Welfare Phaseout Hits Northern Virginia
By Michael D. Shear and R.H. Melton
Welfare makes life easier, though it is no longer a necessity, she says. But if she should lose her job or the rent-free trailer she shares with her boyfriend, the monthly check could be the only thing preventing a slide back into a life of poverty and struggle.
Beginning this month, her safety net is vanishing.
Marrelli and more than 450 other Northern Virginia families are being pushed off cash assistance during the next six months.
They will be the first in the Washington area to test the hopes and fears that have fed the debate surrounding Virginia's welfare overhaul.
The Virginia legislature decided in 1995 to put welfare recipients to work and to impose a two-year limit on cash benefits.
Local officials and advocates for the poor say they are optimistic that many in Northern Virginia will survive the loss of their monthly checks because most -- like Marrelli -- have found jobs. And yet, social workers say those families are particularly vulnerable to everyday disappointments and challenges.
"It may be a case that appears to be a success, and then something happens -- a car breaks down, a daughter gets pregnant, they lose a job," said Juani Diaz, who heads Fairfax County's benefits programs. "There are a lot of things that can happen. Life can happen."
Marrelli, 26, lives in the three-bedroom, single-wide trailer in Woodbridge owned by her boyfriend's parents.
So -- at least for the moment -- housing isn't a financial burden. But at $5.50 an hour, working in a Potomac Mills gift shop, Marrelli isn't bringing home a lot either.
Still, she says it's time to make it on her own.
"It has really helped me," she said on a day she worked a seven-hour shift at the Elmtree gift shop. "But two years is enough. There's no sense for people to be on it for years."
That kind of statement would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago, she says.
At 21, Marrelli was living with her parents in the small town of Burnsville, N.C., and attending Western Piedmont Community College.
Her pregnancy, by a boyfriend who, she says, later became abusive, was not accepted by her parents.
One day in June 1994, fed up, she called a friend in Woodbridge.
"She had always told me that if I had any problems, 'you always have a place to stay,' " Marrelli recalled. "I lived in her living room."
And went on welfare.
Like many who receive assistance, Marrelli needed more than just some extra cash.
Making her personal finances balance each month meant taking advantage of a wide range of public services.
She enrolled her daughter, Sequoya, in subsidized day care, for which Marrelli pays only $66 a month, compared with the going rate of $400-a-month.
Mother and daughter both began receiving food stamps and Medicaid.
For a while, Marrelli bounced from place to place, living in rented rooms or houses.
At one point, she rented space from a family for $275 a month, almost Marrelli's entire welfare check. She and Sequoya left there, Marrelli said, when the family started acting like her parents.
At one point, Marrelli cleaned offices in Reston from 2:30 to 8:30 p.m. for $5.25 an hour.
But that didn't last long because Marrelli said she didn't like it much and because it didn't seem to be doing anything for her future.
Meanwhile, the welfare reform movement that is now sweeping the nation arrived in the Commonwealth of Virginia, aimed squarely at people like Marrelli and her daughter.
In the summer of 1995, Virginia's General Assembly voted to require able-bodied adults such as Marrelli to go to work, and they capped cash payments at a maximum of two years.
Children, the elderly and the disabled were exempted from the program. Then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican who had pushed for the reform, said it would lift Virginians on welfare out of poverty and dependency.
Clarence H. Carter, the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, said the welfare-to-work program is designed to "change the culture" of public assistance.
"We have been able to do the first part of welfare reform well," said Carter, who was appointed by Allen and retained by his successor, James S. Gilmore III (R).
"We are saying that welfare should not be a place where you reside permanently."
The test of that policy will only get tougher. Starting next year, Marrelli and others will exhaust their non-cash benefits -- day-care help, transportation, food stamps and Medicaid. Welfare recipients get to keep those benefits for up to a year after they stop receiving their aid checks, giving them a temporary leg up on the rest of the state's working poor.
Losing the extras could plunge many of them back into poverty, officials fear.
"We are still right on the edge," said Chip Coleman, the director of social services in Culpeper County, where welfare recipients began losing their cash payments six months ago.
The state's welfare-to-work program was rolled out in stages, first in Culpeper and other rural places and then in more urban areas.
"We are pleased with the success of the program," Coleman said. "People are out working. The issues we now have are not the welfare issues, they are the working poor issues."
The rules took effect in Northern Virginia in May 1996.
Faced with a requirement to find a job within 90 days, Marrelli started at the card store and has gotten several raises since. Marrelli says she hopes to move up again.
"My assistant manager is leaving, so I thought I might wriggle into that. She makes $500 a paycheck, and that's pretty good," Marrelli said, adding that someday she might even be manager. "The littlest job, you can upgrade."
In Northern Virginia, the low unemployment rate has helped welfare recipients such as Marrelli make the transition. With 2,305 people now covered by the get-to-work requirement, 67 percent are employed, making an average of $922 a month, according to state social services officials. Others are working at government-sponsored community service jobs, another option, and some have yet to hit the 90-day point after which they must be working to keep getting benefits.
Washington area officials say they've been pleasantly surprised by the initial success of many welfare recipients.
"What we've found is that there hasn't been this massive chaos that some of us were afraid of," said Marc Cohen, the president of Share, a Fairfax organization that provides help to the poor.
"There was a worry that we weren't going to be able to handle the increased demand. As I say, that hasn't been the case. There may have been some exaggeration."
In Prince William County, for example, fewer than 90 of the county's 1,200 welfare recipients covered by the new rules will have their payments involuntarily cut off in the next several months.
Some of the others haven't yet reached the two-year limit because they came onto the welfare rolls more recently.
But many voluntarily dropped the cash payments early so they could "bank" their remaining welfare eligibility in case they get into financial trouble later.
Ricardo Perez, the director of the Prince William social services department, said that two years ago he would have predicted that many more than 90 families would stay on financial aid until the bitter end.
"We've had some real good success stories of people who went out and got $25,000- or $30,000-a-year jobs," Perez said.
Still, Perez, Coleman and others caution that high-paying jobs with good benefits are the exception for most of the now-employed welfare recipients.
The average income for people who left welfare for work in Northern Virginia is $11,000, well below the federal government's poverty line of $13,000 for a family of three.
Marrelli is making much less, a rate of about $7,100 a year, working all the hours her employer is able to give her at the moment.
Virginia's welfare reform has helped her, Marrelli says, by pushing her into a decent job and motivating her to stay with it. She said she's proud that she no longer needs the financial handout of a welfare check. But she's also aware that her situation is precarious.
If she didn't live with her boyfriend, Matt, who has a job, and if she had to pay rent, Marrelli says knows she couldn't make it on her paycheck.
"I would be back with my parents in North Carolina, and I'd be very disappointed," Marrelli said. "I couldn't get a job to pay $800 in rent. I'd have to make $30,000 a year or something to make ends meet. I'm not making anything near that."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company