The lobby of the two-story yellow brick building which is the home of the Washington County Welfare Center is furnished in bus-station modern. The floor is linoleum, the pastel-colored seats are of molded plastic and the cinderblock walls are covered with official notices singing the praises of such social welfare wonders as the Labor Department's WIN program and the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit.
Small tow-headed children scamper across the floor as their parents, a cross-section of Appalachian white poverty, wait impassively to see their caseworkers about welfare or food stamps. There is little conversation and no smoking. Occasionally, nervous applicants will check pockets or handbags to make sure they have brought the rent receipts, utility bills, salary stubs and other pieces of official paper demanded by the welfare bureaucracy.
Thursday, when the new fiscal year begins, the lobby of the welfare center will look the same as always. But Oct. 1 marks an important watershed for the poor of Washington County. It is when they will become involuntary guinea pigs in a great social experiment testing whether the Reagan budget cuts were just or cruel. If the changes in welfare and food stamps do inflict pain, this is where the cries of victims will be heard.
Hagerstown, 65 miles northwest of the White House is where you finally get beyond the endless Washington bedroom suburbs and enter another world. Here, in a slumbering industrial city of 34,000, one confronts the kind of white poverty immortalized in country-and-western ballads. Ever since Mack Truck, the largest local employer, laid off 1,000 workers more than a year ago, the area's unemployment rate has been consistently above 9 percent. The Mack Truck workers got little local sympathy; they were the elite in an area where there aren't enough minimum-wage jobs to go around.
Hagerstown may not be Anytown, U.S.A., but it is small enough for the problems of poverty to be comprehensible. There is a small black ghetto amid the pawn shops and polhalls down on Jonathan Street, but the city, like the county that surrounds it, is virtually an all-white enclave. Places like Hagerstown remind us that racial discrimination is just one of many causes of poverty, along with poor education, bad marriages, too many children, low motivation, chronic health problems and an inability to cope with the demands of holding a job.
I came to Hagerstown to see how both the poor and the local welfare bureaucracy were bracing for the Reagan budget cuts that will take effect on Thursday. I did not find any real suffering. But I did encounter anger, confusion and pathos, as well as a sense that life will go on pretty much as before. Contradictory impressions, true, but closer to the fiber of real life than presidential speeches, congressional debates or the fine print in the federal budget.
Wednesday morning, Sept. 16, was when Jane Mellot, 35, showed up at the welfare center to reapply for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, the federal component of welfare. There are millions of people like Mellot and her two youngest sons, Ron and Harry, who go on and off the AFDC rolls for years, despite budget cuts or other efforts to restrict the program.
Her caseworker, Sandra Cooper, sat at a metal desk in a small interview cubicle with a window facing the parking lot. On the desk was a bulging file that showed that Mellot and her two sons had left the program in June after receiving AFDC benefits since 1975.
At times the eligibility interview was as formalistic as a Kabuki drama, with Cooper reading a long legalistic warning about welfare fraud climaxing with the phrase, "fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned no more than one year." At other times it was as friendly as a church social as Mellot passed around pictures of her children and Cooper laughed at the wisecracks of 9-year-old Ron, who provided a running commentary on his mother's AFDC application.
Mellot, a heavy, dark-haired woman whose tiny pierced earrings contrasted oddly with her puffy, unadorned face, said that she was reapplying "because my husband walked out on me." For the first half of September, Mellot and her two sons have been living on $12-a-week child support checks and emergency food stamps. "The food stamp people did doggone good for me because my kids were out of food," she said.
A large portion of the interview is spent trying to decipher what happened to the $4,100 insurance settlement that Mellot recently received for a 1979 car accident. About $1,400 was left after the lawyer and the back medical bills were paid. Even under the current program, if Mellot still had the money, her assets would be too high to qualify for AFDC. But listen to Mellot and Cooper discuss it:
Cooper: "What happened to the $1,400?"
Mellot: "I took the boys to the carnival and he blew it . . ."
Cooper: "Who's he?"
Mellot: "The old man -- Alfred P. Mellot."
Cooper: "You're not living with him?"
Mellot: "He moved out four weeks ago."
Cooper: "$1,400 is a lot to blow."
Mellot: "I don't have a penny left. If I did I wouldn't come to you."
Cooper was satisfied with this account of the missing $1,400. Pending registration with the WIN (Work Incentive) program, or receipt of a doctor's letter saying that she can't work. Mellot will qualify for an AFDC check of $211 per month. With no income and only a small likelihood of the government finding her a job, Mellot illustrates that there is more continuity than change at the welfare center.
Although she said, "I was a little worried at first," Mellot came to the welfare center knowing that she would be unaffected by the Reagan budget cuts. In fact, she volunteered, "I even voted for Reagan."
Nine-year-old Ron broke in to say, "You were stupid." His mother looked annoyed at this outburst of partisan Democratic sentiment. "Shut up, Ronnie," she said. "Reagan is just doing his job."
Regulations are the lifeblood for Sandra Cooper and the 15 other women who administer the food stamp and welfare programs in Washington County. All the money for food stamps and about half the funds for AFDC come from the federal budget, but the people who administer the programs are state employes who live and die by the Code of Maryland Agency Rules and Regulations. Yet because the federal government has been slow in issuing administrative rules to back up the new tougher eligibility requirements for these two programs, final Maryland regulations are unlikely to reach Hagerstown before November.
On Sept. 2, Elizabeth Lidstone, who runs the AFDC program, received a first draft of the new state regulations. Armed with this information, she sent out form letters the next day to three different classes of AFDC recipients who will be affected by the cuts. The letters covered those with earned income, women who are receiving extra benefits during pregnancy and children who were living with a stepparent.
The letters were not cheery. For example, the letters to "AFDC families with earnings," began like this: "New federal laws and state regulations require us to make changes in the way we calculate your income to see if you are going to get an AFDC check. We will begin to use the new way in October 1981. BECAUSE OF THESE CHANGES, YOUR CHECK MAY BE LESS, YOU MAY NOT GET ANY CHECK AT ALL."
As part of the Reagan cuts, Congress approved a controversial new rule that halved the noncash assets that a family on AFDC can have -- from $2,000 to $1,000. But Maryland has not decided how to handle this hot potato and Lidstone said, "I've only seen what I read in the paper." Cooper, who may have to enforce this rule, added, "I'm a mother, a wife and an eligibility worker. I don't know how to go into a home and say a couch is worth $500. It's like the 'Price is Right.'"
The computer age has yet to reach the welfare center. There are 903 families on AFDC in Washington County, but all recalculations of eligibility and benefits have to be done by hand. The state does not even provide money for pocket calculators, although all the caseworkers have their own. The eight AFDC caseworkers are working nights and weekends to finish the laborious arithmetic by the Oct. 1 deadline. "I'm so confused," said Lidstone. "We sit here scared to death, thinking that maybe we're doing it wrong."
Chris Long, Lidstone's counterpart with the food stamp program, did not even receive a tentative draft of the new regulations until Sept. 15. Three days later, Long, but not her six-woman staff, attended a four-hour training session in Baltimore which she called "disappointing."
Some of the changes in the food stamp law will not trickle down to Washington County until 1982. Under Agriculture Department rules, Long has until Jan. 1 to recalculate eligibility for the 1,612 families and individuals already on the food stamp rolls in August. (In contrast, Lidstone must do the food stamp arithmetic by Oct. 1 for the additional 609 families who are receiving both stamps and AFDC). Long was told at the training session, however, to recalculate eligibility immediately if anyone receiving food stamps called her office with a question or new information.
About the only thing that Long is confident that she has mastered is the new rules about food stamps for striking workers. Contrary to popular impression, Long discovered that strikers can still receive food stamps in certain limited cases. The exceptions cover those who were eligible before the walkout, single parents with children under 12 and workers over 60. It turns out that Congress flatly banned anyone from getting food stamps because of a strike, but Department of Agriculture regulations bent this rule to exempt single parents and older workers. A small point, perhaps, but an illustration of the immense gap between congressional legislation and administrative reality at the welfare center in Hagerstown.
Peggy Williams, 34, and her second husband, Earl, have only been married for 13 months, but already they are talking half-seriously about the economic benefits of divorce. The problem isn't the marriage tax which will be reduced next year, but changes in the welfare law. Effective Oct. 1, Peggy Williams' three teen-aged children from an earlier marriage will lose $270 a month in AFDC benefits.
As she sat in her living room, wearing a T-shirt that read, "I Love Earl," an angry Peggy Williams said, "I'd be better off divorcing him and having him come back and live with me. It doesn't pay you to be honest today. If you're crooked, you can run around in a big Cadillac and have money coming out of your pockets."
Until she remarried, Peggy Williams, a dark-haired woman with a thick Appalachian accent, and her three children were living on food stamps and AFDC benefits. They lost the food stamps immediately because Earl's income was too high; he made $10,390 last year cleaning hides in a tannery in Williamsport. But since David, Dixie and John were not Earl's children, his income did not affect their AFDC eligibility
Until now. The new law states that a step-father's income now counts towards AFDC eligibility. More than 10 percent of the AFDC families in Washington County will be affected by this change with most being dropped from the program. Although the Williams still live in a five-room apartment in the Westview housing project in Hagerstown, the $10,000 that Earl brings home each year is well over the cut-off point for welfare in Maryland.
What makes Earl Williams, a wiry man wearing a white T-shirt and green slacks, mad, is that he believed in Reagan, although he didn't vote last year. "I thought Reagan was going to do something," he said. Peggy Williams is equally disillusioned. "I don't have any faith in him anymore," she said. "He's cutting Social Security. What's this $7 million for a museum for Gerald Ford? What do we need that for?"
The lost AFDC check is a lot of money to the family ("The $270 would pay for the divorce," said Earl), but there still will be money for food, bowling and life insurance. "As long as I can work, we won't starve," said Williams who has been laid off almost every other week since August.
The family's financial difficulties would be lessened if Peggy's first husband would pay child support. But she calculates that he's $12,000 in arrears.
One solution would be for the Williams to become a two-income family. Last month Peggy did earn $27.90 by putting on an inhome fashion show for Bee-Line Clothing. But a full-time job for Peggy, whose youngest child is 12, is not under consideration. The problem is that when your income rises, so does the rent for public housing. "It wouldn't pay us for me to work," Peggy said. "Every time you make a dime, the housing authority will take a nickel."
Around the corner from the Williams home, in another section of the ancient low-rise housing project, Alice Smith, Martha Godlove and Dot Smith, all hefty women in their early 30s, were in the midst of a late Monday morning coffee klatch. The coffee was instant, the television was tuned to "Panorama" and the conversation revolved around the usual topics: men, children, neighbors and the sins of the welfare department. Dot Smith (no relation to the hostess, Alice Smith) spoke for all of them when she declared angrily before leaving to buy a Pepsi Cola, "The welfare can all go to hell."
Alice Smith, a dark-haired woman, two years into her third marriage and wearing a blue T-shirt that read "Mercersburg Floor Covering," was the only one in the group wh would feel the Reagan cutbacks directly, but her ire, like those of her friends, was as much directed at life on the edge of poverty, as it was at policies coming out of Washington.
All three women can best be described as the marginally poor.In good times, when their marriages are sound and their husbands are working, they scrape along treating themselves to an occasional beer down at the Moose Hall, depending on the federal government only for public housing. But when things go sour -- a husband gets laid off or a marriage falls apart -- they fall back into a life of AFDC checks, food stamps and Medicaid cards.
Come Oct. 1, Alice Smith and her two children, Tracy and Marvin, will go off AFDC, although the family will continue to get food stamps. She takes the change personally: "I don't see why they pick on me to cut." As Smith put it, "Reagan's doing all this cutting. But he has to cut the rich man, too."
Alice is aware that Reagan is increasing the defense budget at the same time he's cutting social programs. "Military spending, I don't think we need any more for military spending," she said. "Marvin's father is in the military in Hawaii and he gets $900 a month and he just pays me $25 a week. I'm not cutting Marvin's daddy. He does send me money. But it's a lousy $25 a week."
Alice Smith was 18 and unmarried when Tracy, now 12 years old, was born. Marvin, 11, came along early in her first marriage.Now because her third husband, Michael Smith, makes about $8,000 from a minimum-wage job engraving trophies, she is another victim of the new welfare rules that count a stepfather's income toward AFDC eligibility.
According to Alice Smith, her children know what's happening. Recently Tracy asked her stepfather, "Do you regret adopting me?" As Alice put it, "It tore me up. Not every man will adopt another man's child. But Mike said, 'No, honey, of course not, I love you.'"
Up to now, Smith and her two children have been getting a monthly AFDC check for $211. ("Last year the $211 brought us throgh Christmas," she said). This money was offset by $144 a month in child support payments that went directly to the welfare center. Her net benefit was $67 a month, which was supplemented by the family's $86 in food stamps.
The new rules would reduce Smith's monthly AFDC check from $211 to $170.14 just $26.14 more than her child support payments. The cut prompted her to drop out of the AFDC program. The hassle of dealing with the welfare center just didn't seem worth $26.14 a month, so from now on she will receive her child support checks directly. Meanwhile, the family's food stamp allotment will be raised from $86 to $99 a month.
If you lived in the Westview housing project, you'd be familiar with this kind of welfare arithmetic. To simplify things a little,Alice Smith's net loss from the Reagan budget cuts is $27.86 a month. But because of her decision to leave AFDC, her total reduction in income will be $54.
It will be a tough adjustment for Alice Smith and her family. She says that she often eats just one meal a day, so there will be food for the children. "Last month, I hocked my stereo and my husband's shotgun," she said, "because we didn't have any food." Last weekend the Smiths had a rare evening on the town. "Saturday night, I spent $4 on beer down at the Moose," Alice said. "I lay in bed on Sunday and I worried and thought that I shouldn't have spent the money."
Her neighbor Martha Godlove, a blond woman who twists her mouth when she smiles to hide four missing upper teeth, was doing fine until last January when her husband got laid off from a job with a tire company. In early September, with unemployment benefits gone and an 11-year-old daughter, Melissa, to feed, Godlove went down to the welfare center to apply for AFDC and food stamps.
The welfare center has long been troubled with backlogs and Godlove will not get to see an AFDC caseworker until next Wednesday. Meanwhile the family has already gone through $54 in emergency food stamps. "Right now, we're living on nothing. It's hard," she said.
"I go to a therapist because of my nerves," Godlove explained. "She'd ask me why my nerves were so bad. I said it's because I can't get used to being down and out. I've never lived like that before."
Despite the hardships, both Alice Smith and Martha Godlove are struggling to maintain a semblance of normal family life. Right before last Christmas they collected canned goods and old toys for needy families in their neighborhood. They and their daughters are active in a majorette group, the Hub City Twirlers, and they are looking forward to performing in a local nursing home next Sunday. One necessity they won't do without are school pictures of their children. "I don't care what they cost, I'll buy them," said Smith.
Both women are high school graduates and they talk repeatedly about getting jobs. Alice Smith worked for eight years as a barmaid and is considering going back. "But if I go back to work as a barmaid, welfare would have to get me a divorce.Because my husband would divorce me," she said.
Martha Godlove rules out factory work and is convinced she can't get another job because of her missing teeth. "I tried to get a job selling Friday flowers," she said, referring to a one-day-a-week streetcorner job downtown. "You only get a part of what you sell. But when the man took one look at my teeth, I knew it was no way."
Both women are painfully aware of the disincentives to a stable family built into the welfare system. They joke about getting a divorce and having their husbands sneak into the home. They are full of angry stories about neighbors who have a series of illegitimate children to increase their AFDC benefits and the wild parties in the housing project when the welfare checks go out. "I think they should help people who are trying, instead of those who are being knocked up," Smith said. "Here we're being honest and we get cut."
Martha Godlove, who wants to eat a Cornish game hen before she dies, talked wistfully about her life. "It's a shame, we're the age we are and we can't go out," she said. "We're not built like other women who say let me borrow some money and go out and get drunk. We've got to get out of the house. We're young. We shouldn't sit around like we're 80 years old."
Many mornings Sally Thomas gets up at 4:30 in order to be at her new job at 6. Because of her three teen-aged daughters and her new neighbors on a pleasant tree-lined street in Hagerstown, Sally Thomas did not want her real name used in this article. But her story is important because she and her family are losing their AFDC benefits for the sin or working.
Thomas, 36, separated from her husband a little over a year ago and her divorce became final in June. Her ex-husband is currently in jail for not paying child support. Shortly after the separation, while the family was still living in public housing, Thomas and her daughters began receiving $326 a month in AFDC benefits and $167 in food stamps.
All that changed in April when Thomas got a minimum wage job sewing shoes in a local factory. "If you want to work, you can find a job," she said. "I called the place where I got the job four or five times before they hired me. But I wanted to work."
Even before the Reagan Cuts, the economic benefits to the working poor like Thomas were limited. She takes home about $500 a month and, up to now, was receiving $78 from AFDC and $97 from food stamps. Still, a full-time job gave her about $160 extra per month and made her "feel a whole lot better for being able to support my kids rather than having the taxpayers pay for me."
The Reagan budget cuts change the formula by which AFDC benefits are reduced for every dollar earned. The arithmetic is complex, but the net effect is to take almost all the working poor in Washington County off the AFDC program. In August, 78 of the 903 families on AFDC in the county had earned income. According to the preliminary calculations by the welfare center, 59 of these families will go off AFDC on Oct. 1 and 17 others will have their welfare benefits reduced. Two families, both headed by women with part-time jobs, will get larger checks thanks to the Reagan changes.
The Thomas family is one of the 59 being removed from the program. Sally Thomas doesn't think this is fair. "I'm right mad," she said. "I'm out working and trying to get out of welfare and doing what they said you're supposed to do."
Thomas has been told that the family's food stamp allotment will be increased to $151 a month to take up part of the slack. But when you're living on the margin and trying to raise three daughters, $54 more in food stamps doesn't make up for $78 in lost AFDC benefits. Besides, Sally Thomas reads the papers and knows that the Reagan administration has been discussing further cuts in food stamps. "I figure I'll be hit again," she said. "My food stamps might be taken away entirely."
Sally Thomas loves her job and has no intention of quitting despite the increased disincentives to work. Still, she says with only a little exaggeration, "There are people on welfare who are doing better than I am."
Hagerstown is not a microcosm of America and a few days in September are not enough, to assess the long-term implications of the Reagan budget cuts. Nonetheless, it is clear that neither the statements of David Stockman nor the liberal placards waved aloft on Solidarity Day capture what the new austerity means to the poor and the near-poor of Hagerstown.
If being homeless and hungry are the measures of pain, then it is correct to say that the Reagan cuts will be relatively painless. The cuts in AFDC, especially, fall on the backs of women like Alice Smith and Sally Thomas who are fighting day-to-day battles on the margins of poverty. Their spirit and their resolve to better themselves and their children are ultimately their only weapons against a life of welfare dependency.
The budget cuts, while not draconian, do, however, deprive these women of some of the little luxuries, like school pictures, that make life worthwhile. If the changes in AFDC reduce their not-always-firm determination to escape the clutches to the welfare center, then in the long-run they will be costly and self-defeating.