Ray Suarez: From American Public Media, this is After Welfare, an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez. In 1935, Congress created what would come to be known as AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Ever since then, the vast majority of welfare recipients have been single mothers with children. AFDC was based on the principle that a woman with a child and no husband deserved a government check to support her family. But by the 1980s, many Americans weren't so sure about that.

Ronald Reagan: Federal welfare programs have created a massive social problem. With the best of intentions, government created a poverty trap that wreaks havoc on the very support system the poor need most to lift themselves out of poverty: the family.

President Reagan called for deep changes in the welfare system. He didn't get them. But the next Democratic president may have gotten himself elected on a surprising promise.

Bill Clinton: Later this year, we will offer a plan to end welfare as we know it.

Brian Williams: Good evening. He promised to end welfare as we know it, and while some say the Republicans boxed him into it this time, the bill the President signed into law today -

In August 1996, Bill Clinton signed the landmark Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

Brian Williams: The president called the bill "far from perfect," and a lot of members of his own party agree with him.

The law ended AFDC as an entitlement. Instead, the new system gave the states money to run their own programs and required them to move many welfare recipients into the workforce. Supporters declared it a new day, the beginning of self-sufficiency for millions of poor families. Others warned welfare reform would push women and children into the streets, perhaps by the millions.

This hour, a look at the remaking of welfare reform a decade later. We visit the Northeast, the urban South, and the high plains of the West. Wyoming, more than any other state, ended welfare after 1996, cutting its cash assistance rolls by more than 90 percent. But as producer John Biewen found, Wyoming's leaders are now having a new conversation: how to strengthen the safety net for the new deserving poor - those who've gone to work.

Part 1:

John Biewen: It might seem odd to begin a story about welfare on a vast ranch outside Casper, Wyoming, but one of the nation's most aggressive welfare-to-work programs, and some would say the most successful one, was born out here.

Scott: We're in the sixth year of a major drought here.

Charles Scott is a lanky, six-and-a-half-foot-tall rancher and Republican state senator. With one of his dogs by his side, he sits on a bench by his front door and pulls on a pair of boots by their leather straps.

Scott: [to dog] Gator, you gonna come out and see if you can find the shop rabbit?

Charlie Scott is 60. He grew up in Casper. He's a Harvard grad and a one-time federal bureaucrat. He points out that the 72,000-acre ranch he owns and operates with his brother is bigger than the District of Columbia.

Scott: You see Coal Mountain, it's the mountain that's behind the shop here on this side of the trees? Everything you can see between there and the top of that mountain is mine.

Scott finds pleasure in cattle ranching, and tinkering with public policy.

Scott: I was chair of the committee when we did our welfare reform. I, as much as any single individual, I wrote it. And got it through the Senate.

Biewen: And you're proud of it.

Scott: Yeah! Yeah.

Even before President Clinton signed the 1996 reform law, Wyoming and other states were experimenting with welfare-to-work programs. After the federal law came down, each state legislature put its own stamp on the new message: welfare was not a way of life anymore. It was now a vehicle for moving people into jobs.

Scott: And if you'll reach that sheet of paper there.

Scott uses charts with numbers to show his strategy: make welfare hopelessly unappealing, and make work more attractive. Under the Wyoming system that replaced AFDC (it's called Power) anyone receiving cash assistance must spend 40 hours a week looking for work. So a mother with two children has to stay busy full-time to earn a monthly welfare check of $320. That's $2 an hour. Even a minimum-wage job pays $5.15. At the same time, a single parent who takes a low-paying job gets more non-cash assistance than she did before welfare reform: things like child-care, food stamps, and health coverage.

Scott: The basics of it was that when we redid the incentives, you were better off working than you were with our cash-grant welfare.

Clearly, Wyoming's single mothers did the math.

Scott: In this state, the success is very close to 100 percent. We have moved almost everybody off of the cash-grant welfare system.

In 1996, before welfare reform, 5,000 Wyoming families received a welfare check. A decade later, just over 300 households in the entire state get a monthly check under the state program that replaced AFDC. Those numbers represent thousands of complicated human stories. Micki Jaramillo's is just one.

She shows me around Seton House. It's a transitional housing program in Casper, mostly for homeless women and children.

Biewen: How many units did you say you have?

Micki Jaramillo: Fourteen.

At one low point in her life, Micki lived here for a few months. Now she's on the staff.

Micki: Oh, I think it feels great to break that cycle. To break the cycle of being on welfare, to break the cycle of being low-income.

Micki is short with dark hair that flows to her waist. She grew up in Cheyenne, the oldest child of a single mother on 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.

Micki: I got the check, I got the food stamps. Coincidently, I got pregnant. I had my daughter when I was 18. So then I got an AFDC check for her. 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 drug, she came out into a changed world, post-welfare-reform, in 1998.

Micki: And I tried to not go back on welfare. ... I was working at Flying J restaurant for $5.25 an hour. (laughs) ... 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.

It was during this time that Micki moved into the homeless shelter. She swallowed her pride and went back to the welfare office. She qualified for food stamps and medical coverage. When she lost her job, she asked her caseworker if she could get a check under the new state program, Power.

Micki: You know, I said, "What's this about this money, ... about this program that I can go to your classes and have some income? You know, 'til I find a job." And she-she said I wouldn't qualify.

Drug offenders like Micki were banned from receiving a check under the federal welfare law. But even if she'd qualified for a Power check, Micki probably would have given it up quickly once she discovered it now required a 40-hour-a-week job search. In any case, she struggled for a couple of years, working low-wage jobs, until the homeless shelter hired her in 2000. She makes $19,000 a year. And 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 boyfriend and her two teenage kids recently moved from a double-wide trailer into a four-bedroom house.

Micki: There's just a lot of pride there. ... You know, welfare honestly made people lazy. It enabled them. ... And to know that my kids, they see us working hard and we work hard for what we have. Life is not easy, stuff's not handed to you, and I think my kids see that now.

Lots of single mothers left welfare before the landmark reform bill, mainly because the racing economy of the 1990s created millions of jobs. After the '96 law took effect, the welfare numbers tumbled off a cliff, from five million households to two million in just a few years. Since then, the number has leveled 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, like Micki Jaramillo, they have more income than they did on welfare. But that's just part of the story.

Receptionist: Okay, Helen, we have you set up for the 17th at 10:00 with Gail. Okay?

Woman: Thank you.

The waiting room at the county Department of Family Services office in Casper is still a busy place. Women and their children come in a steady stream for appointments with caseworkers.

Caseworker: I'm going to get this done, and you'll get a notice in the mail.

Applicant: Okay ... And that comes from Cheyenne, that letter? From the state?

Caseworker: Yeah.

DeLozier: My name is Jim DeLozier, and I'm the district manager for the state of Wyoming department of family services over Natrona county and Carbon county. ... I think it's interesting to note that although the welfare roles have decreased 90 percent ... , the benefit specialist caseloads in Casper here have increased 50 percent over the last four years.

In other words, almost none of the women coming into DeLozier's office will get a welfare check. Mostly, they're single moms with low-paying jobs. They need food stamps, medical assistance, child care support, emergency heating assistance and so on. DeLozier points out that the stated goal of welfare reform was two-fold: yes, to move single mothers off the welfare rolls, but also to help them leave poverty behind.

DeLozier: I don't know that that's really helped that situation out that much. One of the figures that I read was 38 percent of single mothers are living at or below the poverty line in Wyoming at this point in time.

Studies in some states have found that single mothers leaving the rolls do have more income on average than they did on welfare, but only ten or 15 percent climbed above the poverty line. And, in a less-forgiving climate, some women and children just fall through the holes in the safety net.

Corrin: This is our kitchen, or our dining area. ... We have a church serving us dinner tonight.

Man: Looks like good food, so I can't turn it down, you know?

Corrin: I'm Corrin Conticelo. This is my daughter Alaina, and we're here at the COMEA shelter. It's a mission for homeless people. They put you up for 30 days and stuff like that.

Corrin is twenty; she looks younger, with her round face and her bobbed blonde hair. When she got pregnant, she was working at a hospital in Wheatland, Wyoming and studying to be a certified nurse's assistant. But she got sick with preeclampsia and had to quit work and school to go on bed rest.

Corrin: And I had some money saved up for me and the baby for when she was born, and the money just doesn't last. And they don't have any low income housing in Wheatland, they don't have any homeless shelters, they don't have anything.

So Corrin moved to Cheyenne, thinking she'd find more help in a bigger town. But with her baby not yet born, she didn't qualify for state assistance.

Corrin: So I stayed with a friend here, and, well, that went to kaputs because she has a daughter and her husband didn't want me living there. So I went into labor with Alaina, and when I got out, we had no place to go. Except here to the COMEA.

When we first meet Corrin and her tiny, seven-week-old daughter, Corrin's feeling good. She's about to become one of those rare single moms to get a check through Power, the Wyoming welfare program.

The next morning, she gets a ride from a friend to the Department of Family Services office.

Corrin: I have my Power check to pick up?

Receptionist: You'll probably have to have a seat until she can talk with you.

Corrin: Okay.

Corrin became eligible for cash assistance when Alaina was born, but the first couple of Power checks failed to show up. Her caseworker told her they got lost in the mail.

Biewen: Do you know what Power stands for?

Corrin: I don't.

We find the acronym spelled out on a flyer.

Corrin: Oh. 'Personal Opportunities With Employment Responsibilities.'

Corrin's Power check is for $205 a month.

Corrin: I'm very thankful! I'm very thankful. And a lot of people are like, "It's only $205 a month. What can you do with $205 a month?" Well, when you only have 50 cents a month in your pocket that you find on the side of the street, you can stretch $205 extremely far.

Combined with food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, the check will allow Corrin to get an apartment and live on her own.

Woman: And there's your copy.

Corrin: Thank you. Thank you, Ladies!

It turns out Corrin won't get to keep even this little bit of Power for very long.

Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. Coming up, Corrin misses a deadline and loses her welfare check.

Biewen: So here it is the first of the month.

Corrin: No money. No one said it would be easy to be a single mom.

And a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, where single mothers are leaving welfare much more slowly.

You're listening to After Welfare from American RadioWorks. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.

Part 2:

This is After Welfare, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez. This hour, we're looking at the impact of the 1996 welfare reform law a decade later.

In late 2005, Corrin Conticello and her newborn baby joined just a few hundred people in the entire state of Wyoming who receive a welfare check. The check lifted her out of homelessness. But her life as a welfare mom would be short. John Biewen picks up the story.

Biewen: When we check back with Corrin seven weeks after she got her first Power check from the Wyoming welfare program, she's in her apartment. It's in a worn-down, low-income complex on the flat outskirts of Cheyenne. And she's in trouble.

Corrin: My Power is, I'm no longer getting it right now because ... my case worker did not let me know that I was supposed to come in two weeks before the baby turned three months, so I did not do so and they canceled my Power because of that.

Corrin may have forgotten it, but she was told earlier that she needed to sign up for a work program. In the new Wyoming welfare system, it's one strike and you're out. Corrin can re-apply for a Power check in three months.

Biewen: So here it is the first of the month.

Corrin: No money. ... You gotta do what you gotta do though, I mean ... My daughter is the most important thing to me, I'm gonna get her what she needs. I see moms out there that get their kids expensive motorized vehicles and stuff like that. My daughter doesn't have that, my daughter won't have that because I'm a single mom and I struggle from day to day to provide for what she needs. ... No one said it would be easy to be a single mom.

[to Alaina] Hey, little girl.

Corrin says she'd be happy to get a job, but she can't find a childcare provider with an open spot for her infant daughter. We tried to check back with Corrin, but couldn't find her. Her cell phone was out of service. We don't know what's become of her.

Ten years after Wyoming created one of the nation's toughest welfare laws, the state's leaders say they recognize that thousands of families are hurting.

Freudenthal: Okay, good afternoon. We are here to discuss the release of the Children and Families report.

At a press conference in the fall of 2005, Governor Dave Freudenthal announced a package of proposals meant to give a boost to the children of people like Corrin. His main idea: an ambitious subsidy to provide high-quality, affordable childcare for everyone. Freudenthal delivered a report he'd ordered, called the Wyoming Family Portrait. Among other things, it found that almost two-thirds of single parents in Wyoming don't earn enough to support their families.

Freudenthal: It was not the hoped-for picture of Wyoming, although I suspect that most of us ... had some suspicions that things were not all as good as they could be here in Camelot.

Freudenthal is a conservative Democrat. He was elected in 2002. He says Congress was right to kill AFDC, but the 1996 reforms were an incomplete fix. What's striking is that the main architect of Wyoming's welfare law has no real argument with that. Remember Charlie Scott, he's the Republican State Senator and cattle rancher. He couldn't stand AFDC.

Scott: The old system was basically holding people in bondage to the welfare bureaucracy.

But talking to people like Scott, you start to think that that by ending AFDC, Congress removed a sore political point and allowed for more common ground on fighting poverty. Scott says now that society has insisted that single mothers go to work, those women are deserving of other kinds of government support.

Scott: We essentially did away with the cash-grant welfare system. But, you can't get do away with - food stamps is probably the big one. Medicaid is the next one and then there's a whole number of other things. You need those supports because on the jobs people can get in a free enterprise system, ... they can't support a family yet. They may and very likely with experience work their way up and off that, but initially they can't so you have to have those other supports in place.

In early 2006, Scott shepherded the Governor's childcare subsidy plan in the state Senate. The program could eventually cost $25 million a year; that's real money in sparsely populated Wyoming. The legislature passed the bill, but put in a year of studies before the program can take effect. So if Corrin is still looking for childcare for her baby, Wyoming's new initiative won't help her anytime soon.

Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. Wyoming's welfare-to-work program has proven remarkably efficient. The state has taken the goal of 'ending welfare as we know it' almost to its logical conclusion. Some other states built their new welfare programs on a different philosophy: that many people on public assistance are not ready for the job market and need extra help. Next, John Biewen takes us to Memphis, Tennessee, at the head of the Mississippi Delta.

Biewen: Tennessee is not the high plains. It has more people living in places of entrenched, concentrated poverty than Wyoming has people. Officials in Tennessee say that helps explain why they haven't been able to move as many people off welfare as most other states. Nationally, the number of families on welfare has fallen by more than half; Tennessee has cut its rolls by just a quarter. The state takes a gentler approach to moving single moms into jobs-some would say, too gentle.

Every single mother of three has her hands full. But one 25-year-old mom knows what "overwhelmed" really means.

Adriane: Gregory, your backpack is in my car. Let me get your medicine started. Come on, Aleric.

Adriane Dortch lives in a North Memphis apartment with her five-year-old daughter and two sons, eight and three. At the end of each day, she has to get hold of her fast-moving three-year-old, Aleric. She sits him on the kitchen counter for his battery of medications.

Adriane: Let me have your gum. Just for a second. Be still. Be still! Please.

Aleric was born six weeks prematurely, with asthma and acid reflux. As he grew, Adriane learned he has a condition that makes his heart race. Then came learning and behavior problems.

Adriane: The amiodarone is for his heart, ... the Hydroxyzine and the Trileptal ... they're working on the behavior issues to kind of calm him down. The Flonase and Singulair are part of his asthma medication. He also takes two different treatments in the breathing machine.

Adriane: Did you chew it up?

Aleric: [burps]

Adriane: What do you say?

Aleric: Thank you.

Adriane: What do you say when you burp, boy?

Aleric: Excuse me.

Adriane: Okay, then.

Adriane has been on Tennessee's welfare program, Families First, off and on since 1999, but she's tried to hold down a job. She was working full time as a nursing assistant in 2004. That's when Aleric started a new heart medication that altered his personality.

Adriane: I mean, he's not the perfect child; he was 18 months at the time. But he was pretty much quiet, you know, a normal child, but then after awhile it was like he turned into a monster. ... Mean, fussing, just totally out of control for a child.

Adriane got help for Aleric, but his health and behavior kept on causing her stress and worry. Then Adriane's employer went out of business. She qualified for a state welfare check, but now she had to cope with a troubled kid and a frustrating job search. She saw some literature about depression and recognized the signs in herself.

Adriane: That's when I contacted my worker about the SMILES Program, the Family Services Counseling.

Family Services Counseling is a program Tennessee created in 2000. With the welfare rolls down since 1996, states had extra money from the federal grant they get each year to spend on new initiatives. Lots of states, including Tennessee, strengthened childcare and transportation programs for their welfare-to-work clients. The counseling program is meant to help welfare moms solve personal problems that can keep them from holding down jobs.

Puryear: She was so lethargic when she initially came in and very matter-of-fact about everything.

Adriane's family services counselor, Demecca Puryear, remembers meeting Adriane for the first time in the fall of 2005.

Puryear: She really just needed to identify that, no, she wasn't crazy. ... Children are difficult when they're in the best of health so when they're sick, I know that that's a whole lot, so just realizing it even in our first session she just said, "I can't believe that you get it. That I'm not just lazy, I'm not just trying to work the system, not that I don't want to work." ... Because once she started getting into the mental health services and getting connected with her medications and stabilized, I mean, she took off like a rocket.

Puryear did not press Adriane to go to work. She steered her to a psychiatrist, who put her on anti-depressants. Now, Adriane is back doing part-time work as a nursing assistant and getting ready to start a full-time job with AmeriCorps, teaching parents to read to their kids.

Adriane: You gonna listen?

Aleric: Yeah.

She reads to her own son, Aleric. It's a book about a boy who goes to the hospital for a heart procedure - something Aleric's doctor says he might have to do.

Adriane: Oh, and it's almost time for the heart cath. Matty needs some medicine.

It was a big step for me to just come to the reality that I needed some mental counseling for myself in order to be a better parent, functioning every day.

Besides counseling, Tennessee takes other steps to help poor women prepare for work. The state used a waiver from the federal welfare law to do a rare thing. It allows welfare moms with math and reading skills below the 9th-grade level to get a monthly check while catching up on their education, and the clock doesn't start ticking on welfare time limits. In most states, since the '96 law, you have to be in job training or looking for work to get a check.

Lake: We could push people into the Wal-Mart jobs I suppose, but in the end, they'll be the first to be fired or laid off when bad times come. We've already experienced that in Tennessee. And the last to be rehired.

Ed Lake is deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services in Nashville.

Lake: We think it makes more sense and we think the research has shown that it makes more sense in the long run to get people to a reasonable level of education. In the end, that's going to be the ticket out of poverty.

Looked at in one way, Tennessee's policy seems to be working. The federal welfare law gives bonuses to the five states that move the most unemployed welfare recipients into jobs, as opposed to getting them off the rolls in some other way. Tennessee has consistently received those bonuses. But for those most concerned with getting people off welfare, period, Tennessee looks like a failure. The state still has 70,000 households getting cash assistance as of early 2006.

Lake: Tennessee has chosen a program that is, in fact, a bit of a longer path to self-sufficiency, as it were. But it's because it is based on Tennesseans' circumstances. Low literacy rates, higher levels of poverty in Tennessee means that there's not a magic bullet and the framers of our statute and our program recognize that.

Mosby: This is the department of human services, our South Third Street office. This is the waiting room here.

Eva Mosby oversees public assistance programs for Memphis's Shelby County.

Mosby: These are the eligibility counselors, where they actually interview the customer and determine their eligibility for food stamps, Families First, Medicaid, Tenncare. I'll walk you back on this side where we're doing child care, also. So it's a little maze around here.

Biewen: And this is really where the rubber -

Mosby: Meets the road. Where the rubber meets the road.

Caseworkers in cubicles meet with "customers," as Tennessee calls its public assistance clients. It's not like Wyoming, where almost everybody has to work to qualify for state assistance. In Shelby County's welfare offices, customers often ask caseworkers about programs that don't require them to get jobs right away, like schooling or mental health treatment.

Puryear: Basically, what I do now is just ask you the simple question of what makes you think you need counseling.

Woman: I'm bipolar.

Puryear: Okay, are you complying with your medication?

Woman: No.

Demecca: Okay, now you know that's a problem.

If some people call Wyoming harsh, others look at Tennessee and say it's not fulfilling the spirit of welfare reform. Vickie Norman agrees to some extent, and she manages a counseling program for the Shelby County welfare system.

Norman: I just think that it enables the customers to a certain extent. My experience is tough love. You need to let them hit their bottom.

Biewen: So you feel like people -

Norman: I think they take advantage of the system. I think they've been on it long enough to know what it is they need to do to, ... show up just in time before they're cut off and, you know, present their case and then, you know, it's extended for a little bit longer. So we need to be just a little bit more tougher.

Tennessee officials say their welfare-to-work program is not lenient. The state has cut off thousands of people who ran up against time limits or failed to follow the rules. And Tennessee is hardly generous. The average Families First check is less than $200 a month.

Mosby: Okay. We're in what I call, part of the downtown area. This is at Mississippi and Danny Thomas.

Eva Mosby takes us for a drive in south Memphis.

Mosby: Some of the houses are boarded up with no windows. You can tell it's one of those depressed areas.

Shelby is the largest county in Tennessee but its welfare caseload is far out of proportion to its population. All by itself, the county has one-third of the state's welfare families.

Mosby: Here in Memphis, we did not see the substantial drop like they did in the rural areas, the other parts of the area.

Single moms in rural and suburban places have left welfare at a higher rate than those in cities. That has shifted the racial makeup of the welfare rolls. Overall, African Americans make up 16 percent of Tennessee's population, but 60 percent of the state's welfare families. That's up from 50 percent before welfare reform. The trend has been repeated across the country. Now, blacks outnumber whites on welfare in absolute numbers. That was never true before 1996. Nobody knows exactly why. But, for one thing, experts point out that poor African Americans tend to have less education than poor whites.

Mosby: I guess a true wake-up call to me, looking at the literacy level here in Memphis and Shelby County, that people was testing at kindergarten level. Well that was very disturbing, so it's hard for a person to get a job if they can't read or write. ... Yes we said there will be - this is a new day. But if I can't read, how can I get a job? I can't fill out a application.

In trying to explain why blacks have left welfare more slowly than whites, some scholars point to job discrimination. Studies consistently show that whites get jobs over equally-qualified blacks and Latinos. Others speculate that more black women stay on welfare because getting a check carries less stigma in urban centers than in suburbs or small towns. This is clear: blacks are far more likely than whites to live in places of concentrated poverty, like Memphis neighborhoods, where even entry-level jobs are out of reach. Ed Lake of the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Lake: Where are the jobs-where are the jobs being started? ... They're not springing up in the inner city, they're springing up outside the inner city-not necessarily in rural areas. It's a matter of scale. In our rural white areas, there are intractable issues of poverty. ... It's just that there aren't as many people there, it's just not as noticeable.

One study in Virginia suggested that welfare caseworkers were less likely to give black women things like transportation assistance that could help them get to jobs. Eva Mosby says she doesn't think that's a big problem in Memphis, where most of the caseworkers are black.

Tennessee officials say their state's approach to welfare is not perfect, but it's doing a lot of good and it fits Tennessee. That was a goal of the welfare reform movement: to give states more leeway to address poverty in their own way. Some people feared that states, especially poor Southern ones, would simply abandon the poor.

Mullins: The left was very much afraid of what the states would do, and that whole fear of the race to the bottom. And that hasn't happened. As it turns out, the states actually care about the poor, shockingly enough. People outside of Washington do.

Kerry Mullins is a policy analyst with the Tennessee human services department. She took the job in Nashville after working in Washington D.C. and upstate New York.

Mullins: I expected sort of more of a stereotypical southern program that was overtly racist, ... just basically mean. The focus on education was surprising to me. The sort of sense of compassion ... was somewhat of a surprise.

On the national level, too, if people thought the federal government was getting out of the anti-poverty business when Congress passed welfare reform, they were wrong. The welfare block grant that the government gives to the states is frozen at 1996 levels. But even under President Bush, spending on Medicaid, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working people has continued to grow.

Suarez: Still to come, the next frontier in fighting poverty: marriage.

Lafhesa: Yeah, we used to talk about marriage. ... It was like a dream for the future. But it never came.

I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to After Welfare. To see photographs by Steve Schapiro and read profiles of former welfare moms from Wyoming, Tennessee and elsewhere, visit our Web site at After Welfare is a production of American RadioWorks and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.

Sustainability coverage is supported in part by the Kendeda Sustainability Fund of the Tides Foundation, furthering values that contribute to a healty planet.

Part 3:

Suarez: This is After Welfare, an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez. The 1996 welfare reform law begins with these words: "Marriage is the foundation of a successful society." The law had an explicit social goal: to help save the nuclear family. Many Americans believed the old welfare system damaged the institution of marriage by giving mothers a financial incentive to stay single. The 1996 law was aimed at removing that incentive. At the same time, the law encouraged states to promote marriage, in order to lift single-parent families out of poverty and reduce the need for government assistance. More than any other state, Oklahoma took up the challenge. The state is spending money that it saved by cutting its welfare rolls on an ambitious "marriage initiative." It's not clear that the program can make a big difference. But some liberals as well as social conservatives are now saying it's worth a try to keep more low-income mothers and fathers together. Our next stop with John Biewen: Oklahoma City.

Nicole Walton: You gonna talk, huh?

Edwin Butler: What are you talking about, boo-boo?

Nicole: Come on, you can do it.

Biewen: Nicole Walton and Edwin Butler are in that familiar state of many first-time parents. They're goofily in love with their baby boy, Edwin Junior. The baby's in a blue baseball outfit with the letters, MVP.

Edwin: He'll be three months the 30th of this month.

Nicole: There we go, is that better?

Edwin: Daddy see you!

Nicole: Is that better?

Edwin: Daddy got your belly!

The family of three fills the living room couch. They're in the small house they share with Nicole's parents in the working-class suburb of Del City, Oklahoma. Nicole and Edwin aren't married, but they say they're committed to raising their son together. They admit to struggles in their relationship. Edwin is 38; Nicole is 22. She says she's trying to develop trust that Edwin will stick around.

Nicole: That was just because of my past relationships, I've been hurt a lot and everything. You know, he's always told me he'd always be there for me regardless and he wouldn't try to do anything to hurt me. [Baby vocalizes, parents laugh] Yeah, you tell them!

For little Edwin, Jr., it could make a big difference whether his parents stay together. Study after study shows that kids who grow up with both parents do better in school; they're less likely to have mental health problems or commit crimes. And they're far less likely to grow up poor. Even together, Nicole and Edwin need help to get by. They're both part-time servers at a Golden Corral restaurant. They say they bring home less than a $1,000 a month between them.

Edwin: Some days we might make a lot of money, then next day you might not make nothing, you know. It depends on the customer. If they want to tip they'll tip, if they don't, you know. ... So we do the best we can with what we've got.

The couple gets food stamps and Medicaid. They're trying to save money for their own place while living with Nicole's parents. If their relationship fell apart, chances are Nicole would become an even poorer single mother needing more public assistance.

When Nicole was pregnant, she picked up a flyer at an Oklahoma University clinic that described a free, state-run course for expectant parents. The course was part of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.

Nicole: Well, it was saying it could help out with anything that you needed.

Edwin: Helped us on our relationship. ... It's like, what could it hurt? It could help us out, we need all the help we can get.

Petra Hutchison: Let's go ahead and get started. My name's Petra and I'm gonna be one of your instructors tonight.

It's a Tuesday night. Thirteen couples sit in a semicircle in black leather recliners. They're in a large, brightly-painted classroom in an Oklahoma City office building. Some of the couples are married, some are not, but all of the women are pregnant. It's the first night of a ten-week, 30-hour course called Family Expectations - the same one Nicole and Edwin took. These couples are here voluntarily; they've come because they're in serious relationships and want to make them last.

Hutchison: The whole purpose of this ten weeks is to foster the very important idea that your relationship together ... is the most important aspect for your baby. Your couple relationship. It is the nest in which your baby will live.

The central lessons in the course are about communication between these pairs of soon-to-be parents: how to listen and avoid blowing up, how to speak respectfully and say what you mean.

Hutchison: We are gonna talk about and watch some video clips.

The videos show simulated conversations between couples.

Man on video: I have to tiptoe around this house, hoping I don't do anything to set you off. I have no idea if it's something I did, because you don't tell me.

Woman on video: Well, maybe you should be more observant of what you're doing around me and be more - notice what you're doing and maybe you would realize what's making me mad and you could fix it or something.

Hutchison: Alright, what'd you all think of that?

Woman in classroom: I don't know, I kind of agree with him. If something's wrong with you, there ain't nobody gonna know unless you speak up. He can't read minds. He ain't Miss Cleo, it don't look like. [Laugher]

Oklahoma started offering relationship courses to its citizens in 2001. The state pays a private firm $2.5 million a year to run the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The money comes from the federal grant Oklahoma gets under the 1996 welfare law. The company that runs the marriage initiative says more than 80,000 Oklahomans have completed a voluntary, 12-hour relationship course called PREP at government offices, churches, even prisons. Family Expectations was new in 2005; it's a more intensive course specifically for low-income couples about to become parents. It's the most direct attempt yet to attack poverty and its damaging effects on children by keeping moms and dads together.

Edwin Butler: Some people, they're just like, "Aw, there's nothing wrong with our relationship." But then you get to that class and you get to going through the parts of the book and all of that and you like, "Wow. Well, we do do that, don't we." You know? I sometimes cut you off.

Edwin Butler and Nicole Walton, with their baby, Edwin Junior, who was born right after they completed Family Expectations. They say the course gave them techniques for avoiding fights and convinced them they should work hard on their relationship for the sake of their son.

Nicole: If you don't have a commitment to the relationship, it's not going to work regardless, 'cause I mean -

Edwin: I told her I'm not going nowhere. You can be as mad as you want to, cussing me out or whatever, but I'm here for the long run, or 'til death do us part. [to baby] Ouch! You tryin to knock daddy out?

Oklahoma is a conservative, Bible-belt state. But the people who run the marriage initiative say it's not motivated by religion as much as painful social realities. Howard Hendrick is Oklahoma's Director of Human Services.

Hendrick: We're seeing a big problem nationally. ... A little over 35 percent of all births in America, 1.5 million, a new record number of American children, were born out of wedlock last year. So I think the trend line is going very much against healthy family formation in terms of what we know about child well-being. ... Kids need the benefit of both parents as much as we can get it to them.

Oklahoma and nearby southeastern states have some of the nation's highest rates of poverty, and divorce. People with lower incomes and less education are far more likely to split up than the well-off and well-educated. The leaders of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative say it will take years to tell if the program is making a dent in marriage or divorce rates. But, they say, somebody has to try something.

One of the nation's leading experts on poor single moms agrees, with some reservations. We meet up with Kathryn Edin 1,500 miles from Oklahoma, in Camden, New Jersey.

Edin: We are in the neighborhood I moved to with my family in 1997.

Edin is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She and a research partner, Maria Kefalas of St. Joseph's University, spent more than five years immersed in the lives of single mothers in Philadelphia and Camden. They did in-depth interviews with 162 unmarried moms - white, black and Puerto Rican. And they wrote what lots of poverty experts consider a groundbreaking book: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage.

Edin: I mean, I've interviewed people in all these houses, you know, watching broken relationships and the pain that they cause. I'd be interested in something that was doing something positive.

Edin is an advisor to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.

Edin: I think Oklahoma is a really innovative state. ... It's got really innovative people working on the ground. They are listening to the best research social science has to offer, and they're really availing themselves of that research in a serious way. ... The problem is that ... we're really only able to tackle half the problem.

In other words, a relationship class can't do anything about most of the barriers that keep poor women from marrying the fathers of their children.

It's an old brick apartment complex in one of the many poor sections of Camden. A 19-year-old mother dresses her six-month-old daughter.

Lafhesa: My name Lafhesa Powell. This is my daughter, Zyshani Lashawn Powell Jackson. ... [to baby] Now I got to get you some socks.

Lafhesa is tall and slender with striking, braided hair extensions. Her baby doesn't have much hair yet so Lafhesa puts a lace headband on the child's round head.

Lafhesa: Oh, right, here it is, so she can look like a girl. ... There!

Lafhesa gets a monthly check for $322 from New Jersey's welfare program, Work First New Jersey. Zyshani's father, Deshawn, is not here. Lafhesa says when she met Deshawn, they were ninth-graders.

Lafhesa: He was in my class. ... We started talking and he'll walk me to all my classes. ... We started going out. And I messed with DeShawn for three years, then I got pregnant and I had Zy. And, um, he incarcerated right now.

Yeah, we used to talk about marriage, we had our wedding song, where we was gonna get married at, and stuff like that, but ... It was like a dream for the future. But it never came.

Lafhesa says while she and Deshawn dreamed of marriage, they talked about a baby in the short term. She says they didn't exactly try for a pregnancy but they didn't use birth control, either.

Lafhesa: I don't know, we just wanted to have a baby by each other. ... 'Cause I knew like he'll take care of her and stuff like that. ... Like it wasn't like he got me pregnant - yes, it is. It probably is, like, a boy will tell you anything. But I wouldn't say he just got me pregnant and left. Like, he just was looking for different things.

While Lafhesa was pregnant, Deshawn took up with a new girlfriend, then started selling drugs. In the summer of 2005 he got arrested and sentenced to three years.

Lafhesa: I didn't envision having to take care of me and my baby by myself. Like I always thought he was gonna be there to help me and support Zy. Guess my vision was wrong.

Based on their study of women like Lafhesa, the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas want to explode what they call a misconception: that poor women of whatever race or ethnicity don't want the same things as middle class women. Maria Kefalas.

Kefalas: They're conservatives! These are totally family values: they think that it's natural and expected to be a mom, that having children is the best thing you can do with your life. They are very strongly opposed to abortion for the most part. These are very traditional people in the heart of the communities that everyone says has abandoned American values, that is unraveling American values.

Kefalas and Edin found that most poor young women can get contraception. But like Lafhesa, they tend to slide into pregnancy - not really planning it but not preventing it either. The 1996 welfare law tried to discourage single motherhood by sending the message that moms would not get a government check indefinitely. There's not much sign the message worked. Edin says it was never the lure of the welfare check that led poor single women to get pregnant. It was, and is, hopelessness. Too often, she says, young women surrounded by poverty can't see themselves achieving anything else.

Edin: If being a mother is the most meaningful and only meaningful thing you can find to do in your late adolescence and early adulthood, that's what you're going to do.

In poor, chaotic neighborhoods, young fathers often fail to measure up as reliable husband material. So, Edin and Kefalas found, young mothers put off getting married not because they're uninterested but because they revere marriage. They hold out for an emotionally and financially stable relationship in which to raise their kids.

Edin: Marriage is as American as apple pie. Even people in neighborhoods like east Camden can't think about middle-class success without thinking about marriage.

Kefalas: People have the same values, it's your ability to achieve them that's really different.

So an effort like the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative is smart and worth trying, says Kathryn Edin. But she says to help a lot more low-income couples stay together and raise their children, you'd have to create a lot more jobs and a lot more hope in poor communities.

Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. In early 2006, Congress approved new funding for marriage promotion efforts, so more states are likely to launch programs like the one in Oklahoma. But marriage initiatives can't change powerful economic forces: growing inequality and too many jobs that don't pay a living wage.

The same can be said of the 1996 welfare reforms. They may have changed some lives for the better, and the welfare rolls have plummeted. But the number of Americans living in poverty has stayed about the same. And it turns out the government is spending more than ever on programs that minimize the effects of poverty. So even though most people consider welfare reform a success, there's something in its results to disappoint almost everybody.

After Welfare was produced by John Biewen. It was edited by Catherine Winter. Mixing by Craig Thorson. Production assistance from Ellen Guettler, Elizabeth Tannen and Hale Sargent. Web production by Ochen Kaylan. The Senior Producer is Sasha Aslanian. Project Manager, Misha Quill. The Executive Editor is Stephen Smith. The Executive Producer, Bill Buzenberg. I'm Ray Suarez.

To see an interactive map showing the impact of welfare reform state by state, visit our Web site, You'll also find an archive of American RadioWorks documentaries.

After Welfare is a production of American RadioWorks and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Sustainability coverage is supported in part by the Kendeda Sustainability Fund of the Tides Foundation, furthering values that contribute to a healthy planet.

Back to After Welfare

©2018 American Public Media