`WELFARE?'' asks Karen Rock, angrily. ``Do people think any woman with children really wants to stay on welfare?''
Standing in front of the district office of Massachusetts Sen. Therese Murray here, Ms. Rock and two dozen other women from the Coalition for Basic Human Needs (CBHN) in Cambridge, Mass., are protesting a state welfare-reform proposal backed by Senator Murray.
``Every woman's situation is different,'' says Rock, who has one child and receives welfare. ``We don't need reform that is punitive. We need resources to help us leave welfare.''
Behind the widening public discussion across the United States about welfare reform is the private reality of hundreds of thousands of women like Karen Rock, Linda Johnson, Anna Varsano, and Susan Landry. All of these Massachusetts residents have experienced welfare in one degree or another.
Even with welfare payments, food stamps, day care, Medicaid, and other benefits, these women know the welfare system does not enable them to live above the poverty level. The cost of living has gone up 23 percent since 1988, the last time welfare payments increased in Massachusetts. And the complexity of the welfare system is so daunting that few recipients fully understand it.
``On welfare you live so close to the edge all the time that you're always behind in paying bills,'' says Linda Johnson, who spent six years on welfare with two children while she went to college.
Ms. Johnson is now the housing coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit community organization. She had two small children when she and her husband separated, and she continued to work for several years. But then her ex-husband stopped making child-support payments and the cost of child care soared.
``I was simply working to pay the baby sitter,'' says Johnson, ``and had no money left to pay bills.'' She couldn't qualify for day-care assistance.
When Johnson applied for welfare and decided to attend college, she became a ``benefits maximizer,'' as David Ellwood, assistant secretary at the US Department of Health and Human Services, calls recipients who utilize many of the state and federal benefits available.
``The reason the system worked for me at all,'' says Johnson, ``is that I had the privilege of growing up white in a suburb with the educational foundation to survive. The system doesn't encourage you. Welfare never informed me of anything. I went out and asked what was available for me. A young black woman in the inner city with little education is at a disadvantage in the system.''
Johnson received $579 a month for housing under Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and $200 a month for food stamps while she attended the University of Massachusetts. In all, about 210,000 children receive AFDC payments in Massachusetts.
``I got federal grants and tuition wavers too,'' says Johnson, ``but in the last two weeks of the month when the money ran out, my kids and I ate a lot of macaroni. I took four courses a semester, which meant an incredible amount of studying. I coached my daughter's soccer and basketball teams. Living in a suburb and on welfare, I never wanted anyone to think I was a bad person, so I did things to show I was hard working.''
Johnson says welfare payments should be raised to $750 and child care provided on demand. ``Any parent raising children needs help,'' she says. ``I don't believe a two-year limit on welfare is a help. The focus should be on getting women off welfare, not threatening them.''
The Clinton administration is advocating a two-year limit on welfare payments combined with increased child care and training.
Massachusetts Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a one-time welfare recipient, says: ``We may push young black males further out of the picture if we emphasize putting too many young mothers into jobs instead of fathers.'' Most welfare recipients are women with children.
For Susan Landry, who says she was in an abusive family as a child and was recently homeless, AFDC now provides her with $446 a month for housing and $172 in food stamps. She has a 13-year-old child.
``What every mother wants,'' she says, ``is to know they can leave their kids in a safe environment. That's why providing day care has to be part of welfare reform. Then the mother, if she chooses, can be in training programs and hold a job.''
CBHN favors a legislative proposal to extend child care and Medicaid for three years if a mother gets a job. Massachusetts currently provides one year of child care and Medicaid if a woman on welfare gets a job.
Karen Rock went on welfare to stay home and take care of an abused child. ``The father has child support taken from his wages,'' she says, ``but most people don't know that mothers don't see the money, except for $50.'' All state welfare agencies consider child support payments as reimbursement for the welfare payments to the mother.
Roberta Udoh, from Cambridge, was eligible for Women, Infants and Children, a supplemental food program, during her pregnancy earlier this year. Even though her husband is a graduate student at Harvard, she explains, ``his income is so low now that we are a step away from welfare. Many students are living this way.''
Anna Varsano, a former welfare recipient and a board member of CBHN, is a single parent. ``The welfare system hassles people,'' she says of her experience. ``It doesn't recognize you as a parent trying to make responsible choices. I felt it was important to be with my daughter at home.''
At the national and state level, most policymakers agree that welfare reform has to focus on four areas: jobs, day care, training, and teenage pregnancy.