Welfare to work not easy in Deep South

In Alabama and Mississippi, former recipients face greater obstacles in

Beulah Edwards wakes hours before dawn to work the 4 a.m. housekeeping shift at a state university in Alabama.

Just over a month ago, Ms. Edwards was on welfare. Today her early rising earns her slightly over minimum wage - better than what welfare pays, but not enough to buy a car or fully support her three children. So her family will continue to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and rent subsidies, at least for awhile.

Edwards is part of a mass exodus of single mothers from Alabama's welfare rolls. Indeed, three years after Congress and President Clinton agreed to reform the welfare system, Deep South states have been among the most successful in slashing their caseloads.

Even so, here and elsewhere in the Deep South, former welfare recipients may not be doing as well as those in other regions. With many rural areas of these states deeply mired in poverty, some clients continue to struggle with a lack of jobs and limited opportunities for training - even as most of the country enjoys robust economic times.

"If [the goal] is to get people off welfare, it has been successful," says Danny Collum, project director at the Mississippi Coalition of Block Grants, a group of organizations that work with the poor. "If it is to get people out of dependency and into self-sufficiency and out of poverty, it's certainly not working in Mississippi."

Toward self-sufficiency

Edwards is struggling to be self-sufficient. Her job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is only a 15-minute drive from Bessemer, the working-class suburb where she lives. But without a car, she has to ride along with another woman who also works the 4 a.m. to noon shift. It's not the most reliable arrangement.

Still, Edwards may be doing better than many former welfare recipients in Alabama and Mississippi.

Jack Tweedie, a welfare reform expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says most states that have tracked their former clients show between 55 to 60 percent of them holding at least part-time jobs.

Alabama hasn't completed such as survey, Mr. Tweedie says, but Mississippi reported just 35 percent of welfare recipients forced off the rolls working.

Anne McDonald, an expert who has tracked welfare families in Mississippi, says the low numbers are due partly to former recipients whose benefits cut off temporarily after they failed to follow state requirements. She says many of them weren't working while they waited to be reinstated.

But after compensating for those former clients, she says the numbers still show fewer than 50 percent were working.

For many poor people in Mississippi, the state's low welfare benefit - $170 a month for a single mother with two children - is hardly worth the hassle of meeting the state's tough work requirements, says Mr. Collum.

Many people make do by working odd jobs, or relying on relatives or on local charities, he says.

State officials, however, argue that welfare reform is working.

Donald Taylor, director of Mississippi's Department of Human Services, says while the state has some of the toughest sanctions for welfare recipients that don't abide by the rules, it also has some of the best benefits for those moving into work. These include letting recipients collect a welfare check for six months after they begin working.

"Welfare reform works for those who want it to work," Mr. Taylor says. "I think we're planting seeds of hope."

So agrees Tony Petelos, Taylor's equivalent in Alabama. Although his state has just begun tracking its former welfare clients, he suspects that "there is a black market out there, people working on a cash-only basis."

Alabama's welfare benefit is even lower than Mississippi's, at $165 for a family of three.

More money for child care

Still, Mr. Petelos points out that Alabama is now spending more for former welfare recipients, particularly in the area of child care.

This year, Alabama expects to spend about $34 million on welfare, less than half what it spent three years ago. Child-care expenditures for the working poor, in contrast, are expected to reach $70 million, up from $38 million in fiscal 1996. Many of those receiving subsidized child care are former welfare recipients.

Instead, most welfare recipients are required to seek work or training while the state picks up the child-care costs - at twice the price.

"It's a better payoff in the long run,'' Petelos says, adding that by requiring welfare recipients to work, it also teaches their children the value of a paycheck.

Edwards agrees. "I'd rather have them see me go to work than lay around the house ... I don't want them to grow up like that." She got her job with the help of BirminghamWorks, a United Way program that assists former welfare clients.

Next step: the tough cases

While Alabama has dramatically cut its welfare rolls, it now faces another dilemma: helping improve the lot of those that remain on cash assistance.

Joel Sanders, the state's point man on welfare reform, says many of those who remain on welfare have a host of problems, from transportation to lack of skills to a history of drug or abuse. But with fewer people to deal with, the state can concentrate its resources on those tough cases.

With the decrease in the rolls, many states have the money to launch creative programs to help those who need it most.

And Petelos points out the state could have saved money by letting women stay at home with their children and collect a welfare check.

For Edwards, she says while money is still tight, she now has more than she's had in years. It really helped, she says, when it came to buying clothes and supplies for the kids for the new school year.

Today Edwards is starting to pay some overdue bills. And she hopes to save for that much-coveted automobile.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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