As welfare clock runs out, lessons from Iowa

Melody Morgan says she wants to work. She wants it for her pride, for the regular paychecks, and for her children, so they can grow up better off than she did.

But it hasn't been easy finding a job - not when you're living at a homeless shelter and have three kids. Nor is it easy when you have to explain to employers how you spent time in prison for forging checks. "I'm looking for something, really," she says. "One week I must have filled out 60 [applications]."

During tough times like these, when no one calls her back, Ms. Morgan relies on a government check that arrives every month.

That check, however, could stop coming because of an approaching welfare deadline. Starting at year's end, recipients like Morgan can be cut off if they've been on the federal rolls for five years, under a massive 1996 welfare-reform law.

While supporters of the program point to tens of thousands of former welfare recipients who have found jobs during the past five years, those gains occurred during the longest economic expansion in US history.

As unemployment ranks begin to swell again - just as the deadline nears - welfare advocates' concerns are growing along with them. Adding to their unease is a sense that those who still remain on the public dole may be the most difficult to employ - either because of mental or physical disabilities, substance abuse problems, or childcare difficulties.

Consequently, much of the country is looking to places like Iowa to see what will happen once the deadline hits. Its program preceded the federal reforms by about three years, and many of its characteristics are now found nationwide. Iowa is thus a more mature version of the national program, in a final phase when almost everybody should be off welfare.

Yet they are not.

"We really don't know what will happen if these people get cut off," says Liz Hoskins, who directs the YWCA here, where many homeless women - like Morgan - find temporary shelter. "I expect us to get more guests. And people will stay longer."

The Iowa program requires people to work - or at least try to work - or lose their benefits. They also are required to plan with case workers and attend job training.

Although case numbers have been dropping steadily in Iowa - from 40,000 in 1994 to 20,000 this year - analysts say much of the credit should go to the improving economy. The state's unemployment was just 2.5 percent in January.

Also, the dramatic reduction in cases could be due to people moving out of Iowa to avoid the state's early reforms. Other people who disliked the program could have simply dropped out and be living off charity or crime. Still more may have been kicked out of the system for not complying with its requirements.

"There's little evidence that the decline in caseloads in Iowa can be directly [attributed] to the reforms," says Thomas Fraker, a senior researcher at the Washington branch of Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan firm that has been studying Iowa's program.

But the program has proved that most people want to work, especially if they are given a nudge. The ideal situation for them seems to be to hold a full-time job, and also get some extra cash to push them over the hump. "Through a combination of incentives and penalties, it is possible to increase significantly the percent of welfare recipients who are working," says Mr. Fraker.

Many people, however, do not make enough at their jobs to support themselves and their children - a complaint echoed over and over by welfare recipients in Iowa, many of whom end up at jobs paying about $9 per hour.

They also complain about bad credit, overdue traffic tickets, cars that always break down, and other holes that can take years to dig out of.

Furthermore, many of the single mothers don't have enough time to work, go through a training program, shuttle their kids back and forth to day care, and then come home at night to cook dinner.

Morgan once had to work two full-time jobs - as a cook and as a telemarketer - to take care of her three children. She gets no child support from the fathers of her children (one is dead, one is in prison, and the third is nowhere to be found). She lasted six months doing double shifts, but when one of her kids got sick, she left the telemarketing job to take care of her.

Then she got laid off from her cooking job.

"All it takes is one setback, and everything is ruined," she says.

Working, but still on welfare

Angelita Kidd, a single woman with four children, has had similar problems. Her men all left her and don't pay child support. Although she has "pretty much always worked," often using her crystal-clear voice to land telemarketing jobs, the jobs haven't paid well.

Today she lives at the YWCA women's shelter in downtown Cedar Rapids and works for MCI, trying to sign people up for long-distance service.

She says she's the kind of woman who can make do with what she has and that she will never lose her hope. She's slowly preparing herself for the time when she will be on her own, because her federal assistance will end in January.

It's part exciting, she says, part scary. "It doesn't really bother me because I've been on and off support for years," she says.

But, she adds, "It's scary to think of what would happen if I lost my job."

If there is one consolation for welfare recipients, it's an exemption in the law that lets as many as 20 percent of them continue getting help even if their 60 months have expired.

Yet state officials say they are still trying to figure out who will be eligible for the "hardship provision." "We're trying to make it as helpful to families as possible without just opening the door and saying, 'Anyone can get an exemption,' " says Linda Mount, who manages Iowa's Family Development and Self-Sufficiency Program.

Amid the uncertainties remaining in the Iowa program, there are success stories. Margaret Orr is considered one of them.

An eight-year climb

At 17, she had her first child and entered the welfare system. After a brief stint in a detention center, she got mixed up with the wrong man, an unemployed crack addict who physically abused her.

She says she couldn't build up the courage to leave him, and she ended up having four children with him. Ms. Orr says he wouldn't let her work, and she collected a $495-per-month welfare check.

The system didn't seem to mind. "People didn't push you to work back then," she says. "Nothing was expected until your children were old enough for kindergarten."

With the help of a caseworker, Orr slowly fought to regain her confidence. She began working when she could.

Then, in 1993, her husband was sent to prison for five years. Suddenly she was free.

She continued participating in the Iowa Family Investment Program and plotted a new course with her caseworker. She found a house, and the landlord agreed to give her a lease despite her bad credit.

She began working for the local welfare support program, called The Cornerstone, which eventually offered her a full-time job as a case worker with a salary of $18,000.

And she met a good man, someone who knew how to hold a job, someone who treated her with respect. "At first, he didn't want to help take care of another man's kids," Orr recalls. "But they grew on him, and today we're one big happy family."

Then, in February 1998, she got in an argument with some administrators of the Promise Jobs program, in which her household was required to participate if they wanted to keep getting federal money. In a flash of anger, she decided she couldn't take the humiliation and bureaucracy any more. She quit the welfare program, ending 10 years of reliance on federal funding.

Today, Orr is still with her boyfriend, and she runs a home day-care service in the house they bought together in Cedar Rapids.

Orr says she feels fortunate that she was able to climb back after so many letdowns in life. And, she points out, it took a monumental effort over the course of eight years to succeed.

"I feel sorry for the people who only have five years," she says. "The problem with the system is that the jobs people get don't pay enough to support them. The government shouldn't give up on these people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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