``Just staying home, I get depressed,'' says Chris Butler, who traded her welfare check for a paycheck. ``When you get done doing what you gotta do and cooking and doing for the kids, then you just sit around and watch TV. I'd rather work anytime.'' Ms. Butler heard about Project Chance from a friend who's also on welfare. ``When she told me, I just jumped at it. I got to do something so my kids won't get discouraged and drop out of school or anything. I want myself as an example so they finish, so they grow up and do something worthwhile,'' explains Butler, whose five boys and one girl range in age from 9 to 19.
Project Chance, only five months old this month, was designed to give welfare recipients a better chance to move into jobs and stand on their own earnings. A major aim of the program is to match job training with particular job needs in the private business sector, rather than offer scatter-fire training that sometimes leaves the jobless trainees standing at closed doors with their newly acquired skills as worthless as Monopoly money. At present, Project Chance trains welfare recipients as store clerks, nursing home aides, and industrial-machine operators, and for various jobs with the Chicago Housing Authority.
After 10 weeks of training, Butler graduated and is now an aide at a private nursing home in an upper-class suburb west of Chicago. (All 20 of her classmates also were placed in jobs.)
Butler's take-home pay is $500 a month. On welfare, she received $505. Her medical benefits are now less comprehensive, and her food-stamp allotment has plunged from $332 to $142 a month. That kind of arithmetic could spell discouragement. But Butler doesn't take it that way.
``I'm not good at budgeting yet. I gotta figure out how to budget and make it last. Then it'll be easier for me,'' says the 37-year-old mother, who never married. When you talk with her, you realize she doesn't intend to stay in a financial hole. She has her sights on getting a high school diploma and becoming a licensed practical nurse.
There's an optimistic quality about Butler; maybe it's because her voice carries a lilt, with sentences sometimes ending on the upbeat. Or maybe it's her ``very open attitude,'' as described by her supervisor, Judi Kelly. ``She comes to work with the attitude of `Here I am, what do you want me to do?' '' Mrs. Kelly explains.
In any event, Butler makes you believe that her current job is just one step on an upward climb.
At present, she and her five children (the oldest son is in the Air Force) live with her parents -- in a small white house in front of an auto body shop by the railroad tracks in a southwest suburb of Chicago.
Inside, everything is ``picked up,'' with sofa cushions placed ``just so'' and books and magazines stacked in the corners. Pictures of Jesus hang on the dining room wall, basketball posters on a bedroom door. Chris and her children share two bedrooms while the third is reserved for her parents. Even though space is sparse, there's no sense of being crowded, and throughout the house there's the aura of ``home.''
Butler pays her parents $200 a month rent. The rest of her month's pay goes principally for food. The little that might be left -- clothes for the kids. A key advantage of her job is that transportation is free. The nursing home provides van service, mainly because there's no public transportation between the southwest suburb where she and her co-workers live and the wealthier western suburbs.
Do her parents help her out when she runs shy of cash? ``Sometimes,'' she says. ``But parents can do only what they can do, you know? I don't try to bother them that much, you know, 'cause they have their own bills. You know how it is?''
And she expects that you do know how it is.