Work, or Else: Welfare Moms Strive to Meet the Ultimatum

How four women are coping with one state's demand that they work for their welfare checks

The welfare reforms that began in Massachusetts last November have been a mixed blessing for Teena Bruton, Olga Ortiz, Donna Zawacki, and Phyllis Martin. For some, the policies added resources, for others obstacles.

The four women are among some 85,000 single parents in the state who receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Like welfare recipients across the US, they are white, black, and Hispanic. Two were teenage mothers, two were not; two live in urban neighborhoods, and two are in a suburban town. All say they would rather have a well-paying job than rely on a check from the government.

The following sketches show how these mothers are making the journey from welfare to work.

Teena Bruton - Must add volunteer work to college

Teena Bruton turned her life around two years ago, but her efforts to build a career and end 11 years of welfare dependency have nothing to do with Massachusetts's welfare reform law.

In fact the changes in the welfare rules have made it harder for her to follow through with plans to earn a college degree and become a social worker.

What made the difference in her life, Ms. Bruton says, is people who believed in her. "I found a group of people who really wanted to help me," she says, one eye on her homework and the other on her eighth-grade son. "I'd been talked to bad and mistreated and whatnot, and my self-esteem was nil, you know. I needed somebody who could see through the farce I had going on."

Bruton grew up in Roxbury, Boston's black inner-city neighborhood, under the shadow of her mother, a powerful woman in the community who had worked two jobs most of her life.

But Bruton admits she has always had a rebellious streak. She dropped out of high school and got hooked on drugs and alcohol. At 29, she became pregnant and, soon after her son was born, moved to Lynn, Mass. - alone and on welfare.

"But I brought my bad habits with me," she says.

A course offered by North Shore Community College in nearby Beverly, Mass., finally reached the self-destructive Bruton. Called "Motivation to Education," it helps first-year students develop study skills and improve their school performance.

There, Bruton says, for the first time, "I saw that I could actually do something. They were showing me avenues, like, 'In two years, you can do this and you can have that.' I got caught with the way people spoke and the idea of college."

But first, she had to grapple with the addictions that had dogged her for more than half her life. She checked into a detox center and, when she got out, went straight back to college. "I've made the dean's list every semester since," Bruton says, her cropped cornrows tumbling as she holds her head back with pride.

In one more semester Bruton will earn her associate's degree. Next spring, she says she'll take courses to get her substance-abuse counseling certification, and then she plans to attend Salem State College to get her bachelor's degree in social work.

But since November, Massachusetts has said Bruton must do more than go to school, participate in 10 hours of work-study a week, and raise her son. To continue receiving welfare, she must add 10 hours of approved community service work each week, or drop out of school and find a job. Bruton decided to tack on the community-service hours.

Bruton understands - and even agrees with - public demands that able-bodied welfare recipients find work. But the state needs to better prepare recipients for jobs that pay enough to raise a family, she says. "It's easy to say there are people on welfare that ought to be working. But you've got people on welfare who cannot read or write. Where are they going to work?"

Olga Ortiz - Hoping a job offer will come through

Olga Ortiz and her son finally have a place of their own. State aid, in the form of subsidized housing grants, provided Ms. Ortiz with her first home last year - and her first taste of independence.

Now the state is pressuring her to take more charge of her life, requiring her to complete 20 hours of community service a week or find a job.

In early May, Ortiz began volunteering at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She hopes the position will lead to full-time work there and, eventually, help her fulfill her dream of becoming a mortician.

Ortiz was already looking for work as an emergency medical technician when the welfare office began requiring recipients to volunteer or find work. Her son is in school, and family members are nearby to babysit when she needs them to. For her, welfare reform provided resources that are pushing her become more self-sufficient.

"I need a job to support my son, and I want to get off welfare," Ortiz says shyly in a Puerto Rican accent. "I don't want to be attached to welfare."

Ortiz grew up down the street from where she lives now, in the colorful Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Her family moved to the US when she was 4. Her father worked, while her mother cared for their growing family.

After graduating from high school, Ortiz moved in with her boyfriend and began work as a nurse's aide at Boston City Hospital. After her son was born, she quit her job.

Three years ago, she began collecting welfare when she moved out of her boyfriend's apartment and in with her parents. There, she and her son slept on the floor because the bedrooms in her parents' home were already filled with her brothers.

Last year, things began looking up. Ortiz got her own apartment, filling the den with hundreds of porcelain clowns she began collecting. Though she wishes she had more time to spend with her son, Ortiz says she enjoys her community-service job. "When I miss a day on my job I feel sad. I miss my friends at the hospital.

"It is hard, because you get used to your kids.... My son says every morning, 'Please don't go to work,' but I tell him I have to make my job. If I want to become something in the future, I have to do my job."

Donna Zawacki - Being a mom is no longer enough

Donna Zawacki is barely holding it together.

She's a dedicated mother who has spent the past 10 years concentrating on how to keep her daughter safe and happy. The walls of her small apartment are covered with contest ribbons from Ashley's swimming competitions, pictures of Ashley in dance costume, and Ashley's artistic accomplishments.

But now Ashley is in fourth grade, and Ms. Zawacki is being told she has to do more than be a mother to keep receiving the welfare checks that allow her to provide for her daughter.

When Zawacki first heard rumors last year that the welfare office was going to require recipients to work, she began asking herself what kind of job would pay enough and include enough benefits to support Ashley. "I want to give her every opportunity that I never had," Zawacki says.

She decided to train to be a paralegal secretary and entered North Shore Community College's program. There, she made the dean's list her first semester, despite being diagnosed as having a learning disability.

But now Zawacki is considering dropping out or switching to a less-demanding program. "The second semester, with all of the baloney and all the hassle and the stress that the welfare department put me through, I did have to drop out of my two law classes."

Part of the "hassle" was over whether the welfare office would grant Zawacki a disability waiver, exempting her from the state's community-service requirements. While she got the exemption, it ends in August. In September, she'll begin the waiver process from scratch. But even if she gets it, she'll lose her state subsidies for child care and transportation.

Zawacki says Massachusetts's new welfare policies hurt children more than anyone. It's important for mothers to care for their own children, she says. That's why, when Zawacki's boyfriend abandoned her and Ashley when Ashley was two weeks old, Zawacki started collecting welfare.

"I didn't want to leave my daughter in day care," she says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her Lynn apartment. "I wanted to raise her. I don't know if I did the right thing, but I just wanted to be here and watch her grow up. That's why I went on welfare.

"This is my daughter's last year in dancing school. She's been dancing since she was 4, but it went up, and I can't afford that any more. I know, people say, 'Why should someone on welfare have a kid in dancing school? That's disgusting.' It's like these kids don't have any rights just because their fathers took off, like they shouldn't be allowed the same things that other children with two-parent families have."

Zawacki says she doesn't know if she'll go back to school in the fall. If she can't get the state to approve her disability waiver, she says she may have to give up on school and find work she could do with the skills she already has, such as cleaning or washing floors. "Something that wouldn't pay anything and certainly wouldn't have any health insurance."

Phyllis Martin - Delighted to have $10-an-hour job

Every time Phyllis Martin gets a job, it seems a round of layoffs takes it away - landing her right back on welfare.

To the Boston mother of two, welfare reform has taken effect in the background of her own continuing work-and-welfare cycle.

When her caseworker explained the new work requirements last year, Ms. Martin put her name in for the third state-run training program that she's entered in the last decade - this one focused on building job-finding skills. "I've been going through a lot of training," Martin says laughing.

She was a filing clerk at a Boston insurance company from 1987 to 1991, until a consolidation prompted management to cut jobs. In 1994, she landed an internship doing computer data entry, with hopes that it would lead to a full-time job. Company layoffs again ruined her chances.

Currently, she earns $10 an hour working as an archive filing clerk and library assistant at an architectural firm in downtown Boston. "I hope this is it. I mean, I hope this is it," she says.

Martin grew up and still lives in the city's Dorchester neighborhood. She graduated from high school in 1978 and had her first child almost immediately. Living at home and near the father's family, she says someone was always around to help out with raising her child.

After working one Christmas at Filene's department store, she was asked to stay on. She did, for about a year, until her daughter was born. Then, for six years, she collected welfare and stayed home with her children.

Martin regrets that she didn't go to college and that she didn't marry either of her children's fathers. "I wanted to," she says of becoming a wife, her straightened black hair hiding her eyes. "But I'm happy, so ...."

She doesn't have any complaints about the welfare-reform act or its demands on recipients. "I figure if you're body able, why not work? Your kids are old enough to be in school, why not?"

"It's been a long struggle and I finally made it," Martin says. "Sometimes you get discouraged.... But I said, 'Nah, I won't give up.' I've come too far to quit."

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