Micki Jaramillo is on the staff at Seton House, a transitional housing program for homeless women and children in Casper. At one low point in her life, Micki and her children lived here. Micki has improved her life dramatically, and she credits the 1996 welfare reforms with helping her to do that.

"I think it feels great," she says, "to break the cycle of being on welfare, to break the cycle of being low-income. There's just a lot of pride there."

"Life is not easy. Stuff's not handed to you," says Micki Jaramillo.

Micki grew up in Cheyenne, the oldest child of a single mother on the old welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). When Micki was a teenager in the late 1980s, her mother went to jail on drug charges. Micki got custody of her three younger brothers and sisters.

"I got the check. I got the food stamps. Coincidently, I got pregnant. I had my daughter when I was 18." Just like that, Micki had made the transition from welfare kid to welfare mom. "You know, that's what I was shown for the past 18 years. And so I picked that up and that's basically how I started living my life."

Micki eventually had three children of her own. She never married, though she sometimes lived with boyfriends without telling the welfare people. She lived in virtual chaos for years: violent relationships, drug-dealing and two prison terms. After her second four-year term for selling drugs, she came out into a changed world, post-welfare-reform, in 1998.

In Wyoming and across the country, the number of single mothers on welfare had started falling even before the landmark reforms, thanks mainly to the racing economy of the 1990s that created millions of entry-level jobs. After the 1996 law took effect, the welfare numbers tumbled from five million households to two million in just a few years before leveling off. Here's the good news: overall, low-income single parents and their children appear to be doing better since welfare reform. They're more likely to be working and they have more income than they did a decade ago.

Micki is one of those success stories, though her journey wasn't easy. When she came out of prison in 1998, she was determined, aside from what she'd heard about the changes in the system, to straighten out her life and earn her way. "I was working at Flying J restaurant for $5.25 an hour," she says with a chuckle, "and being a productive member of society. It got to the point where it was just too hard and I just didn't have money."

That's when Micki moved into the homeless shelter, Seton House. She swallowed her pride and went back to the welfare office. She was told she could get food stamps and medical coverage. When she lost her fast food job, she asked her caseworker if she could get a check under Wyoming's welfare-to-work program, POWER. But the federal law banned drug offenders like Micki from receiving cash assistance.

So she struggled for a couple of years, working low-wage jobs, until Seton House hired her in 2000. Today, she says, she earns $19,000 a year. She has a solid partner now; her fiancÚ works in the oil industry. Micki still can't afford health insurance for herself, but she and her fiancÚ and her two teenaged kids recently moved from a doublewide trailer into a four-bedroom house.

"And to know that my kids, they see us working hard for what we have," she says. "Life is not easy, stuff's not handed to you, and I think my kids see that now."

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