A Welfare Success Story?
My friend Lisa is 28 years old, an 8th grade graduate, and a mother of four. Whenever I hear people say welfare reform is working, I know they mean people like Lisa. She did what Congress required in 1996, and left welfare for paying work. But being a "welfare success story" means Lisa is facing a reality that few of us can imagine.
"Just like now," Lisa told me last week. "I have to decide what to pay—my rent or my baby sitter. If I don't pay the sitter, I can't go to work. If I don't pay my rent, I will get evicted."
It took Lisa a long time to find her job at a discount store, where she's worked for three months. She had searched for work every day, often paying friends to watch her kids. When she got the job, not only were the wages meager, but the only hours offered her were from 2 to 11 p.m., a time when she feels she should be with her children. But with no education or job skills, and under threat of losing her benefits, she knew she really had no choice.
Now Lisa pays a neighbor $75 a week to keep her four children. That is not an unreasonable fee, but when you only make around $180 a week, that figure seems astronomical.
Plus, as soon as she started working, Lisa lost her TANF (or what used to be called welfare) check. Her rent, which is still subsidized, went from $99 to $399 per month because of her new income. Her food stamps were cut to $125 a month. It doesn't take long to do the math. For Lisa and her children, there is no money to spare, let alone save. No money for birthday cakes for the kids, who are between 3 and 8 years old. Last week, she had no money for soap powder to wash the kids' clothes. I worry that she's one month from a homeless shelter.
Lisa worries too. "I think that once you get a job, they should allow you to keep your benefits for three months, to allow you a chance to get stable and get things in order," she told me recently. "When have been on the system so long, you get used to that safety net; they should gradually take the benefits away."
Maybe three months would do the trick, maybe not. Welfare reform is has the potential to help a lot of families become self-sufficient, but in order for it to work for families, Lisa's request surely makes sense. She takes advantage of programs that can help her family, like free school lunches and health care for her kids. But without better job skills, she knows she can never really get ahead. Lisa hears of job-training programs, but finds "every time you try to participate, there is a long waiting list, or they are during work hours."
Even if she had job training and extended benefits, I think Lisa needs one more thing: a dedicated mentorï¿½someone who knows how hard it is to move from welfare to work and can help guide her way. Caseworkers don't have time to do this work, and though we've been friends for years, she needs all the support she can get.
No one wants to be dependent on welfare—Lisa and other friends have shown me that. But for millions of people like Lisa, a minimum wage paycheck by itself can't be called a success.
How Can I Help?
There are lots of ways to get involved and help make a difference for families like Lisa's. For ideas and links to volunteering and mentoring sites, visit our Ideas for Action section.
To learn more about welfare reform, visit the Economic Success Clearinghouse .
The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Jobs Initiative helps young, low-income workers find meaningful jobs and to identify national employment and training models.
Stacey Palmer served as discussion moderator of Connect for Kids.