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Longtime D.C. welfare recipients prepare for life off the rolls

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 9:47 PM

Navida Joy knows she needs to liberate herself from the District's dole for good. The divorced mother of three has been receiving city welfare checks on and off for six of the past 10 years.

But Joy, who gets about $430 a month in welfare checks and $440 in monthly food stamps, supports a controversial plan by the D.C. Council that would slash her benefits and those of other long-term welfare recipients.

"The council's move is the right idea, but there are a lot of people out there who depend on it and need welfare," said Joy, 28, who lost her bartending job at T.G.I. Friday's in August and takes medical coding classes at a local trade college to find work. "Right now, I am facing eviction because I can't pay my rent. I'm not as motivated as I should be. I've been dealing with a divorced family. But I am trying. I plan on getting off welfare and not begging for money."

Her life illustrates the hurdles the city faces in pushing thousands of people off its welfare rolls.

On Tuesday, the strapped D.C. Council - facing a $188 million shortfall this year and a projected $440 million deficit in the next budget - is expected to approve cutting welfare payments to single unemployed parents who have been in the District's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program cumulatively for five or more years.

Many are single mothers who dropped out of high school. They often come from troubled families and have spotty work histories. Some also struggle with alcohol or drug abuse or mental health issues.

The cuts would have a deep impact on the city's poor, particularly its children. Among the 17,000 families in the city's welfare program, about 40 percent - or 6,800 - have been getting benefits for more than five years, receiving an average of $370 a month.

The outcome of the council's vote appears certain. "It's going to stay on track as it is," said Doxie A. McCoy, spokeswoman for Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), now in his final days as council chairman. "Chairman Gray has said repeatedly the cuts would be painful, and everything had to be on the table. I would say this is a motivator and a way of breaking the cycle of dependency."

In 1996, President Bill Clinton's welfare reform act imposed a five-year limit on federal payments to welfare participants, but it let states keep using federal funds to pay benefits for some of their long-term recipients, said LaDonna Pavetti of the nonprofit research Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some states, as well as the District, have used their own dollars to pay for other long-term welfare recipients.

The council's measure, which won preliminary approval this month, would gradually eliminate payments to long-term welfare recipients, starting with a 40 percent reduction of monthly benefits by October. By 2014, the five-year limit would be absolute.

Critics say the council's measure has been cobbled together too quickly and could flood the foster-care system and homeless shelters with families and children.

"To be doing this now, when the effects of the recession are still at their height, is unfortunate, and to be doing it in such a hurried way is not thoughtful," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law school professor who is a leader of the health and human services committee of Gray's mayoral transition team.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said advocates are lobbying the council to soften the cuts. "Many families reaching time limits simply fall further behind rather than landing a job," he said.

And many longtime welfare recipients are ill-equipped to find work.

With no job, five children and a boyfriend who is an unemployed former drug dealer just back from prison, Diane Greenfield has grown accustomed to life on the welfare roll. For a total of seven years, Greenfield - a former temp at a downtown law firm who has struggled with pot and PCP addictions - has been receiving city welfare checks.

The 28-year-old says her assistance from the D.C. government - $540 a month in cash plus $850 in food stamps - is just enough for diapers, deodorant and other necessities.

"Are they going to guarantee me a job to raise my kids?" asked Greenfield, who lives in an apartment in Southeast Washington operated by the nonprofit Community of Hope for those who have struggled with drug addiction. "If they don't, then it's going to be, 'Are they going to take away my kids?' It's scary. If they cut me off, how am I supposed to get Pampers, shoes and socks for my babies?"

In the red-brick Community of Hope apartment building on Second Street off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, apartment doors are covered with brightly colored Christmas wrapping. Three nights a week, residents head to the basement for group classes on their psychological issues and drug addictions - spirited discussions interrupted every so often by yelping children in the hallway.

The council's proposal angers many of the long-term welfare recipients. If the city stops paying them, they say, then the city had better find them work. Some confess they have been complacent about applying for jobs over the years, but they also say that the city's job preparation programs have been useless.

"Sometimes, I feel unmotivated about getting a job," said LaTanya Stuckey, whose last full-time position was earlier this year as an ice cream scooper at a Ben & Jerry's. "But when you get in a job-training class all day long, all you do is listen to how you should dress. But a lot of people don't have no dress-up clothes. I don't have no dress-up clothes. That's why I don't go to funerals."

Stuckey, who dropped out of high school her senior year, thinks there are many reasons why she's mired in this economy. She doesn't get the support she wants from the three fathers of her four children. And although she loves her children, she said they came too early in her life.

"I didn't have the money for an abortion, but then, I always thought a child deserved to live," she said. "With my third child, I went to the abortion clinic, but left. With my children, I have no regrets. The only regret I do have is that I wish I was determined in my career and education."

Another reason she finds herself out of work: She's picky. "I won't take a job because TANF wants me to get off TANF," she said. "I just don't want to work at McDonald's. I need something that has a benefits package and that's going to help me in the long run."

Other welfare veterans are more active in hunting for work.

Katrina Peterson, 36, Joy's classmate at Pilgrim, has been on welfare for about seven years. Her last job was in 2003, working as a program assistant at the Northeast Performing Arts Group, but she quit because she didn't have day care.

The city gives her money to support her four children, but "being on TANF gets depressing," said Peterson, who is taking classes at the University of the District of Columbia to become a home health-care aide.

At the Community of Hope apartments, Stuckey and Greenfield are trying to find work before the government hacks away at their benefits. Greenfield is networking to find a security guard job in the D.C. school system, and Stuckey is applying for a security job at a group home for juveniles.

For Navida Joy, who's applied for jobs at CVS, Safeway and Giant, the long wait for a job might be over soon, but only because of strange luck. The other day, her used Mitsubishi was towed. When she went to retrieve her car, she learned she had $500 in fines.

"I told the towing guy I had no money, and he was like, 'Bring in your resume, and we'll see what we can do,' " Joy said. "So, I might be a towing dispatcher."

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