Hard Luck and Welfare

Hands to Work: The Stories of Three Families Racing the Welfare Clock

By LynNell Hancock. William Morrow, 320 pages, $25.95

After fleeing abuse at home, Brenda Fields and her children, Ty, 3, and Loreal, 17, found themselves on the doorstep of the Emergency Assistance Unit on East 151st Street in the Bronx on a brisk February day in 1997. They were at the mercy of the city of New York in the midst of America's experiment "to end welfare as we know it." Before long, the Fields family, we learn from LynNell Hancock's account in Hands to Work, was moving through a series of shelters, temporary-housing units and finally into subsidized housing. Brenda's days were cluttered with appointments and paperwork as she attempted to obtain housing, child care, job skills and employment. After more than a dozen trips to the South Bronx welfare office, she was able to get assistance, receiving $290 in cash each month, plus $265 in food stamps. By the next summer, though, her family's monthly benefit check was reduced to less than $200. She was enrolled in a job program, but when it ended the city cut off money for child care. "I had no money. I couldn't even buy a subway token to look for work," she said. "I had done something I never did before. I cashed in food stamps for money."

The job-skills class, which focused on dressing for success, eventually landed Brenda a job as a cashier in the cafeteria at J.P. Morgan. But she found that $8.25 per hour wasn't enough to support her family. After 18 months on the job, she was fired for allegedly stealing leftovers from the cafeteria (charges that were later dropped from her record). By this time she'd used up almost three years of the five-year lifetime limit imposed by the 1996 welfare-reform law. The welfare office offered $39 in emergency cash. Brenda was able to collect unemployment compensation, but then the city cut off her food stamps. She eventually landed a temporary job at Saks Fifth Avenue, but when her story ends she is back on public assistance, still searching for a decent job -- in only a slightly better position than when her saga began.

Brenda's story, like the others in Hands to Work, provides a portal into the lives of those directly affected by the 1996 overhaul of welfare rules. Hancock, a Columbia University journalism professor, follows the lives of three women who come from vastly different backgrounds, living within miles of each other in the "entrenched welfare population" of the South Bronx. Along with Brenda, there is Alina Zukina, an immigrant from the former Soviet nation of Moldova who dreams of becoming a doctor, and Christine Rivera, a Puerto Rican mother of four who is battling a heroin addiction.

"Five years after the clock began ticking on lifetime welfare limits," Hancock writes, explaining her interest in these women's stories, "much of the public debate still swirled around the most rudimentary subtraction -- the shocking number of recipients who dropped off the dole. Seven million people. The number was used as the most important measuring stick of welfare reform's success. So little of that discussion was about these people themselves, what happened to them, how their fates might affect all our lives."

Alina is a welfare success story, but she could just as easily have been a casualty of New York's Work Experience Program. When Alina arrived in New York in 1994, she wanted to become a doctor and relied on public assistance to pursue her dream. She divided her time between Hunter College and the city's workfare program. After Alina had worked steadily for four years and was just a few credits shy of graduating, the city unexpectedly cut off her benefits. "Now, in July 1998, Alina's welfare case was suddenly submerged in bureaucratic chaos," Hancock writes. "Her time card for a recent week's work had been lost somewhere between the social services center and the borough workfare office. [The Human Resources Administration] responded by immediately cutting her off the rolls, no questions asked." In the end, the city reinstated her benefits. While there were more hurdles in store for Alina, she eventually beat the odds and made it to medical school. By March 2001, she was a year away from beginning her residency, despite the "work first, education second" mantra of then–New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other welfare hard-liners.

Christine's story is the most distressing. She was raised by an alcoholic mother, molested by a family friend and turned on to crack as a teenager. Her mother died when she was 17, leaving her alone just when she had her first baby. While pregnant with her fourth child, Christine lapsed into a heroin habit. "I wanted to quit, but I couldn't. I couldn't go cold turkey, because the baby could die," she said. Christine's boyfriend kicked her and the kids out and they ended up in the Emergency Assistance Unit and then in a shelter.

As Christine's addiction persisted, she lost custody of her children. She showed up late to the family court hearing that would determine her children's fate. Hancock describes that day:

Two adults gently worked to unravel Dyanna's limbs from her mother. Kristopher wailed as someone unglued his grasp. The foster mother moved toward the elevator with the three sobbing kids, Kristopher in his stroller. Then Christine's children disappeared from sight. A spontaneous quiet rushed across the benches. The scene was unusually bitter, even for family court. People embroiled in their own private catastrophes stopped to grieve for a moment at the sight of this unknown mother losing her children, and her children losing her. It was everyone's worst fear -- to have your own kids pried from your arms, wailing, sobbing, then handed over to a stranger.

"What is our responsibility as a society, as a nation, to Christine, or to her children?" Hancock asks. "Are we justified in cutting them off from public help?" Many of the architects of welfare reform would say yes. In the end, Christine found a rehabilitation program that worked, and she went on to school. Welfare covered her expenses while she attended the program. But if Christine had entered the system a year later, these options might not have been available. Toward the end of Giuliani's term, New York restricted the rules for recovering addicts on welfare: Addicts had a month to prove they were clean, and relapses could result in the suspension of benefits. Christine's recovery took more than a year with several relapses.

The flaws in the current brand of welfare reform are brought home through each of the stories in this book: inadequate access to child-care, education, drug-treatment and job-skills programs. In looking at cases in New York City, Hancock was confronted with the "get tough" approach to welfare reform. (Giuliani pledged in 1998 to "end welfare by the end of this century, completely.") New York brought a new focus to welfare-fraud investigations and created the Work Experience Program to put the poor to work (some were required to clean the streets and city parks or risk losing their welfare benefits). Single mothers with babies as young as three months old were required to work, as were students. "Work beats dependency anytime," Giuliani told crowds at a 1998 Labor Day Parade. In 20 years, he predicted, "You'll thank me for getting you off welfare."

Looking back at federal and local efforts at welfare reform in the 1990s, Hancock asks: "Were the poor better off now than they had been before reform? Was our nation focused on eliminating poverty, or just slashing caseloads? Did 'work first' really work? Did it make children's lives better, or more fractured? What would happen to those left at the bottom of the economic scale once prosperity embarked on its inevitable slide?" The answers are brought home by looking at actual stories of actual lives in all their complexity. Hancock reminds us that "the women in this book must endure beyond that deadline, long after they have disappeared from the rolls of welfare and the minds of politicians." While she does not propose a set of alternative policies for dealing with persistent poverty, Hancock swims against mainstream currents by suggesting that "the lesson, ultimately, may be one that politicians are loathe to hear: Public spending on the poor, rather than being the cause of poverty, may provide its greatest hope for a cure."

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