MILWAUKEE, WIS. — The concrete steps up to Chia Pao Chang's house are crumbling so badly it's probably wiser to hike up the hill around them to get to the front door.
The living room is furnished with an old couch and bench seats from a van. In the next room, a shamanic shrine, laden with ceremonial objects and chicken feathers from a recent sacrifice, is the focal point.
The Changs are a long way from refugee camps of Thailand and the hills of Laos, their native country. But for these Hmong refugees, and thousands like them in the United States, there's little choice. When the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, Hmong farmers - recruited to fight in the CIA's secret army - had to leave Laos.
Now many are here. The least-well-off are navigating a changing welfare system that requires self-sufficiency. Here in Wisconsin, one of the most aggressive proponents of welfare-to-work, the challenges are daunting.
So far, after five years here, the Changs and their six children are surviving. They're even a little hopeful, as they prepare to farm a few acres outside the city. Still, their case shows the hurdles faced by some of America's neediest families, and the lengths government, case workers, and activists must go to keep people on track with welfare-to-work.
"What's left are the toughest cases," says Bill Hamilton, a refugee services official at the Department of Workforce Development, the state's welfare-reform agency.
According to state figures, welfare dependency among Hmong immigrants in Wisconsin dropped from 77 percent to 12 percent between 1987 and 1997, following an aggressive employment program. The ones who are left - and who are subject to rigorous work requirements of Wisconsin's welfare reform - will be the hardest to place.
Overall, Wisconsin's Hmong population - about 40,000, second only to California - has had a harder time leaving public assistance than the general welfare population, since the inception last September of Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program, known as W2, says Hamilton.
Hmong families tend to be large, and the parents often have disabilities that date back to the Vietnam War. This includes the women, who lugged ammunition cases and performed other difficult tasks. Many also can't speak English, are illiterate even in their native language, and lack job skills. And since most of Wisconsin's Hmong aren't US citizens, those in the country more than five years have faced the elimination of food stamps for legal immigrants that was part of federal welfare reform.
Last week, the Wisconsin legislature restored food stamps for legal immigrants. In Washington, the Senate has voted to reinstate food stamps for some noncitizens.
At the Hmong-American Friendship Association, in northwest Milwaukee, the food-stamp cutoff has boosted demand at the food pantry, which serves between 65 and 70 families a week and has a waiting list of 110 families.
The case of Mr. Chang and his wife, Chia Yang, who look like they've walked straight out of the hills of Laos, is difficult to track. The family claims benefits were cut off for a while, then restored. But a caseworker says their records indicate continuous benefits. Mr. Chang had a factory job for two months, then developed an eye problem and was laid off. Now he's found a new factory job. His wife is at home with the children.
There are days, says Mr. Chang, when the family goes without food. "They can cut off older people, but children shouldn't go to bed hungry," he says, speaking through an interpreter. All the bureaucracy is particularly baffling for people from a tribal mountain culture that didn't have written language until the 1950s. Mr. Chang finds the notion of performing "community service" demeaning.
"Hmong men are very proud, and being required to 'volunteer' is bad for their self-esteem," says Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy, director of the Hmong-American Friendship Association, which has been helping the Chang family.
For Mr. Chang and his wife, the ideal would be to go back to farming. The signs of their intentions are everywhere: Their front yard is sprouting with herb seedlings. A bucket on the porch has some pepper plants. Behind the house, a friend is trying to fix a small cultivator.
In Laos, they used a hoe, sticks, and their bare hands - no fertilizer, no tractor. Here, the soil is less rich and needs help. The owner of land they're renting an hour away has plowed it for them. All the Changs need to do is transplant seedlings they're growing in rented greenhouse space. They plan to grow produce for their own use and for sale at farmer's markets in Milwaukee. But farming on such a small scale can't support a large family. Many Hmong refugees have taken up farming in the US. Some make more than $20,000 a year doing it.
In terms of fulfilling a welfare-to-work requirement, though, it might be difficult convincing a caseworker that cultivating a few acres is going to lead to self-sufficiency.
"It's not likely that the FEPs (financial employment planners) would look at that as a realistic employment objective, unless there's enough return to support the family," says Sue Levy, head of the Refugee Services Sector at the Department of Workforce Development.
The Changs, though, are eager to farm full time. "Do you know any programs to help us?" asks Mr. Chang, a one-time soldier for the US in Laos.
In fact, federal programs providing loans and agricultural training are available. In Milwaukee, though, the Hmong community hasn't tapped into those programs. In Minnesota, California, and elsewhere in Wisconsin, Department of Agriculture officials have held town-hall meetings with Hmong immigrants. In Wausau, Wis., Hmong farmers have turned the city into the "ginseng capital of the world." They even export to Asia.
For Chang, subsistence depends on doing whatever he can. He makes a little income as a shaman, or traditional healer. People come to see him, and pay whatever they can, sometimes with a chicken or part of a pig.
In a way, it may seem easier for the state to keep providing public assistance to families like the Changs, say some local activists. But Wisconsin has made a clear commitment to converting its entire welfare caseload into a working caseload. "We start from the basic premise that everybody can make a contribution, then try and design what that contribution is and what steps will each family move to self-sufficiency," says Ms. Levy.
Bill Hamilton, who works for Ms. Levy, thinks the number of immigrants on public aid since September 1997 has gone to 8 or 10 percent. "But we don't see it as a healthy drop," he says. "These are people who have given up on assistance. We're beginning to see examples of people who are drifting back."
Mr. Kiatoukaysy, the Hmong activist, has mixed feelings about how welfare reform. He sees the difficulties people face when they don't speak or read English. And he wishes there were more job-training programs.
"It's all going so fast," he says. "But I'm happy to see people trying to work."