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After Welfare, a New Dream,
a Constant Struggle

Elizabeth Jones and family/Juana Arias/TWP
Elizabeth Jones (right) with her children, from left, Dernika Mosby, 9, Dernard Hawkins, 7, and Wayne Jones, 10.
(By Juana Arias/The Washington Post)

Welfare Reform Series
From The Post

Part One: Two Women, Two Responses to Change

Part Two: Reaching Up for the Bottom Rung

Part Three: On the Front Lines, a Struggle at Work

Part Four: Day Care Centers in Trouble

Part Five: Painful Choices

Part Six: After Welfare: A New Dream, a Constant Struggle

About this Series

In 1996, Congress hammered out one of the most ambitious social engineering efforts of recent American history: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ended six decades of welfare entitlement. The Washington Post has been chronicling the effect of this watershed act for more than a year.

Today's installment returns to East Capitol Dwellings, one of the inner-city neighborhoods that served as the law's inspiration and that will now serve as its great proving ground. A year after she left welfare, Elizabeth Jones, 28, lives a truth many lawmakers have thus far sidestepped. The hard part isn't getting a job. It's keeping it. This fall, as she risks her children's well-being to keep working, as she dreams of being a D.C. police officer, her handhold on the socioeconomic ladder threatens to give way.

By Katherine Boo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 1997;
Page A01

Sixth in a series of
occasional articles

Elizabeth Jones streaks across a stark-lit play lot toward the rise of a chain-link fence. Children brake their bikes and stare. At East Capitol Dwellings, Washington's largest public housing complex, the 28-year-old mother of three, possessor of an acute fear of falling, tries to haul her lanky frame over the fence top.

She is fighting sore thighs, and 25 to 1 odds, to train for the physical aptitude test required to become a D.C. cop. She is also sweating, a year after leaving public assistance, to solve a puzzle lawmakers on the other end of East Capitol Street have left unfinished. Off welfare. Now what?

This afternoon at her office, two colleagues found notices nestled beside their paychecks: We're sorry. You're unemployed. For the first time since she started working, the $22,000-a-year receptionist feels sick at the thought of getting her pay envelope. Should she wait to be laid off? To tumble back to welfare? She will throw herself at fences instead. She'll turn her palms into a crosshatch of chain-link.

For weeks now, the be-a-cop notion has rumbled through her neighborhood on the broadside of the No. 97 bus. New jobs at the Metropolitan Police Department, the posters promise; $30,000 a year, plus the benefits of unionized work for those who can pass a battery of tests. "But they kill police," Jones's 9-year-old daughter regularly reminds her. Down this way, they sometimes do. And down this way, where low-skill jobs are as insecure as they are scarce, many have made the calculation that a decent, permanent job is a thing worth dying for.

It's been 14 months since Jones moved from a digit in one data set, Americans on welfare, to a digit in another: the 2 million who have left the rolls since the August 1996 signing of a national welfare reform law. In the gloss of its authors, the end of six decades of welfare entitlement was not simply the removal of a safety net; it was the making of an inclusive social contract. The government would spend billions of new dollars to help the Joneses pull themselves into the economic mainstream to help them, President Clinton said, share in the American dream.

Few inner cities have thus far begun to buy in, however. And public officials are quick to posit one explanation. Lodged in pockets of poverty like East Capitol Dwellings are the uneducable, the attitudinous, the addicted those potent poverty stereotypes in greater numbers than previously suspected. But following Jones through a pivotal year illuminates a part of the urban equation harder for outsiders to discern: the lack of social collaboration, of economic springboards, that keeps opportunity on the far side of the fence.

America's East Caps, now reform's crucible, were also its inspiration. The goal wasn't to hurt those using welfare in times of crisis, the president said. It was to "charge, challenge and end the culture of poverty." Last December, as the law went into effect, The Washington Post chronicled Jones's personal challenge: weathering six buses a day, the gibes of neighbors and a government incentive system that sometimes made welfare a better deal than a job. Over 1997, her horizons will grow wider. But her toehold on work will become more precarious. By Christmas, Jones will watch a scandal shake her office. She'll compromise her children's safety for financial survival. And one anxious morning the morning of the police aptitude test she'll swallow hard, grab a bulletproof vest and try to face down the future.

D.C. welfare rolls declined 10 percent this year part of the trend now being toasted by politicians across the nation. But getting off welfare isn't the same as getting, or keeping, work. Of the 6,500 people sent by caseworkers into the District's two main job-search programs this year, only 403 found jobs, city statistics show. The numbers at East Cap are bleaker: Just 15 percent of household heads reported an earned income last month, down from 18 percent a year ago. Reform notwithstanding, Jones doesn't know a single other East Capper holding down a full-time job.

East Capitol Street begins at the U.S. Capitol in a graceland of columns and lawns that hold their green in winter. It ends in the dirt lots of the Dwellings: 535 apartments and homes by the Prince George's County line. For years now Jones has walked the community's economic spine: the welfare office into which she first ventured as a teenager with a year-old baby and a second astir in her belly; the subsidized day-care center; the Medicaid-stoked clinic; the supermarket where an entrance sign pleads, "Please no ski masks allowed!" and where an identical sack of groceries costs $21 one week and $24 the week welfare checks come in.

Welfare reform asks the poor to put fresh faith in meritocracy. After nine years of scrimping on public assistance, Jones is ideologically good-to-go. At night, a new dream has replaced the old recurrer the one where she's machine-gunned in the street. In her new dream, she glides down a church aisle. At the altar, she looks down at herself, amazed. No swoon of white, just the navy skirt she wears to work. The lifetime commitment she's making is to labor.

"It's in God's hands," Jones tells her children about layoffs, about life. But maybe this time God will take a hint. Her sweats smell. Her children await spaghetti. Still she guns toward the fence's rusty diamonds.

At the last minute, though, she veers a chicken-out, stutter-step failure. "Can't do it," she moans, shagging hands on her sweats, letting doubt thieve through her brain. She embraced the idea of upward mobility, chased it hell-for-leather. So why is she still here at East Cap?

Employment's Underside
Three-thirty: This time of day, at a gray boat of a receptionist desk at the nonprofit Private Industry Council, Jones feels the nausea spread against her ribs. She must go on filing and smiling while across town the students of Nalle Elementary tumble out doors and into the arms of waiting parents. But there are no arms to catch her 7-year-old Dernard and 9-year-old Drenika.

The D.C. government has promised those who leave welfare a year of "transitional" day-care assistance money to keep children like Dernard and Drenika in after-school programs until their newly employed parents can get them. But Jones's city reimbursements stopped without notice last summer. Fifty calls could not extract the funds.

On the morning last year when Jones stepped off the bus and into a job, her world expanded. It also became more expensive. Her rent quadrupled, thanks to public housing rules linking a resident's rent to her income. Of her $1,300 monthly take-home, which is more than most of those leaving welfare earn, half now goes for rent and electricity. After food, clothes and new outlays like $150 in bus and subway fares, paying a monthly $280 for day care was as plausible as asking her beanpole babies to stop growing out of their shoes.

Her children's fathers didn't come to the rescue. So Jones faced a choice: Ice the job, reclaim the welfare check, walk the kids home from school. Or keep the job and risk the kids. She decided.

"Carry my backpack, Dernard," fifth-grader Drenika orders, forging the way. Gutted buildings at left, trash-matted woods at right: They traverse the long blocks of 50th Street SE. "Scary," says Drenika of one block, where a man will days later be found murdered in his car. "Scary," echoes second-grader Dernard, softly, so as not to rouse the spirits behind the trees.

Past old vodka bottles, up a stinkweed path. The streets her kids now navigate aren't far from the ones Jones wheeled down in her own childhood, vowed to leave in her dust. What she had achieved, by 21, was no job, three babies by three different men, one public housing unit ripe with dirty Pampers.

Off welfare, Jones can more easily gauge its psychic toll. Waiting for checks and caseworkers, you got into the habit of waiting for life to happen too: counting on lottery luck or divine intervention to deliver you to your dreams. But at work she also sees welfare's urban logic. It's hard to protect kids in East Cap even when you're home. It's impossible when you're two miles downtown.

What keeps Jones showing up every morning, 8:30 sharp, is not the threat of sanctions; under reform's timetables, the worst of those are yet to come. Rather, the take-a-message minutiae of her receptionist life can be reduced to one great act of imagination: that work will lift her babies up from East Cap, a thing her $513-a-month welfare check was never going to do. Soon, God, she prays. Before her children are bent by the burden she's assigned them.

Two well-chilled children have now gained an East Capitol Street bus stop, where 30 minutes creep buslessly by. Drenika scrapes a blue plastic trash can with her token, etching a daisy beside "Thug Life" graffiti. Dernard balances at the curb's edge, scanning the horizon for the No. 97. When a car wings around the corner, whizzes close, he retreats to the shadow of his sister, who has begun whacking the trash can doors with her hands plastic percussion to her recital of "The Greatest Love of All."

Finally the bus arrives, freighted with big kids also singing. Ding dong, your mother dropped her bong ... Drenika and Dernard huddle by the driver until they reach their stop. In the old days, they might have gone to the home of Jones's friend, LaVerne Peeler, a welfare veteran who always helped out when city aid fell through. But this spring, Peeler left East Cap for a five-bedroom house in Northwest Washington. She didn't find a job. Instead, she found a federal program that provided accessible housing for a disabled niece in her care. "I can sit on the porch and not worry about the hustlers and bustlers," Peeler says. "It's like, finally, ahhh, peace."

Jones knows no one else at East Cap she would trust to watch her kids.

Since the national experiment began, reform leaders like Wisconsin and Oregon have dominated reports of its progress. But most welfare recipients live in places less suffused in good-government tradition. The District, whose welfare agency hasn't had a director since last winter, promises more transitional aid in the future. But this year, it spent federal money sending welfare-to-workers' children to day-care centers rife with fire safety and rodent problems. The job assistance most recipients got was a form on which they were asked to record 20 "employer contacts" a month.

Government can't erect a million ladders overnight, the president has emphasized in asking business and community to join the reform "crusade." And when The Post chronicled Jones's first months off welfare last December, the community tried. The coats and mittens warming Drenika and Dernard on their trek to the bus stop came from readers. A lawyer successfully sued the District to secure publicly funded private education for Jones's learning-disabled 10-year-old, Wayne, who had foundered in public special education. A Mazda presented at Christmas by a Virginia woman relieved Jones of her daily six-bus odyssey until a teenager slammed into her one Sunday in February as she drove home from church.

The uninsured car was toast, but the idea it represented lingered. "Why are people giving us presents?" Dernard asked his mother one day as he pulled on Timberland boots bought by strangers.

She told him what she still believes: If they know you're trying, people care, more than you dreamed. But this empathy couldn't permanently prop up the fragile institutions that surround her. Couldn't prevent Dernard and Drenika, hands linked, from now cheating East Capitol Street's rush-hour traffic on the final bolt toward home.

Home: a bare, parched-paint place in which you let backpacks and fear drop to the floor. But before the matter of animal crackers may be considered, there is something Mom told you to remember. Lock that door. Drenika, head directly to the phone. It's 4:45, at which time a mother's imagination goes gothic.

"Mommy?" a little girl chirps. "Don't worry, we're here."

Go to Page Two

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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