The eviction notice comes at the beginning of August, about a month after the laundry company manager told Patricia Brown he’d hired too many people to wash and fold hotel sheets and towels and, sorry, he was going to have to let her go. That job lasted two weeks.
She is running out of time. Every day without work is another day of accrued interest, another week of past due notices, another month she has to tap into her welfare benefits. It’s like carrying around a mental hourglass, benefits draining, slowly, then fast, faster, gone.
Now here’s the letter, followed up by a notice taped to the door. “For real? You going to put that on my door?” Brown says to herself, pulling it off.
Rent is $750 for the two-bedroom apartment with walls thin enough to allow her to hear her neighbors argue. Brown and her boyfriend haven’t been able to keep up with rent. They’re behind on all the bills. Her boyfriend does what he can with his security job salary, but it’s hard to support himself, Brown and her youngest son on $9 an hour, even with her $347 a month in food stamps.
So, he pays just enough to keep the lights on. Brown bites her fingernails and pulls her hair back in another tight, no-cost ponytail and walks around with numbers in her head. Four hundred dollars more a month and they might break even.
“Right now, it’s all on my boyfriend,” she tells her case manager at the city’s Center for Workforce Innovation, the engine of its new and massive antipoverty initiative. The Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty is Richmond’s attempt to confront the poverty born of economic and racial segregation and has many moving parts, but the center is where it seeks to have the most immediate impact: finding people employment that support their families.
Brown is counting on the center. It helped her boyfriend land his security job and he’s been working about six months now. “I don’t get a job soon, I may be sleeping outside on a bench,” she said.
Unemployment forced her to tap back into to her federal welfare benefits, the cash public assistance called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, earlier in the year. She started receiving $254 a month in June. She learned, abruptly, in August that she was done. She’d received her last month of cash assistance. She’d run out her welfare clock. Why didn’t anyone tell me I was so close? she asked, angry, dismayed. “I broke down crying.”
The federal government established a 60-month lifetime limit on cash public assistance in 1996 as part of welfare reform. In the early years, when the economy boomed, the welfare rolls plummeted nationally. They have continued a steady decline since. In Virginia, the TANF roll has fallen 61 percent. It is now at its lowest point, even after a rise during the Great Recession.
Most — about 67 percent – enrolled in the commonwealth’s welfare-t0-work program did, indeed, find work, though no one is tracking how many have remained employed. This is generally true elsewhere in the country and, in that sense – healthy, unmarried mothers find work — welfare reform has been a success. This is not the same thing as saying these mothers – and some fathers – have left poverty. The average hourly wage of those who went immediately from welfare to work over roughly the past two decades in Virginia? $7.33 an hour.
Brown went on and off the rolls between jobs and the birth of her sons, taking Virginia’s mandated breaks – two years on, two years off – and so stretched her 60 months of benefits over a period of 14 years.
This month, she started walking the uncertain ground beneath all who are asked – or required – to leave public assistance behind for work. The benefits of taking that walk can be a hard sell at the workforce center.
Go off public assistance to work and watch, bit by bit, the safety net get smaller and smaller with no real immediate net gain in monthly income and no certainty that the job is going to pan out. The carrot of the earned income tax credit could be another year away and the need is now.
Jamison Manion. the center’s administrator, describes it this way at every orientation of new job seekers: “Safe,” he says, is when you’re receiving some kind of public assistance, whether it be welfare, subsidized housing, health care. “At risk,” he continues, means social supports start to go away.
“If I’m safe,” he tells the job seekers, “and I get a job at, say, eight, nine bucks an hour and they raise my rent, cut my food stamps, maybe reduce medical for me, medical for my children. I don’t move forward toward stable. I move back toward at risk. So, why the hell would I do it? That’s the way the system is set up. It’s set up so that Social Services will not intervene until you’re in crisis and then they’ll take you up to safe. But if you really want to move forward to stability, to no social support, you might first have to move back. You have to take a risk of becoming the working poor to get to where you want to be. That is reality and you have to face reality as it is and choose to overcome it.”
The fear, the real barriers to stability, he says later, “it’s all so very, very complicated.”
Brown, 46, with a high school education, immediately puts herself in the at-risk category. The category of diagnosed depression and anxiety and trips to the plasma bank and to court to try to get her 14-year-old, with his own issues, out of state protective custody and back into hers. The category of “when is the sun going to shine a ray on me?” and regular rehab meetings to keep from undoing a year’s sobriety. “I wasted too much time on that foolishness,” she says.
“Believe me, if I had the choice between sitting at home and waiting for a two hundred and fifty four dollar check or going to work, I’d go to work, I want to work. I’ve been working since I was 15. But even if you find a job out here, the pay rate is minimum wage and, even at eight, nine dollars an hour, that’s not enough if you have a family. So, you’re either working two, three jobs in the household or living in public housing or getting roommates or you’re homeless. That’s the reality.”
Brown went to court last week and worked out an arrangement with her landlord, though they still owe two month’s rent. But a commercial cleaning company calls after her workforce center case manager made an inquiry on her behalf. It offers her a few hours of fill-in work at City Hall, and a regular four-hour shift at the new city jail. She’d alternate working seven days one week and five days the next, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Pay is $7.50 an hour.
Brown immediately asks about whether she might pick up some permanent evening hours at City Hall, too. Her boyfriend works nights, so her 12-year-old would have to see himself off to school or make his own dinner, but it would also mean a 40-hour work week.
Brown shows up for her fill-in shift in jeans, a bright blue T-shirt emblazoned with Pegasus, the company name, and her new I.D.s around her neck.
“When I got that phone call, I could have done cartwheels,” she tells Diandra Williams, the night supervisor
“You know that’s right,” Williams says, laughing. “You ready?” she asks Brown, after the rest of the crew is gathered.
“I’m ready,” Brown says. “I’m ready.”