Time's Up!?


root - Posted on 31 December 1969

Welfare Recipients face "Time Limits" to join the ranks of the working poor.

by Kaponda

As the sand continues to trickle to the bottom of the glass vessel and the shadow gravitates to the zenith of its cylindrical surface, the clutches of financial desolation await thousands of clients of the Department of Human Services. Like the roar of triumph, a congressional decree that imposes limitations on social services reverberates throughout America. There are legislators on this day of compassion, however, standing in the crevice of accountability.

The elected officials are representatives of Federal, state and local constituents and have responded to a summons by welfare recipients and advocates to discuss the reauthorization of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). "We are preparing a proactive campaign and set of proposals regarding reauthorization and who better to design a welfare program than welfare recipients," says Martina Gillis, Director of Coalition for Ethical Welfare Reform (CEWR). who stands in the breach of responsibility..

As I stroll past the teal baby buggy near the entrance of the auditorium of the State Building, I read the information about this event, which was assigned to me by my editor. Upon opening the door to the oval chamber, I think to myself that perhaps I, a single male, am not the right person for this task since everyone present advocates under the banner of TANF. I slump into the comfort of one of the adjoining seats near the back of the room. My gaze leaves the crimson runner as I observe the Great Seal of the State of California hang on the wall between the United States and California flags.

My eyes wander past the convex, hazel parapet to the tall, slender woman at the podium who has everyone in rapt excitement. As Martina Gillis continues the introduction, her barbed characterizations of the policies and attitudes of policy makers evoke even more focus from the audience of CalWORKS recipients, advocates, attorneys, legislative aids, supporters and press.

"Today, Tuesday, August 22, we have come to a forum the purpose of which is to develop ideas that will jump-start our political campaign to institute necessary changes during the Fiscal Year 2002 reauthorization of TANF. It will be the kind of proactive campaign that will cause many legislative heads to turn in our direction." I could sense through her conviction that Martina was certainly not one who lacked in experience or competence in waging political battles.

Tuesday, August 22, 2000, marked the fourth anniversary of TANF. TANF was established to eliminate the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The United States Congress authorized the TANF program for five years, which means that in September of 2002, it must be reauthorized by Congress to be continued. According to some of the participants who I interviewed, the current version of TANF has been a complete failure.

An ambassador of change, staff attorney of CEWR and equal rights advocate, Doris Ng, informs me during an interview that, "The Coalition for Ethical Welfare Reform has definite recommendations about what needs to be changed in the reauthorization of the Federal welfare law. One of the foremost things that we want changed is to get rid of both the message and the system of work first, which is a practice that pushes welfare recipients to the first kind of job they can get. That practice does a disservice to welfare recipients. In this day and age when we have so many opportunities -- the economy, overall, is doing so well. We also have money to actually put in place good, solid training programs and education for welfare recipients so that they can access those higher wage jobs or those jobs that have a pathway to earning more money. That is what we should do and not push people to the first available job at McDonald's Restaurant."

Doris Ng continues to inform me that according to a study that measures what is needed to move families out of poverty, the current federal poverty guideline used is woefully inept. However, Ng explains that the California Self-Sufficiency Standard is a realistic alternative to the federal poverty guideline, which fails to keep pace with the cost of living and the geographical differences in costs. According to this Standard, a single adult with one child needs to earns approximately $20.79 to make ends meet without government assistance programs, such as food stamps or cash aid.

According to Doris, "We organized a 'Take Your Legislators to Work Day.' Earlier today, we arranged to have legislators and Legislative Aides shadow CalWORKS recipients. The CalWORKS recipients met with them and began a normal day. For example, a welfare recipient would take a legislator along while dropping the kids off to childcare, then going to work, and then picking the kids up, and that kind of thing."

One of the recipients of CalWORKS for whom the handwriting of the "five-year expiration" is clearly written on the wall is Tracey Faulkner. The Legislative Aide to Senator John Burton, Elmy A. Bermejo, met Tracey at the Family Resource Center, located at City College, Phelan Campus. Classes at City College had started only one day before the shadow event so the campus was abuzz with excitement. A lot of parents were at the Resource Center trying to sort out things, including add/drop classes. Elmy Bermejo was in the midst of a lot of parents. Tracey gave her a tour of the Family Resource Center, and then sat down with her to discuss CalWORKS issues - what its like being on CalWORKS, some of the problems that exist, changes that are needed. A lot of the parents chimed in to give personal testimony and their thoughts on CalWORKS' current policies. Elmy got a lot of input from a lot of different parents. She was there for over an hour listening to everyone."

A co-founder of the Family Resource Center and employee of the Coalition for Ethical Welfare Reform, Tracey shares her experience with me regarding Senator Burton's Legislative Aide. "It was really a positive experience. I really felt the Aide really listened to the needs of the moms. Also, a lot of moms on CalWORKS come to the Family Resource Center. We hear a lot of stories of their employment specialists giving them incomplete information. We, at the Family Resource Center, have been able to help steer moms in the right direction."

Tracey continues to explain her day as I listen, "The Aide for Senator Burton had never been a recipient of welfare and can only grasp so much. She hasn't been there or done that. But given that, I think she actually wanted to be there, and she wanted to listen. She was concerned when we told her of some of our problems as CalWORKS recipients. There were several moms at the center at the time of her visit who told Elmy of their experiences and problems with CalWORKS. After hearing of their problems and experiences, Senator Burton's Aide was practically speechless and could only say, "'Wow.'"

Rebecca Vilkomerson of the Homeless Prenatal Program thinks, however, that a few poignant remarks may not be amiss here. "There have been over 300 sanction cases so far in San Francisco, alone. There are so many difficult requirements for people. They are getting pushed. The whole point behind the law is to push people off the rolls. Their success is measured by how low the welfare rolls are. What they are not looking at is whether people are still in poverty? Whether people are earning a living wage? We are seeing people leave welfare who are being called success stories and are earning $7.00 per hour which, of course, is not enough to sustain a family in San Francisco given the cost of housing. The point of this event is to get that word out that just because the welfare rolls are going down does not mean that welfare reform has been a successful. In my role at the Homeless Prenatal Program, we see about a thousand families a year. We are definitely seeing more and more families each year, especially two-parent working families who are earning money from jobs which do not provide enough for cost-of-living. There have been 105 turn-a-ways since July 1st from Connecting Point, the family shelter service program and family shelters' waiting lists continue to remain around 100 families. That is not going to change because there is no exit after they enter the shelter system -- there are not enough permanent or affordable housing. It is pretty bleak."

Paula Cohn, a student and CalWORKS recipient, met with Supervisor Tom Ammiano in the Children's Room of the library in the Mission District. "I thought that was very cool!" says Paula. "Tom Ammiano said that he wants to see the [Welfare Reform] time clock stopped for everyone. It is an added pressure for people who are trying to get it together."

Paula continues to tell me that "The hardest part about being on welfare is facing workers who treat you like a file, a number, a case that needs to be closed and an object that they have power over. My time clock is almost up, and I still have two more years to complete my degree. We don't need to be slapped in the face or punished [by legislative pressure]. We need real support. It takes longer than two years, especially for those of us who need remedial classes because we were away from school so long. I spend a lot of nights awake worrying about how I can complete the last two years of my degree and pursue a career of teaching...my passion...."

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