Annastein Lewis possesses the proper traits for a crack receptionist -- she's articulate and poised, giving the impression that the front-office pace never sends her into a tizzy. Two years ago, a case worker steered Ms. Lewis to Training Inc., which specializes in teaching basic office skills and word processing to the unemployed.
Lewis learned the office lessons well and landed herself a job as receptionist at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago's fashionable North Michigan Avenue.
In 14 weeks, Training Inc. taught her not only secretarial skills but also how to mix and match a wardrobe, how to do her hair, apply makeup, and how to put extra shine on her manners.
On the surface, her present economic status looks like a leap ahead: She brings home $438 every two weeks and still gets $138 a month in food stamps, compared with her former welfare checks of $498 monthly plus $200 in food stamps.
But there's more to that financial picture.
Her job's chic surroundings carry a high price tag, cutting her increase. The church where she works sprawls amid the city's most posh shops and stores, an area where strollers on the avenue can spot a Gucci fake and zircon at a glance. In that neighborhood, Lewis can hardly show up in blue jeans.
``I try to cut expenses by getting clothes at the church Share Shop,'' where everything is gratis, she explains. But building a working woman's wardrobe this way isn't always possible -- especially when that woman works on Michigan Avenue.
Transportation takes a chunk from Lewis's budget, too. The commute is a long one from her South Side apartment: 1 to 2 hours one way, with a monthly pass costing $48.
As for food bills, they also went on an upswing when she took her downtown job. ``Now I'm not home when the kids get home from school, so I need to leave something here for them to eat,'' she explains.
``If I was home I would cook, and they would have a big meal. Not an elaborate meal, but something that's good for them to eat and doesn't cost lots.''
For the kids' pick-up suppers, she tends to leave lunch meat and snacks along with a supply of peanut butter and jelly. ``I try to leave fruit, too, but that's expensive.''
When on welfare, Lewis carried a medical card that entitled her to treatment for herself and her children. Now, she gets medical coverage on her job.
``But I'm only partially OK on this because the way it is now, I have to pay $300 deductible. If anything happens, I just don't have the $300 on hand to pay,'' she says.
So even though she currently nets about $316 more a month (cash and food stamps combined) than when she was on welfare, her extra expenses for clothes, transportation, food, and medical help gobble up the gains.
Married in the late '70s, Lewis is now separated. Of her seven children, five still live with her. She runs her single-parent household in a six-room apartment on the South Side, paying $395 a month in rent plus heat and light.
Although the apartment's entry hall has peeling wallpaper, her place is in first-rate shape with freshly painted walls of stark white and sheer curtains in the windows. But the living room is sans furniture; this will come when her income grows.
Along the way, Lewis earned her high school diploma and now plans to take college courses in business administration. She wants to manage an office someday.
Welfare? She never wants to go back on that. And in her own well-phrased way, she sums up her view in words that would reap plaudits from the Illinois Department of Public Aid:
``You've got to get a job 'cause you'll always be broke on welfare. Welfare's just a steppingstone. It wasn't invented for you to live on.''