Senator Walks Welfare Mom's Mile

Program connects politicians and poor for a day, but falls short of changing minds

BERNADETTE DICKINSON doesn't have to walk to her bus stop today.

Instead, she rode the three miles past clipped Connecticut lawns and suburban strip malls perched in the back seat of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's four-door sedan.

"That is where you pick up the bus every morning?" Senator Lieberman asks in disbelief.

The welfare mom nods. Most days, she takes the Vernon city bus across town to deposit her two-year-old daughter at a day-care center. Then, Ms. Dickinson boards another bus to Manchester Community College. She repeats the 2-1/2 hour commute each afternoon.

Clearly, Dickinson is not the lay-about welfare poster child so often derided in Congress. But she is a struggling product of the state. After 17 years as a foster child, she and her toddler rely on the government for food, education, and shelter.

The uncertain future of those subsidies lies in the hands of her Democratic Connecticut senator and other members of Congress. Yet their Capitol Hill policy tomes and C-SPAN diatribes seldom reflect the complex feelings and hopes found in real life.

On this June morning, the chasm between the two worlds is fleetingly bridged when Lieberman is sympathetically struck by the distance Dickinson walks each day.

Chalk up a small victory for the Walk-a-Mile project. Begun in Washington State last November and expanded nationally this April, the Walk-a-Mile project pairs welfare recipients with politicians in their district for part of a day. The program's aim, derided by some as a liberal, touchy-feely approach to policymaking, is to debunk myths and put a face on welfare.

Does it work? Occasionally. Does it make a difference in policy? That's unclear.

Lieberman arrived promptly at Dickinson's tidy apartment for his visit earlier this month, stepping over toys on the stairs, past pink flamingoes poked into the ground. He dropped in at Rashida's day care and toured their church, a cinema-turned-sanctuary with a yellow neon "Jesus Saves" sign out front.

He heard of Dickinson's struggle to educate herself after dropping out of high school, her stint in the Army, and her yearning to serve as a policewoman. He discovered how her life changed when she became pregnant, how she accepted her first welfare check after being fired by McDonald's because she could no longer work behind the counter.

"I'm scared that somebody's going to come in and take my child away when they kick me off [welfare] because I'll be below the poverty level," Dickinson says, pulling Rashida close to her.

But how Lieberman might translate his new knowledge into policy is hard to measure. And the clout that a Democratic senator wields in a GOP-dominated Congress is limited.

Often the biggest challenge for programs like Walk-a-Mile, says Jennifer Vasiloff, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition on Human Need, is getting key policymakers to participate in them. Only 16 Democrats and Republicans - out of 535 senators and representatives - have volunteered for Walk-a-Mile.

"We just need politicians to have a little bit of compassion and mercy," Dickinson says. "They need to give to people who have initiative. And to those who don't show initiative," she pauses, blinking away the sun's strong glare behind her glasses. "We can't give up on them either."

Even after their two hours together, Lieberman does not see eye to eye with Dickinson on that. "The whole idea [of welfare] is mutual responsibility," he says. "No one wants to say, 'Okay, you're on your own.' But on the other hand, we don't want to say, we're going to help you no matter how bad you are."

The moderate Democrat and proponent of welfare-to-work reforms admits that this meeting reaffirms his beliefs about government aid to families, rather than changing it.

And as the morning melts into midday, Lieberman drives off, headed for a busy day of politicking in the capital, while Dickinson stands in the parking lot between church and missionary building, waiting for a ride.

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