True Test of Welfare Reform Lies in Appalachia

Getting people off the dole is a much tougher task in rural areas where pockets of poverty stubbornly persist

Hemmed in by small, steep mountains, Prestonsburg, Ky., lies deep in the heart of Appalachia - a region of stark contrasts.

Here run-down trailers sit near well-kept homes; thick forested hills rise majestically next to ones scarred and barren from mining; and dirt roads are as common as paved two-lane highways. While it is one of the most resource-rich areas in the country, it is also one of the most impoverished.

Thirty-three years ago, President Johnson came to this part of eastern Kentucky to launch the War on Poverty, a multibillion-dollar effort that didn't solve the problem. Today, the government is again trying to foster economic independence and more individual responsibility through welfare reform.

While many states with relatively low unemployment have begun to see significant declines in their welfare rolls, the greatest test of this reform effort may be in rural areas, like Appalachia, where the struggle against poverty stubbornly persists.

Consider Floyd County: 32 percent of the 44,000 people live below the poverty level; about 40 percent are unemployed or underemployed; and only half the residents have finished high school.

"In rural Appalachia where there are traditionally high pockets of persistent poverty, the challenges of welfare reform are immense," says Ron Eller, director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Rural handicaps

Like most of Appalachia, Floyd County's isolation and lack of an interstate highway have helped keep industry away. Good-paying jobs are scarce, and the main employers are coal mines - an industry that has reduced its work force as it has become more automated - and fast-food restaurants. Child-care facilities and public transportation are almost nonexistent.

"Creating adequate jobs, providing transportation and day-care services are a much greater task in rural areas than in urban ones," says Mr. Eller.

As the deadline for complying with the new federal welfare law nears, Appalachian states are scrambling to make sense of what the changes will mean for individuals and communities. Some say it will provide the opportunity to find regional solutions to regional problems. Others say Appalachia's problems will worsen.

Caught in the middle of the experiment are people like Sandy, a single mother of two. Sandy (who requested anonymity), went on welfare and food stamps in 1989 after losing her job as an medical technician in Lexington two years earlier. She returned here to help take care of her ailing mother. But Sandy says she was unable to find a job with health benefits that paid enough money for child care.

Now that her children are in school, she has enrolled at Prestonsburg Community College under a program that helps low-income students. She wants to become a nurse, but competition to get into nursing is fierce, and even if she does get accepted for the 1998 class, she won't graduate until 2000.

Under the new welfare law she will be required to work 20 hours a week next year or risk losing $260 in AFDC payments. She doesn't see how she will be able to take care of her family, work 20 hours, go to school full time, and study for the program, which she describes as intense. Finding reliable transportation is also a constant concern.

"I don't want this way of life," she says, sitting at a table, her arm resting on a pile of textbooks. "But in order for us to get off welfare they're going to have to support us through education. We need the support now."

Experts say education is the key to weaning people off welfare and that community colleges will play a large role.

At Prestonsburg Community College, a mountain-framed campus of light-gray-colored buildings, 70 percent of the students receive financial aid, and 72 percent require remediation. The college emphasizes health-care and technology careers, because those fields offer high-wage jobs with good availability. But the classes are in demand: Recently 197 students applied for 14 spaces in the dental-hygiene program, and the college has limited resources to offer more.

Advocates express concern about students like Sandy who will not have enough time to finish their education before being cut from the dole. "The welfare bill is a work bill, not an education bill," says Deborah Floyd, president of the college. "When you're dealing with high-risk clients, there's not much cushion. It's a scary proposal for all of us to think about."

Under the welfare law signed last August, the federal government gives a lump sum of money to each state in the form of block grants to provide child care, job training, and cash assistance. To get their full grant, states must meet a number of federal requirements such as putting a five-year limit on people who receive welfare and requiring parents to work after two years if children are over the age of 1.

Kentucky, which filed its plan last October, is still refining how it will respond to its welfare population, particularly in the eastern part of the state.

Some initiatives include developing job centers in three or four counties that will have employment opportunities, child care, and adult education and will be run by and for welfare recipients. A new data-processing company moving into the area may provide jobs for people at their homes, which would minimize the need for child care and transportation. But while a step in the right direction, many say much more economic development is needed.

"The climate for business and industry in eastern Kentucky is not right," says Gary Coleman, principal of Mayo Vocational Technical School in nearby Paintsville. Among the reasons, he says, are the area's union mentality, which puts off businesses, and lack of good highways. In addition, the area doesn't value education and training as much as it should.

Mr. Coleman adds that welfare-reform measures haven't sunk in with many residents. "Not everyone is convinced it's going to happen yet," he says. "A few have come in [to the college] who are worried, but there should be more."

Still, those interviewed say despite the area's reliance on welfare, most people want to work. They say the media's portrayal of them as uneducated hillbillies who live in run-down trailers along creek beds is a false stereotype.

"Society thinks people on welfare here are living the good life, and maybe some are, and some don't want to work," says Wanda Justice-Allen, a student at Prestonsburg Community College who receives food stamps for her husband and five children. "But the best resource in eastern Kentucky is its people. We're good hard-working people, and they forget that."

Some who study Appalachian culture say while that is true, at the same time there's little stigma about being on welfare because it's so integrated into the culture.

"So much energy goes into pulling together the resources for basic subsistence living - shelter, making sure utilities are paid, making sure you have food, farming - that there's not much energy to think beyond that kind of lifestyle or working in a higher-status field," says Judith Hammond, a sociology professor at East Tennessee University in Johnson City. "I don't see it as laziness as much as complacency because it feels pretty good to have the basic needs met."

A job but no family?

Many expect welfare reform will force people to move to urban areas to find jobs.

Kentucky has developed a program to pay moving expenses for recipients who are unable to find work in their communities and must relocate. But residents say that relocating may backfire because though people may gain jobs, they'll lose their support system of extended family, which helps people survive in many ways, from providing a family member free rent on land to giving them food.

The key to making welfare reform work in a region where self-esteem and self-confidence is low is empowering people, says Jean Rosenberg, who runs the Homemaker and Single-Parent Career Development Program at Prestonsburg Community College.

"When you take people from their comfort zone - entitlements - you need support mechanisms that allow them to catch their balance and feel a level of hope," says Ms. Rosenberg.

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