Since the salary could support a family of her size, and since she felt like she was already performing many of the position's responsibilities, she immediately put in an application. She says she was never considered for the spot, and quit soon after. Program officials declined to comment on Lyons' version of events.
"I was doing somebody else's eight-hour-a-day job and they weren't willing to pay me or even interview me for it," recalls a still-indignant Lyons. "They tell us to take any job we can get, but I have three children to support, and my 17-year-old, Stanley, is an usher in church. Do you know how expensive size-17 dress shoes are?
"Most of my friends find fast-food jobs," she continues, "but even a single person can't live off of minimum wage. And I'm not doing 35 hours of work a week just to make $200-and-something a month in assistance. They must be crazy."
In March, Lyons was offered a paying job when a VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) worker approached her about helping to coordinate and place volunteers at W.G. Pearson. Since her sewing business was at a crawl, Stanley couldn't find a job, and the school was just across the street, Lyons accepted, and she's worked there since. Through VISTA, she has health insurance for herself, but not her children. They survive off her monthly check of $786, along with the food stamps she still receives. But this too will soon come to an end, as Lyons says her deteriorating condition will force her to apply for disability. She is also applying for Medicaid for her children.
Dan Gerlach says Lyons' story should be a lesson for government officials. "The rhetoric, especially coming from the state, promotes the concept that everyone can work," says Gerlach. "But there are many with certain disabilities that cannot.
"There are folks who will not succeed at Work First," he continues. "We have got to realize that."
Indeed, Lyons' story raises an important question: Does anyone in her situation have a true chance of working a family to self-sufficiency with the help of Work First?
Ask social-services officials that question, and you sometimes get an answer that differs from the state's rhetoric about Work First "moving" families to self-sufficiency. "Work First is only one part of what is needed to get a family to self-sufficiency," says Rhonda Stevens, a Work First program manager for Durham County. "What you earn is important, but other resources like food stamps and Medicaid play a part as well."
Stevens also invokes the argument that work is valuable, no matter the job. Depending on someone's experience and motivation, she believes that Work First program can act as "a good starting point or step toward the realization of self-sufficiency. A person can develop skills on one job that can often lead to further, better-paying jobs."
Lyons sees things differently, of course. "They push people with two and three children out the door to get menial jobs that you can't survive on," she says. "To me, that's not self-sufficiency, that's stress."
Unlike Lyons and Williams, 39-year-old Linda Barrier says Work First has worked for her. The North Raleigh resident, who left the program voluntarily in February, has much to show for her time in it. She has a steady job that she loves. She has a car to get her back and forth to work. She has a comfortable apartment that she and her 17-month-old daughter, Linda Lee, can call home. And she feels like she's on the road to self-sufficiency, even if she's not there yet.
Things didn't always look so rosy for Barrier. In the spring of 1998, two months pregnant, Barrier enrolled in a local drug recovery program and signed up for Medicaid as a way of getting treatment and prenatal care. She had been addicted to alcohol since childhood, she says, and it was a factor in her two failed marriages and in getting her involved with her baby's father, who is also an alcoholic. Deciding to move out of his house and into the treatment center was a matter of survival, she says. "To give my baby a healthy start in life, I had to separate myself from that relationship and get the help I needed."
Once sober, things changed. After Linda Lee was born in January 1999, Barrier and her newborn applied for Work First. Her case manager, she says, was "very professional, very encouraging, and more than willing to volunteer the information I needed to make it." Following the case manager's advice, Barrier started taking classes in electronics at the Center for Employment Training at Research Triangle Park. After she trained for a year and worked part-time as a van driver, a job counselor (who was "just as effective" as her case manager) helped Barrier land her current job doing electrical wiring for a fire-pump company in Cary. She earns $8.50 an hour.
Barrier says her case manager and counselor didn't stop at helping her get a job. Since her job site was out of the reach of public transportation, they referred Barrier to Wake Opportunities, a nonprofit group that gave her a car for a nominal fee and paid her insurance and any major mechanical costs for the first six months in her job. Her job counselor also came up with a 30-day gas voucher.
While Barrier was able to find decent housing through her recovery program, her case manager also informed her of her child-care and health-insurance options. She is pleased with the licensed and subsidized daycare her daughter gets through the Smart Start early-education program. And even though their Medicaid benefits will run out in February 2001, Barrier now knows she can put her daughter in the Children's Health Insurance Program afterward, though she will have to pay for her own coverage.
"One thing I really appreciated about my case workers," she says, "was that I did not feel like I was being given a handout, but a hand up."
But even with the support Work First has provided her, and the subsidies and assistance in housing, child care, insurance and transportation, Barrier still has "a ways to go. My house is still unfurnished, but I'm taking it one day at a time. We can continue to sit on the floor if we have to."
In some ways, Barrier says, "I do feel like I'm self-sufficient. Last month, my check was low because I had to miss 11 days of work when my daughter got pneumonia. I was told I could go and apply for three months of emergency food stamps, but I chose not to do that because I didn't really need it.
"My company was able to give me a pay advance, and therefore allow me to handle the lack of income without going back into the system," she continues. "And that felt good. It really felt good."
But she readily admits that she wouldn't feel so good, or wouldn't be confident that she's headed toward self-sufficiency, if she hadn't gotten timely support and information. Without it, Barrier knows she might feel a lot more like Williams and Lyons.
"I would never be able to work the job I'm working right now," she says, "if someone hadn't shown me a way to get there."
Though Barrier and others appear to be "getting there," the fact remains that Work First has not moved her, or thousands of other North Carolinians, "to self-sufficiency from welfare dependency." Barrier can cover her monthly bills, but even this Work First success story--recommended to The Independent by the Wake County Department of Social Services--makes low wages and relies heavily on a network of publicly supported services.
What will it take for the results of welfare-reform programs like Work First to match the official rhetoric about its stunning success? The struggles of folks like Barrier, Williams and Lyons offer some strong clues.
Clearly, Work First participants need reliable help getting to and from jobs once they have them. They also need better channels of information about the transportation, housing and child-care programs they can use. "We're trying to gear our services a lot more toward our customers and their ongoing success," says the state's Peter Leousis. "It's not easy to change a system this big. But we've got to continue to do that."
Leousis acknowledges that Work First administrators also "must continue to think about ways to better help families become self-sufficient." He cites a couple of steps the state has taken recently: establishing a "call-back program" where phone centers are set up to track the progress of former Work First participants, and increasing funds for job training through the community colleges.
According to Dan Gerlach, tweaking the Work First program won't solve the fundamental problems of "getting people above the poverty line." This, says Gerlach, will require sweeping changes that go beyond public-assistance programs. We need to start, he says, with "universal health care, affordable housing and progressive taxation" that encourages self-sufficiency and reduces the tax burden on low-income earners. In addition, the state needs to emphasize economic development in distressed areas so that jobs can be brought into areas where a significant number of Work First participants live. Finally, Gerlach says, workers need "a living wage. It's no secret that workers who get paid higher wages tend to want to stay on the job longer."
Unfortunately, as long as the public continues to hear little but good news about welfare reform from federal and state officials, and as long as we're constantly reassured that people are being moved to self-sufficiency with programs like Work First, it seems likely that the reasons behind welfare reform's inability to lift people out of poverty will remain unaddressed.