Up from poverty

Welfare activists in Butte County could play a major role in upcoming welfare reform by speaking out

Photo Illustration By Carey Wilson

Melissa Garcia was about to speak her mind.

The 32-year-old Paradise mother of four stood in the polished corridors of the Rayburn Building on historic Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She felt overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability. There was so much activity going on around her, so many important people shuffling by in expensive suits. She wondered if they would even listen to her, a welfare mom who had flown 3,000 miles from a small town in Northern California to tell them her problems.

Garcia was to speak this morning, alongside some 50 other welfare recipients from around the country, at the National Grassroots Policy Briefing on Welfare Reauthorization. She was testifying for people like herself who wanted to pursue advanced education, get out of poverty and stay off welfare for good. People who felt the current system presented obstacles to realizing such worthwhile goals.

The next national welfare reauthorization bill is scheduled for the fall of 2002, and the time has begun for reassessing the major changes put into effect when “welfare reform” began five years ago. The House Subcommittee on Human Resources, chaired by Butte County’s own congressman, Republican Wally Herger, is the group that will primarily help decide how to handle funding. This makes Butte County, and its welfare recipients like Garcia, ground zero in the national debate over welfare reform.

But Garcia’s time to speak never came that Tuesday morning.

“We were scheduled to begin about 9:30 a.m., but there were no media there,” she explained. “Suddenly, police started evacuating us into the streets. By then, we already knew the Twin Towers had been hit, and outside we could see a trail of smoke from the Pentagon five miles away. The FBI told us we were under attack.”

Amid the chaos and confusion, Garcia said people were scared knowing they were sitting in a prime target area. Even returning to her hotel provided no comfort, since it was situated directly next to the FBI building and only three blocks from the White House. All federal buildings were closed, and communications were down.

“Luckily, my friend got an early incoming call from her son,” she said. “And I was able to slip him a message to call my home and tell my kids I love ’em. Then I felt OK because I got to say my last goodbyes. We faced death that day.”

The rest of the morning, as they say, is history.

After the tragic attacks on Sept. 11, most of the meeting’s participants were busy finding bus transportation home. Garcia, however, stayed for an informal briefing the following Thursday, when the few women left were able to speak to members of the Progressive Caucus. But the newsworthiness of the event had been largely vanquished by the terrorists’ actions. With the entire country in a state of shock, Garcia began her own four-day bus journey from coast to coast.

“They told us to come back in November because a lot of the Congress people might be in a good mood because of the holidays,” she recalled.

Garcia is part of a new generation of welfare moms, those who have experienced the program in the five years since Congress passed the Clinton administration’s so-called “welfare reform” plan. They’ve seen how it works first-hand, and they have a good idea of how it can be improved.

One of the most substantial changes in domestic policy in half a century, the program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, repealed the long-established Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which funded states based on caseloads and allowed clients to stay on welfare for as long as they needed assistance.

The new program instead provides states with a fixed amount of funds, regardless of caseload—a total of about $16.5 billion per year through fiscal year 2002—and allows them to set time limits for receiving aid of up to five years.

One of the positive aspects of the new system is that it has allowed states some increased flexibility with funding. States now can use TANF money to support a variety of programs besides cash assistance—for instance, child care, education and training, transportation assistance, mental health/substance abuse treatment and housing. But there are new stipulations as well, beginning with a five-year time limit to find a steady job and get off welfare.

The overriding concept is one of mutual obligation. Aside from time limits, TANF includes new provisions such as stringent work requirements while on welfare and the family cap initiative (which states that a family on assistance in which a child is born receives no additional benefits).

California, which has nearly one-quarter of the nation’s welfare recipients, enacted its program, CalWORKs, in 1998. Recipients are required to participate in 32 hours of “work activities” to continue receiving cash benefits, with eligibility limited to a lifetime total of five years. Work activity includes hours per week spent in classes, labs, internships, work-study jobs, etc. However, students must demonstrate that their academic major (or related degree work) will lead to available employment. This is known as the Welfare-to-Work plan.

The plan seems designed to urge recipients through two-year community college programs that will quickly lead to jobs. It does this by putting a 24-month limit on the Welfare-to-Work benefits. Those who can’t finish their schooling in 24 months are advised to obtain financial aid and combine part-time work with the Earned Income Tax Credit reward (up to $2,400 a year for working Americans).

It’s a tough road, and one of the biggest battles for certain welfare activists today is creating an atmosphere more conducive to four-year college programs, and other extensive training, that will allow participants to seek higher wages through professional careers.

Women like Garcia have an understandably hard time juggling the duties of child rearing and being full-time students. Any help they can get toward completing their work requirement—things like counting more non-class study time as work—will help the cause. That is why activists are currently lobbying for more study time to be counted as work activity—up to six hours a week, as detailed in Senate Bill 380, currently on the desk of Gov. Gray Davis.

On the other hand, politicians like Rep. Herger seem pleased with the results of current welfare reform. In briefings, proponents of lower welfare spending are trumpeting the success of caseload reduction to them.

Actual poor people on assistance are beginning to realize that they need to speak out now before it is too late. Many will soon be reaching their five-year limits and could find themselves in low paying, dead-end jobs that will not sustain them.

If they do not take a stand, they realize, the future of welfare will be in the hands of well-to-do white men in Washington and their conservative watchdogs. Or, in the words of one former welfare mom, “people who probably don’t know how much a quart of milk costs at the grocery store, much less what it’s like for poor people on a daily basis.”

FROM GEDs TO PHDs Executive director and founder of LIFETIME, Diana Spatz is pictured here (with her daughter) just after graduating from the UC Berkeley. Spatz has since continued her fight to show other welfare recipients how they can educate themselves on welfare.

Courtesy Of LIFETIME group

Oakland’s Diana Spatz knows about fighting the system.

A fiery and articulate voice for welfare reform, Spatz doesn’t take guff from anybody. And when she speaks about the welfare system, she does so with the conviction of a woman who has been there and seen the underdog win.

Spatz was recently in Chico for a statewide TANF Leadership meeting held at the First Baptist Church. The meeting, co-sponsored by the Esplanade House shelter, presented a daylong series of roundtable discussions for welfare recipients and local resource-and-referral groups like Valley Oak Children’s Services. The talks were full of research information aimed at educating recipients to their rights and allowing them a forum for complaints.

Spatz began on a humorous note by telling the 30 or so women in attendance that she once worked as a ticket-writer in South Carolina for horse buggies not equipped with diapers—at the same time selling Quaaludes out of the back of her moped.

Things have changed drastically for her since then. She is now widely known as the founder and executive director of LIFETIME (Low-Income Families’ Empowerment Through Education), an Oakland-based, nonprofit organization designed to help educate and organize welfare recipients. The 42-year-old—who was dressed like an art-school student, complete with thrift-store chic, jet-black hair, horn-rimmed glasses and tattoos—has gone from drug-dealing welfare mom with abusive boyfriend to grassroots leader in welfare reform. Not to mention that she’s the first woman in her family to go to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in Political Economies of Industrial Societies from UC Berkeley, with honors.

Spatz recently received a Friend of the University award for her long-term activism, a road she began early in her undergrad education at City College of San Francisco. There, she fought a legal battle against the county welfare department to stay in college and began organizing other welfare moms—subsequently winning a scholarship to UC Berkeley, where she developed LIFETIME in 1996.

Since then, the group has been called “controversial” by detractors—usually county welfare workers—who find the activists’ prodding of recipients to question local welfare authority disruptive, to say the least.

“The people are the experts,” Spatz began at the Chico meeting. “We’re here to empower parents to articulate their experience.”

She explained that reauthorization should look at making more of an investment in poor families. She was particularly worried about the immediate future, when welfare recipients who are currently working and still at poverty level will soon begin losing welfare money, thanks to the five-year timetable.

One of the key points of the meeting was discussing exactly what had transpired since the TANF legislation of 1996. Just how well had it worked?

First of all, to the delight of lawmakers, caseloads are down—declined by 43 percent between March 1995 and June 2000. Proponents of welfare reform also point out that child poverty declined twice as much during the economic expansion of the last decade as it did during the ‘80s. To a lesser extent, overall poverty is also down. But the rate of families in deep poverty—that is, with incomes below half of the federal poverty level—is actually on the rise.

“It’s pretty scary right now,” said Spatz. “At a recent briefing, Republicans admitted that welfare reform has been successful because caseloads have fallen over the last four years … but in a robust economy, who knows how much of that can be attributed to welfare reform? Studies show that 41 percent of working parents are still working at a poverty level that qualifies them for welfare—aid that will end soon as a result of time limits. Then what do these people do?”

According to a survey conducted by the California Department of Social Services in January 2000, people leaving welfare then earned an average of $14,660 a year, or $7.64 an hour.

“When we went to see Wally Herger, he replied that ‘everyone has been telling me welfare reforms have been a great success—caseloads are down,'” Spatz continued. “But that just doesn’t tell the whole story. … We need to make sure they understand that, while caseloads may be down, families are suffering. Research is emerging every day showing that most haven’t been able to escape poverty.”

With just a little more help, she insisted, they could get out of poverty forever.

Spatz cited a recent survey that said 32 percent of moms on welfare could start college right now—and 37 percent could boost their earnings with only a single semester of college work. With a college degree, 80-90 percent of welfare parents get jobs paying enough for them to get off welfare rolls, and a year later 80-90 percent were still employed and earning wages averaging $25,000 a year (23 percent of these go on to get graduate degrees).

Time limits aren’t the only obstacle for women like Garcia seeking a teacher’s certificate or advanced degree. Many other recipients, some of whom just want a basic education, can’t seem to get through the maze of regulations and into a program. Among those present for the afternoon portion of the Chico meeting, however, was one woman who did make the new system work to her advantage.

Sarah Frohock, another single mom who traveled to speak in Washington, earned her master’s degree while on welfare and immediately won a good job capable of sustaining herself and her daughter. And, like Spatz, she now feels obliged to make things easier for others in the future.

Frohock began her education living with her parents and attending school in the Bay Area. She later transferred to Chico State University, where she received her bachelor’s degree and met social work professor Pam Brown, who helped her organize other women on welfare to make their voices heard on welfare reform.

After graduating from Chico State in 1998, Frohock returned to the Bay Area for her master’s degree at San Jose State, which was when her Welfare-to-Work contract started.

“I really had to fight to get it,” she says. “Graduate school is not an allowed activity unless it’s for a teaching degree. But having been an activist so long, I knew the avenues and where to go. I went over my county worker’s head to the supervisor and explained my situation.”

“You can go to college on welfare,” Frock explained. “But what they don’t tell you when you apply is: If you’re not already enrolled in college before you sign your Welfare-to-Work contract, they won’t allow you to start a degree track.”

Sara Frohoch speaks at a rally for wefare moms.

Photo by Tom Angel

Today, Frohock and other LIFETIME members travel around the country and document the stories of poor people in attempts to make a case for the fact that welfare reform violates basic human rights as outlined by the United Nations. They are also campaigning for education to be more strongly supported as an option.

Regarding her efforts to educate women about the new system, Frohock said she has been kicked out of welfare offices for trying to explain welfare recipients’ rights to them. Other times, she said, people simply quit trying to figure it out.

“You have to get people to the point where they can stop worrying about their survival for a few minutes and do something else, and that’s real hard sometimes.”

Many of the welfare recipients at the Chico meeting seemed to believe that some caseworkers (who in some cases are required to possess only a high school degree) do not effectively or respectfully communicate information. There is a strange sense of hierarchy present, Frohock said, within the internal structure of the social-work system. When you mix welfare participants seeking better education or a step up with caseworkers trying to get them into the first available job, strains can develop.

This is not something that Jeff Fontana, public information coordinator for the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services, believes should be happening at all.

“If we don’t have trust and respect with an individual,” he said, “that’s a real problem. I’m not here to be an apologist for any inexperience [on the part of case workers], but I would trust that’s the rare situation.”

The old welfare system, he added, has “has made a dramatic shift” that stresses customer service and positive reinforcement for clients, “and we demand that. People who don’t feel they’re getting that service should ask for assistance from a supervisor.”

Fontana sees the current welfare law as a “real reciprocal obligation of the bureaucracy to respond” to welfare recipients. One of the most important aspects of upcoming welfare reauthorization, he said, was that local agencies retain the freedom to determine what best serves the constituents of their particular county. His organization has already expressed this to Wally Herger.

“We have been able to design services—by including the community in the design—to address the needs not just of welfare recipients, but also job seekers and employers,” he explained. “I can’t underscore enough how important it is to reinforce at the federal level that independence from strict oversight and regulation from both the federal and state level are important to the success of the local program.”

He added that the folks who have made it into the labor market out of the welfare system are still in need of a lot of work supports. Many are without health insurance and need help with things like child care, transportation and housing.

“When you talk about welfare reform, you’re talking about services for the working poor,” he noted.

But Frohock vividly remembers the flak she received while on welfare.

“A lot of county workers think we’re all lazy, on dope, stupid, or we’re loose women because we have illegitimate children,” she said. “But most women on welfare are like me. They’re not pumping out babies and smoking crack.

“Basically, I knew the legislation, the rules and the policies better than the caseworkers did—that’s the only thing that got me through.”

Frohock said she has since heard one county official in a meeting talk about how they should use Welfare-to-Work money to start a dating service for women on welfare and get them married.

“I said to him, ‘Well, don’t you think most women here are on welfare because of a man? And now you want to give them another one?'” Frohock scoffed.

Traditional family values do remain a key part of Republicans’ goals for the upcoming reauthorization—or, as secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson put it, “working with faith-based and other private-sector and community-based programs to aggressively develop programs that promote and reward marriage.”

“But welfare participants are the ones who must end [welfare],” Frohock reiterated. “Just like a bunch of white folks couldn’t come in and obtain civil rights for people of color, or straight people can’t fully obtain rights for gay people, poor people have to become educated and stick together, stop fighting each other and judging each other and help themselves.”

For her part, Melissa Garcia is still taking a full schedule of prerequisite courses at Chico State for her teaching certificate program. In addition, she does her best to raise four teen-aged children. She tries to organize her classes around her kids’ school time. The family lives on financial-aid loans and $832 dollars a month from welfare ($650 of which goes to house rent in Paradise).

And Garcia has more reason to worry. This October, she is to be sanctioned—ending her own individual portion of the monthly welfare stipend (about $100 a month) due to her time limit ending. While her kids will still receive benefits, losing her portion will leave her with about $72 a month for all bills, gas, clothing, etc., for five people.

But, more important, she believes it’s crucial to complete her goal of a teaching certificate—requiring another year and half worth of school. She has already earned her bachelor’s degree in social work. Once she can receive a decent wage as a teacher, she can get off the welfare system and stay off, supporting her family and paying off the large amount financial-aid loans that have “allowed her to exist.”

Garcia will continue to do what she can. That, and do her best to attend more welfare meetings held by groups like LIFETIME, which will have events coming up in Oakland, as well as a return trip to Washington, D.C.

The prospect of a 2002 reform process based primarily on family values and not the underlying issue of poverty leaves her a little cold.

Garcia’s ex-husband (the father of her children) is currently in prison for breaking her 3-year-old daughter’s leg in five places, as well as other physical-abuse charges. She worries that when he gets out of jail welfare officials will seek him out for lost payments, which will lead him to the undisclosed location of her home in Paradise. She is annoyed by the Republican assumption that single women need to be married to escape the cycle of poverty.

“They want to hook these single welfare mothers up with working men,” Garcia said. “Just exactly the opposite of what we need—a lot of us have escaped abusive spouses or ended up on welfare because of marriages that did not work. … They’re just putting the blame on women once again.”

Garcia said she has been incredibly lucky in raising wonderful children who have stayed out of trouble, even when she couldn’t be around. And her children are already looking forward to college, having witnessed their mom buckle down in her own studies. There’s no way, she said, that they will be denied when their time comes for school.

“I will do whatever it takes because I believe in an education; it has been a blessing," she said emphatically. "Everybody else’s ideas have failed—only education works."