Job Market in W.Va. Defies Efforts to Reform Welfare

Pedestrians and cars filled McDowell Street in downtown Welch, W.Va., in the 1970s, left. Since the coal boom ended, however, cities such as Welch have struggled with poverty and high rates of unemployment.
Pedestrians and cars filled McDowell Street in downtown Welch, W.Va., in the 1970s, left. Since the coal boom ended, however, cities such as Welch have struggled with poverty and high rates of unemployment. (West Virginia State Archive Via Associated Press)
By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 24, 2005

DELBARTON, W.Va. -- Sophia Diamond was born poor and does not doubt that she will die the same way.

She has just turned 30, but her left ankle, crushed when her Dodge compact slammed into a cliff four years ago, keeps her limping, in pain and out of work. Just getting around is a job. She lives in a hollow where the roads twist like whirligigs and it takes half an hour to get to the grocery store -- 45 minutes if you end up behind a coal truck. But she no longer has a car, so she has to grab rides from relatives when she can.

Diamond received welfare, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), until the 60-month limit ran out. Nearly two years later, she began receiving disability checks, or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). She gets $479 a month and $160 in food stamps. Still, she says, she can barely afford the electric bills for her trailer or food for her 8-year-old daughter.

She believes this is how it will always be. "I can't work at all," she said, "and there ain't no jobs here no how, except in the coal mines. There's nowhere else for me to go, neither. Without my family, I would not survive."

In the Central Appalachian coal country, where the land is famously rich and the people famously not, welfare caseloads are down, but poverty still flourishes. Since the 1996 welfare reform law, or Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, took effect, the rolls in West Virginia have dropped from 38,404 to fewer than 10,000. In general, the law -- which sets a five-year limit for receiving welfare and requires recipients to get an education, take job training or perform community service -- is considered a success. But in West Virginia, many former recipients are worse off than before, according to research by West Virginia University.

Even as the Senate is considering reauthorizing the welfare reform act with stricter work requirements and more child care funding, a prime goal of the act -- moving welfare recipients into jobs -- remains elusive in rural West Virginia, according to the research, done in conjunction with the state Department of Health and Human Resources. A year after their checks stopped, 73.1 percent of former recipients were unemployed, 65.6 percent reported not being able to afford their basic utilities, and only a small proportion believed that their prospects for the future were good (11.3 percent) or excellent (3.1 percent), the researchers found.

The main problems: Jobs were few and far between, getting from here to there was a major ordeal, and added personal burdens -- from health concerns to child care quandaries -- could derail even the most determined attempts welfare recipients might make at self-sufficiency.

Not to mention that West Virginia, like many other states, moved fast to clear its welfare caseloads after the federal law took effect -- without providing support or guidance to some of its neediest residents, according to WVU researchers.

West Virginia, a major front in President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, does have more than its share of challenges. But the researchers say the state is not unique in its struggles with welfare reform. While welfare cases have dropped more than 50 percent nationally since the federal law took effect (including by more than 70 percent in Maryland, 60 percent in Virginia and 32 percent in the District), studies in several states, including Illinois, Missouri and South Carolina, have found a majority of former recipients struggling with low-paying, often part-time, jobs -- or none at all.

Even in Wisconsin, considered the model of federal welfare reform, a recent state audit found that four-fifths of mothers who had "graduated" from welfare earn wages below the poverty level.

"The overall picture is fairly grim for low-income families," said Tom Gaiz, co-director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany, which has been studying welfare reform.

"We're moving against any general support for people who aren't working or without a working background," Gaiz said, "at least among the younger population." In some ways, he added, "we're spending more money overall than we were 10 years ago -- and that is for medical assistance, because we think that's a basic good, and for food assistance, and for supplements to income through the earned-income tax credit. But you can't really find general budgetary support for people who the government thinks may be employable."

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