Less Welfare, Same Poverty in Heart of Appalachia

People are moving into jobs, but the region's poverty rate hasn't budged.

For April Rupe and her son, it's a time of big adjustments.

For two years, she was a welfare mother at home. Two months ago, she started work full time as an assistant at a nursing home.

Ms. Rupe is delighted she can now pay her bills on time. But to do that, she often works 12- and 18-hour shifts, and goes in on her days off.

"It's hard when you've got a four-year-old and he's saying, 'Mommy, stay home,' " says Rupe.

But there's one adjustment this family won't have to make. They were poor when they were on welfare, and they're poor now. Like thousands of other former welfare families in these coal-mine-scarred hills of rural Appalachia, a full-time job hasn't meant a ticket out of poverty.

"Back in the 1960s we declared war on poverty. This is a war on welfare," says Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Human Services.

Rupe and others like her represent one of the Clinton administration's best successes and, in the eyes of some, one of its most prominent failures. In 1992, then-candidate Clinton pledged, "No one who works full time and has children at home should be poor anymore. And no one who can work should be able to stay on welfare forever."

"[Mr. Clinton] delivered the second sentence; he's not yet delivered the first," says Sheldon Danziger, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

While still in its early stages, welfare reform has already been judged a great success in many states - at least in getting people off welfare. It's estimated that more than 2 million people have left the rolls since 1994.

But in terms of lifting families out of poverty and improving the quality of their lives - the gauge Athens County's Mr. Frech says should be used to judge success - the jury is still out.

In the past four years, welfare rolls in Athens County have been cut in half. But 70 percent of the people who left in the past two years took jobs that paid less than $6 an hour. The result: The Athens County poverty rate stubbornly remains at more than 30 percent - twice the national average.

For advocates for the poor, that's an indication much more needs to be done.

"More people are getting jobs, but it's not making their lives any better," says Kathy Lairn, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

A center analysis of US Census data nationwide found that between 1995 and 1996, a greater percentage of single, female-headed households were earning money on their own, but that average income for these households actually went down.

BUT for many, the fact that poor people are able to support themselves almost as well without government aid as they did with it is in itself a huge victory.

"Welfare was a poison. It was a toxin that was poisoning the family," says Robert Rector, a welfare-reform policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "The reform is changing the moral climate in low-income communities. It's beginning to rebuild the work ethic, which is much more important."

Mr. Rector and others contend that once "the habit of dependency is cracked," then the country can make other policy changes aimed at improving living standards.

But advocates for the poor say the problem is not so simple, particularly in an economy where real wages have held steady and low-wage jobs are paying less now in real terms than they did 20 years ago.

In other words, a good job is hard to find, let alone one with benefits.

Just ask Dave Smith, a Vietnam veteran who also lives in Appalachia, in The Plains, Ohio. He says it's been more than 25 years since he's had a good-paying job with benefits. "There's jobs, but the jobs they got don't pay enough to live on," says Mr. Smith. "And the way they talk to you don't build self-esteem. They're more like slave drivers."

Several years ago, Smith was on general assistance and joined the Appalachian People's Action Coalition. Created by low-income people to improve their lives and job prospects, APAC started a used-furniture store where Smith now works.

"Athens is a hotbed of grass-roots efforts to create sustainable development and jobs that are 'Appalachian,' " says APAC director Kathryn Lad. "But the bottom line is, the capital isn't here to get it going."

That's one reason advocates for the poor still see a role for the US government. They cite things like creating seed money for business development in low-income areas, expanding child-care subsidies, and boosting the minimum wage. They also want to build on the already-expanded earned income tax credit for the working poor.

"America still has a high poverty rate relative to that of other industrialized countries," says Professor Danziger. "It will take more government policies designed to make work pay to fulfill the first part of Clinton's campaign soundbite."

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