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Faring So-So After Leaving Welfare

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 1998; Page B01

CULPEPER, Va.—Three years after Virginia chose the gentle hills of the Blue Ridge as the starting point for one of the nation's first welfare-to-work programs, about 40 families here have now been cut off from government aid.

Most of those families are headed by single mothers whose forced entry into the job market has them feeling better about themselves but fretting about a future of poverty without a government safety net.

The good news, social service agencies report, is that the doomsday scenario envisioned by critics who predicted neglected children and despairing parents has not materialized.

The downside is that while most former welfare recipients here appear to have jobs, their average wage of $852 a month is well below the federal poverty line -- $1,137 a month for a family of three. Many continue to battle debt collectors, addiction, health problems or the consequences of bad decisions and have less time to raise their children.

And regardless of their situation, there is one unifying thought: Without government assistance other than food stamps and tax credits to fall back on, any crisis -- the loss of a job, an illness -- could devastate their families.

That's a concern even among the program's success stories, such as Achseh, Va., resident Marva Tyler, 57, who returned to the work force after staying home for 25 years to raise her eight children, the youngest of whom is 16.

"Right now, we do fine," Tyler said. "But if something comes up we'll have to let something go and catch up."

Tyler said she is luckier than many who are on welfare -- her children are grown and working, and her husband gets a disability check.

"It's different for a mom with a lot of kids, all of them small," she said. She knows, because one of her daughters faces that situation.

The welfare-to-work program, which provided cash, health insurance, day care and transportation assistance, among other things, to help welfare recipients ease into jobs and off the public rolls, has improved the outlook for Tyler's family.

She used the program to get new dentures, a used car and a $650-a-month job as a nursing home attendant, which she got after applying for work with 90 area employers. The income from her job replaced the $300 a month she had received in welfare.

Her oldest son's big pastel drawing of Jesus dominates a corner of her tidy living room, which is filled with family portraits, Christmas ornaments, stuffed animals and a 30-year-old console television.

Tyler went on welfare several years ago, after Armstead, her husband, lost his plumbing business when he underwent year-long treatment for throat and lung cancer. She entered the welfare-to-work program in May 1996. Her husband now gets $494 a month in disability payments from the federal government.

After driving one daughter to work by 6:30 a.m., Tyler then goes to work at the Autumn Care nursing home in Madison, Va. Donning a white uniform and pink smock, she bathes patients, cleans rooms, washes laundry and does other chores. She is paid $5.43 an hour.

"As long as my health is good and I'm standing up under it, I'll work," said Tyler, who now wants to earn the high school diploma she missed out on when she dropped out of school as a pregnant 10th-grader.

"I give it into the hands of the Lord, because he kept us up when we had nothing," Tyler said.

A survey several months ago found that 35 of the 40 heads of households in the Culpeper area program were working. Social services officials said that while several of the former welfare recipients have left the area or are being supported by a relative or boyfriend, most still appear to have jobs.

Across the state, the welfare-reduction effort that some officials liken to a tough-love program has reduced Virginia's welfare rolls by 46 percent since 1994. About 65 percent of the 30,000 adults required to work have found jobs in 1998, state officials say.

Wages for recipients across the state average $5.84 an hour, up from $4.94 in 1996.

"Everybody went and got jobs," said Chip Coleman, director of social services in Culpeper County. "The disappointment is how much they've earned. Our average monthly earnings are not self-sufficient. . . . People need more."

One Step Forward, Two Back

For Denise Fletcher, a 33-year-old mother of five daughters, the welfare-to-work program has been a source of fleeting pride and lasting anguish.

Fletcher said she initially was excited about the idea of providing for her family on her own and by promises that the welfare phaseout program would get her training to become a beautician as long as she found another job first.

She wound up working as a cashier at a Burger King, where her top wage was $5.15 an hour before she was fired one day because her register was short $8, she said. The job training never became a reality; Fletcher said that after working all day at the restaurant and coming home to care for her children, she did not have the time or energy to attend night classes.

And so Fletcher, who just a few months ago was able to pay her bills on time and buy cheerleading clothes for her daughters using money from welfare and her job, has seen her life go into a tailspin.

Last week, at her $420-a-month rental house, Fletcher, an ex-boyfriend, his buddy and her cousin sat around a hot, black kerosene stove discussing what she could do about an eviction notice from her landlord. Paying the rent was easier when she was on welfare.

"Who's giving me time to be a mother?" asked Fletcher, who said she is at least three months behind on her rent. "I liked working. I liked the independence and talking with people. But if we must rely on husbands and spouses and boyfriends for rent, that's not self-sufficiency."

Fletcher, who dropped out of high school when she got pregnant and describes herself as a weak woman who has relied on bad men, now sees a "depressing" future ahead: low-paying jobs, little time to chase her dream career and dwindling time to care for her girls, ages 5 to 14.

So far she has resisted the idea of putting her children in foster care or giving their fathers custody, because she believes the two men are abusive. Four of the girls are from a 10-year marriage; the fifth was born during a five-year relationship. The thought of giving them up reminds her that she once attempted suicide over despair in her marriage.

"Where are you going to find the training to get the skills?" she asked bleakly. "How are you going to find the income to get up the ladder? You have to sacrifice something to get something. That's the only answer I have for the children."

Social services officials acknowledge that attending job training may be difficult for those who work all day and then need to care for children, but say that it's often the only way for people to rise above poverty.

Lisa Houck, deputy social services director in Culpeper, said typical wage gains have not been what social services officials had hoped, in part because people in the program have not taken advantage of job training being offered by the state.

"The biggest disappointment is that they're not getting training. . . . What I was hoping is people would get tired of the $5.15-, $6-an-hour jobs and realize, 'I need training,' " Houck said. "Ultimately it's their responsibility. We haven't turned anybody away."

High Marks for Program

The program wasn't a success for Culpeper resident Kenneth Lee Myles, 54, but he says that going back to work after years of battling alcoholism and being on welfare made him feel good about himself again.

Through the program, Myles -- who is raising his two sons, ages 12 and 13 -- received $500 to help buy a used car, and then began work as a $7.50-an-hour bricklayer and a floor-tile cutter. Then a heart seizure prevented him from doing manual labor. He now collects a few hundred dollars in unemployment compensation each month; his welfare benefits ended in August.

Still, Myles said, "I'd rate the program a 9-plus. It gave me a helping hand. Without that, I don't think that I would have made it."

Myles now is searching for a less strenuous job. "I got to find some other way to work," he said. "Hopefully I can get a job I can handle."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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