Two Women, Two Responses to Change
Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Dec. 15, 1996;
First in a series of
Until this fall, Elizabeth Jones and LaVerne Peeler were more than just neighbors and confidants at East Capitol Dwellings, the city's largest public housing complex. They were also sisters in welfare two of the 4 million American adults on the dole.
But the relationship between the two women has changed, just as the world around them is changing. While Peeler's life still revolves around her living room couch, Jones, 27, now mans a reception desk at an office across town. After a decade on welfare, she decided to work. She's trying to grip that slippery ladder to the middle class. She's trying, more immediately, to remember the receptionist's first rule. "Smile," she says, unsmiling. "Got to remember to smile."
When Peeler, 39, thinks of her friend Elizabeth out there, braving the work world, she burrows deeper into the sofa. "Her public housing rent skyrocketed. She's losing Medicaid for her kids," Peeler sighs. "It's crazy." And it's increasingly hard to avoid. This November day, Peeler learned that she, too, is expected to play a part in the biggest social policy experiment since the New Deal. Her caseworker told her to get a job.
East Capitol Street begins at the U.S. Capitol, where a landmark welfare reform law was confected this year. It ends in the bleakness of East Capitol Dwellings, where government intends to wean a community from a generations-old way of life. The way President Clinton tells it, the poor must now relinquish "the degradation of welfare dependency" for "the pride and dignity of work." A month with Peeler and Jones suggests that the distinction rarely breaks so clean.
East Capitol Dwellings and urban settings like it are the crucible of welfare reform. Here are the heaviest boats to lift. Here reside some of the country's most pressing social problems problems that inspired the push to reform in the first place.
In the summer, after decades of debate about welfare's unintended consequences, Congress and the president agreed to compel states to put a sizable percentage of adult recipients to work. The District is fashioning a compliance plan, but the baseline already is clear. Most families will be allowed only five more years of direct federal assistance. After that, they'll be on their own: work, steal, hustle or starve.
Will children sink en masse into poverty? Or will an alchemy of government, business and personal effort yield social transformation? The predictive data are as inadequate as the social engineering aim is ambitious. In coming months, The Washington Post will watch welfare reform unfold from, among other places, the vantage of East Capitol Dwellings.
In these row houses and apartments sprawled at the city's edge, it's easy to see what 61 years of welfare entitlement have wrought: Only 89 of East Capitol Dwellings' 477 households reported any earned income in November, city housing department data show. But life's organizing principle has been revised radically. As one welfare age wanes and another begins, how will government decisions play out in the lives of caseworkers and storekeepers, church folk and crack heads, children?
Both are single mothers with a high school education and little work experience classic long-term welfare recipients. They met two years ago in a government program designed to expose them to work. Offered similar opportunities, they made different choices. In homes two blocks apart, they now lead very different lives. Their struggles and their logic have something to teach people on the federal end of their street, beginning with this: Making welfare reform work will take more than individual gumption in isolated ghettoes. It will also require hard thinking about inner-city schools, day care, job training, transportation about America's troubled infrastructure of opportunity.
Her mother had her first child at 17 and went on welfare. Jones had her first at 17 and went on welfare. "Mine will break the chain," Jones says, "or I'll die trying."
This fall, she left welfare on her own accord. If she stays off, she'll count as one of the 4,000 people the District must move off the rolls by 1998 or pay a $4 million penalty. But 58 percent of those who leave the rolls return within two years, according to the Urban Institute. Jones's daily life illuminates some of the reasons.
"Staff development day!" she fumes, tromping across the school's balding playground. "You'd think they could develop staff on Saturday!" Staff development day at her children's school means paying for a full day of child care: $15 extra per child, in cash, in advance. There goes $45 she had saved to buy the children hats and scarves at Wal-Mart.
Jones's job, at the nonprofit D.C. Private Industry Council, is better than most welfare recipients can hope to get. Every two weeks, she brings home $687 after taxes. But when she got her job, her public housing rent set at one-third of a resident's income rocketed from $103 a month to $497. She lost $235 a month in food stamps and added day-care costs of $380. The day care is supposed to be subsidized, but the city hasn't reimbursed her in months. Her new job provides her with health insurance but doesn't cover her children, whose Medicaid benefits will soon expire. And then there's bus fare. She yearns for a car "anything with four wheels that starts." But lately she's too pressed to buy winter hats.
As Jones enters Nalle, she averts her eyes from the "RIP Nate" graffiti on a wall. Soon her children dance about her, oozing news. Drenika, 8, has broken her glasses eighth time this year. Plus, she wants black Timberland boots. Wayne, 9, wants Timberlands, too. Six-year-old Dernard, mercifully, wants only a bologna sandwich. As Jones assembles her crew for the long trek home, a day-care worker levels her with a stare.
"Where," says the woman, "are their hats?"
To understand how lonely Jones sometimes feels in her struggle, it helps to know this: At East Capitol Dwellings, folks don't say "Get a life" when they want to blow someone off. They say, "Get a job." It's not advice, it's a joke. The neighborhood's economic spine is the estimated $2.3 million in public assistance that flows here yearly. Two-thirds of households are headed by single mothers. Average income is $8,114 a year. Half of the adults are high school dropouts. Seventy percent of children live on the wrong side of the poverty line. Many urban areas can claim similar statistics, or worse. But few cities are likely to feel welfare reform the way Washington will.
Most states can meet their initial work requirements by concentrating on rural and suburban welfare recipients, skirting, if they choose, the urban cores heavily populated by hard cases. But Washington has no exurbs within its borders. To avoid a monetary penalty, it must do something that has flummoxed better-run and better-funded governments: It must turn out the pockets of poverty.
Jones hates that word, poverty its grimy, determinative aura. She grew up in a poor neighborhood, graduating from the District's Eastern High School with straight C's and a son. She used to get mad at people who clenched their purses when she walked by, as if clinging to the advantages she lacked. It was easier to invest fury in strangers than in the boyfriends who battered both her face and her sense of self.
With the help of her mother and a local pastor, she's been working on the self-esteem thing. Sure, it hurt that her job-training classmates shunned her when she was the first to get a job. But nowadays, when an insult flies her way, she tries to hum a gospel favorite: "Hold your head up high; don't worry about the fight ..." The Lord, the song promises, will set things right.
She knows she's already come far. "Sign-your-name-and-take-a-seat!" she barks, mimicking the refrain of a welfare caseworker. "I don't miss that office at all." At her new office, it's not just that people call her Miss Jones. It's that she sees black women executives, commanding and warm. She can conjure up a life outside the projects, in a place where washing machines work and vegetable gardens bloom.
Their long march over, she and the children spill into their sparsely furnished house, where a poster on the wall exhorts, "Go the Extra Mile!" She rustles up some dinner, issues a ritual prohibition against watching "The Simpsons," and then melts, exhausted, onto a similarly exhausted couch. Now she can do what seems difficult to do at work: smile. "It's like I'm no longer waiting to exhale."
It's the first business day of November. This morning, pink assistance checks have slid through mail slots all over East Capitol Dwellings. Peeler says, "It's the one time when your child says, 'Mommy, can I have this?' you can actually say, 'Sure, baby, yes.' "
A Ballou Senior High School graduate from a close but troubled family, Peeler intended to be a nurse, not a welfare dependent. Then she got pregnant, went on welfare, and, she says with a shake of her head: "My God! That's where I stayed."
The last time she worked legally was the summer of 1994 at the government program where she and Jones became friends. Sometimes she misses the delicious authority she felt coordinating a trip to the movies for neighborhood children. She likes to note that at summer's end, she was picked for a nine-month internship at a nonprofit agency. But distracted by health concerns and family matters, she declined. Jones begged for and received the internship instead. Yet Peeler thinks she was the smart one.
Even poor neighborhoods have their class distinctions: Do you shop the Shoe City side of Minnesota Avenue (Nike Deions, $114.99) or the Payless (no-name bubbas, $19.95)? Peeler's family is solid Shoe City. That's because, while Jones applied her mind to the merge functions of WordPerfect, Peeler used her elastic intelligence to build a sanctuary from the vicissitudes, not just of East Capitol Dwellings, but of the marketplace. By her lights, the work world doesn't understand, and won't tolerate, the realities of her daily life. What would an employer make of her chronic illness, lupus invisible to the eyes of her caseworker but enough some days to slow her down? What company would accommodate the needs of her 7-year-old niece, an addict's daughter with a neurological disease and insides so massacred that her bowels move only once a week? Why would she risk the certainty of monthly checks for the long shot of holding a job?
Peeler always knows which supermarket has the best deal on Tide. She is equally shrewd about public assistance. Last year, she got convicted of welfare fraud after she was caught working part time at a nursing home while collecting her checks. Today, she collects $599 in public assistance and food stamps, minus a small amount deducted monthly as court-ordered repayment of what the government says she stole. She's also negotiated with foster care officials to get $2,400 in payments for her sister's three children and a baby belonging to one of them. That means she has a tax-free income of $2,999 a month about $1,600 more than Jones takes home. Of that $2,999, $71 goes to rent a home bigger than the one for which Jones now pays seven times as much. By dint of Peeler's Medicaid card, health care costs nothing. There's enough left over for two phone lines, Caller ID, VCR and cable.
Peeler sees herself as a churchgoer, not a welfare cheat. Still, when she baby-sits for cash or buys life insurance for her children which her caseworker forbade, because it can be borrowed from prematurely she doesn't report it to the government. Doing so might cause a reduction in her payments. "For real," she says. "I don't know anyone who reports everything."
The value of welfare benefits in constant dollars is about half today what it was 25 years ago. Many residents of East Capitol Dwellings supplement their checks with flexible, cash-paying jobs: nursing an invalid neighbor, styling braids for friends. But it will take more than the prod of a caseworker to reorder Peeler's logic about legitimate work.
The current chapter of Peeler's life began five years ago, when child protection officials seized her sister's children, ages 5 months to 13 years. Peeler swallowed hard and did what family members often do, unheralded, in the inner city: took the children and the consequences. The home where she was raising her own son and daughter was too tiny. So she and the children came to East Capitol Dwellings, where the drug traders set her lawn ablaze, twice, to show her who owned her back yard.
Since then, she has supported her family by walking once or twice a year to a strip mall across the street, home of the East Capitol Dwellings welfare office. She isn't particularly grateful to the government for assistance or enraged at its impending revocation. She sees government as an abstraction whose bidding is done by nosy, ever-changing caseworkers and whose exigencies present her with practical problems including welfare reform, which will spawn a new set of rules for her to master.
"Whew-eee!" Peeler closes the refrigerator with a satisfied slam and returns to the living room, where she discovers that someone has swiped a $327 money order from her faux-Chanel handbag. The money was meant to forestall an electricity cut-off that Potomac Electric Power Co. has threatened for tomorrow. A visiting relative departs swiftly, protesting innocence. Peeler slumps into a pink leatherette chair, salting her fried-chicken lunch with tears.
But soon, her wits kick in. Pepco won't cut her off in the freezing weather, she reasons. She'll let the bill slide, she decides, returning serenely to her chicken.
Practice and Patience
In a way, her approach to this reception desk began on a winter day six years ago. That was when, after the birth of her third child by as many fathers, Jones defied her mother and went by herself to a local hospital. Twenty-one-years old, she pleaded for and received a tubal ligation.
"I knew if I kept having babies, I'd get trapped deeper in this place I didn't want to be," she says. Still, it took many tries and many false starts to score this job.
When her third child was still in diapers, Jones enrolled in a medical assistant course at a vocational school. Only after graduating did she learn that the course didn't qualify her for real-life medical assistant jobs. She's still repaying her $4,000 student loan.
After several temporary jobs and volunteering stints, she took the internship Peeler declined with a neighborhood nonprofit group. "I just wanted to get my foot in the door," she says. But when the internship ended, she was turned down for a $17,000-a-year receptionist job there. "They told me that, financially, I'd be better off on welfare."
Jones burst into tears on the spot and cried all night. "It was worse than getting hit," she remembers. "It hurt that bad." And then she found herself at the door of New Mount Olive Baptist, a neighborhood church. Patience, the minister counseled her then and counsels her still. Trust the Lord, and you will get your freedom.
"Hold your head up high," Jones sang to herself. She tried again, eventually taking a 16-week computer-training course at a new program called the Community Business Center. Things clicked. Jones was promptly hired by the nonprofit agency that ran the computer-training program.
Jones's boss says she's doing well after three months on the job. But she knows the tenuousness of her handhold on the dream. As she and her children ride the 97 bus home one mid-November night, passengers start to grumble. The local McDonald's has been shuttered. McDonald's jobs, with their polyester uniforms, sometimes inspire derision here. But tonight the unlit arches seem to signify decline. Everyone knows a local kid who got a McDonald's job, then a management-training opportunity. Another ladder out of the housing complex has been folded up and taken away.
Jones tries not to imagine losing her job her welfare case file getting fatter. And she tries not to obsess about another cost of working, the time not spent with her children.
For a long time, Jones's 9-year-old Wayne couldn't pierce the mysteries of reading. He spent his class time drawing the wide-brimmed hats that enchanted him at church. Wayne's teachers were complacent. But Jones, then on welfare, volunteered at his school. When she saw him with his head on his desk, defeated, she enlisted Peeler's help, bypassed the school diagnosticians, got her son tested and secured him a place in a special education class. There, this year, he began to read.
Working now, Jones can't volunteer at school. The other day, Wayne told her he wasn't allowed to take physical education with his classmates because he couldn't finish his work on time. She tries to have faith in the system. She checks his homework, brings home books. But as November wears on, she worries.
The Next Generation
Peeler's 16-year-old son has been arrested for disorderly conduct. Peeler doesn't comfort herself that, around here, the police often deliver graver news. Her tall, proud son starved of privacy in this crowded, over-female house has tonight become a statistic in the juvenile justice system.
Mother and son used to sway to Al Green together, exercising the hoarse laugh they share. But now, the boy says of growing up, "I don't think I'll be around for none of that." He dresses in black, hardly smiles. Peeler looks toward the future and shudders.
"I've got to stay on top of him," she says, almost to herself. "I've just got to get him through high school."
The welfare reform law exempts from work the mothers of children less than a year old. Most other mothers are expected to join the work force. But Peeler believes she must be home, putting her body between her children and the dangers and temptations that lurk, literally, outside her door.
Before the police call ends, Peeler is lobbying for inpatient alcohol treatment for her son. She knows that if she nags enough, waiting lists can be circumvented, rules can be bent, attention will be paid. Just last week, she fussed and cussed and drove away officers who had her son spread-eagled out back. She is equally ferocious, and deafening, when she thinks her children are out of line. "You may be in the projects," she bellows. "But you don't have to be of the projects!"
Sociologists have studied the multi-generational creep of welfare, arguing that the dole lifestyle is passed on like some matrilineal gene. But many children born to welfare do grow up and get out. And many who do have mothers like Peeler. Still, even in her house, it's clear that one welfare reform goal is already being realized: Expectations are beginning to change.
Peeler's 18-year-old niece, QuenCelle, is entering adulthood just as the entitlement age ends. The dignified teenager has a 2-year-old daughter she dotes on. She dreams of having another baby, but the checks-for-children days are played out. "I'll have to get my family situated on my own," she says. She has signed up for job training, where she will teach her fingers, with their four-inch pink acrylic nails, to type.
Peeler, only 39, has amputated her own dreams with a decisiveness that rivals Jones's choice of a tubal. "It's just not about me anymore," she says. If QuenCelle manages to overcome a troubled past and raise her baby off welfare, it may have something to do with the sheltered life Peeler has created for her. The way Peeler sees it, her assistance check has bought QuenCelle a chance.
A Future of Questions
Jones, Elizabeth: Wage-earner. Triumph.
Peeler, LaVerne: Public assistance recipient. Unresolved problem.
At East Capitol Dwellings, where Peeler and Jones meet in Peeler's living room for Thanksgiving dinner, it's harder to sort things out.
Peeler has more to be thankful for than the turkey she won in a gospel-radio contest. Pepco has given her more time on the overdue bill. The charges against her son have been dropped. As for the get-to-work imperative, Peeler has unspooled a plan. She displays a note from a doctor about her lupus. She'll apply for Supplemental Security Income disability. If approved, she'll receive a bigger-than-ever monthly check and relax permanently outside the welfare reform pool. Another government annoyance negotiated away. For this moment, anyway, her world seems safe.
Jones's world seems less so.
To make ends meet, she's decided to work weekends, too if she can find work. An interview for a clerk's job at Children's Hospital went well, but she'd have to train during the hours of her other job. She looks into driving a van for Bell Atlantic: "You can really advance there." She drops more resumes in the mail.
Meanwhile, Wayne has brought home his report card. Eight D's. Jones's heart aches. She's got to get him into another school, another special ed program. How she'll add another school stop to her daily schedule or find day care for the weekends, she doesn't begin to know.
Tomorrow is another working day. She'll be there early, keeping hard on the heels of the dream. Yet tonight there's nothing to do but fall into bed with her ancient radio. She'll scan the frequencies for gospel, for faith.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post