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.
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.
In August 1996, Bill Clinton signed the landmark Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
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.
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.
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.
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 finds pleasure in cattle ranching, and tinkering with public policy.
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 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.
Clearly, Wyoming's single mothers did the math.
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.
At one low point in her life, Micki lived here for a few months. Now she's on the staff.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
We find the acronym spelled out on a flyer.
Corrin's Power check is for $205 a month.
Combined with food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, the check will allow Corrin to get an apartment and live on her own.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
Adriane's family services counselor, Demecca Puryear, remembers meeting Adriane for the first time in the fall of 2005.
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.
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.
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.
Ed Lake is deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services in Nashville.
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.
Eva Mosby oversees public assistance programs for Memphis's Shelby County.
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.
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.
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.
Eva Mosby takes us for a drive in south Memphis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 AmericanRadioWorks.org. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The videos show simulated conversations between couples.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 is an advisor to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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, AmericanRadioWorks.org. 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.
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