Welfare Mom Lays Plans, With an Eye on the Clock

Massachusetts offers early lessons on successes - and sticking points - of reform

On the cutting edge of the most sweeping social change in 60 years, Massachusetts provides an early glimpse of the sticking points and successes involved in welfare reform. Statistically, the state has worked wonders: Caseloads are lighter, and more aid recipients are working or volunteering in exchange for their checks. But a look at how the new policies affect the lives of thousands of women - and their children - paints a less triumphant picture of the reform's results. Here, for the second time, the Monitor visits two women whose lives have been dramatically altered by welfare reform. Teena Bruton has that end-of-semester, carefree look that creeps across college students' faces each December. Notebooks are strewn about her kitchen table, and she is busy filing half her work and tossing the rest. Her talk is of grades earned and friends made in study groups. But this former drug addict, mother of one, and welfare recipient has more at stake than the typical undergraduate. She has dreams of earning a bachelor's degree, but because of Massachusetts's welfare-reform law, she also has a deadline. On Dec. 2, 1998, halfway through her senior year, Ms. Bruton will be cut off the welfare rolls. She will no longer have a $446-a-month check and possibly no food stamps. She could lose her housing. She will be solely responsible for supporting her son, who will be 16 by then, while she finishes her education. To Bruton, who has struggled to reassemble her shattered life, the battle is not only against poverty, but also against a welfare office that she feels is pushing her into a low-paying job. Her story is one among hundreds of thousands of welfare mothers whose plans - and lives - will be changed by nationwide welfare reform this year. Massachusetts, where Bruton lives, is one of a handful of states in the forefront of welfare reform. Its welfare-to-work plan is the toughest in the US - and it is being emulated in whole or in part by other state and federal proposals. Among the state's other requirements: Teenage mothers must live at home, children on welfare must attend school, and welfare mothers can collect aid for no more than two years.

This is the Monitor's second report on Bruton and Donna Zawacki, another welfare mom, since Massachusetts instituted its reform program 14 months ago. Last June, Bruton was working toward her associate's degree in liberal arts at North Shore Community College in Salem, Mass. - a goal she reached in December.

Just three years ago, though, Bruton lived a life of "drinking and drugging." Through the intervention of a close friend, she began a spiritual renewal and started attending the community college. Drug-free since September 1994, she plans to apply to several four-year colleges to study social work. She has been asked to tutor a course in Western civilization in the spring, which she plans to fit into occasional work as an AIDS educator and volunteer work at a hot line for battered women. She also intends to earn a drug-counseling certificate at the community college, to help her get a part-time job should she need one in the future. Bruton plans to do this with no car, a son in the eighth grade, and a relationship with her social worker so bad, she says, that she relies on a pro bono lawyer to act as an intermediary between them.

"It's been hard, but I just kept doing what I have to do," Bruton says. "I just can't say enough about the grace of God." Because she began attending college before Jan. 1, 1995, Bruton is exempt from the welfare requirement that she work or perform community service 20 hours a week. Her lawyer helped her qualify for the exemption eight months after the reform law took effect.

Bruton is not exempt, however, from the state's two-year cutoff. As a result, she's modified her plans slightly. Rather than continuing her education in January, as her academic adviser had urged, Bruton decided it was more important to get state certification so she can work at drug and alcohol clinics.

"Let's face it ... a liberal-arts degree does not get you a job," Bruton says. "I look at it like, I'm going to have to work. I don't see myself finishing my bachelor's degree on welfare. And the more I have that's marketable,... the better shot and the better amount of money I can make while I'm still in school." Bruton says she can see ahead to the day she'll care for herself and her son without state aid. But she worries that welfare reform will cut off assistance for many women before they are self-sufficient. Bruton, after all, has been welfare-dependent for the past 11 years. "I feel like [the state's] going to keep chipping away, chipping away at us until finally it's going to be, like, 'Hey, you've got to get off welfare and that's it.' And that's OK. But let me stay on it long enough to get some hope." In all of her career-mapping and trying to stay ahead of the reform law, Bruton says she's never lost sight of her son, Larchilles. He's a "good kid" who makes his 8 p.m. curfew and has dated the same girl for a year and a half. He gets academic help at an after-school program, and he has piqued the interest of Lynn's high school football coach, who has invited him to train with the team in preparation for play next year. Bruton says her son is more inclined to attend college now that she's exposed him to it. "It's good for him, because that's all I do is talk about college." * The Monitor's first report on Teena Bruton and three other women on welfare ran July 1, 1996.

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