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Welfare for Mother Is a Catch-22

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Before Martha became a welfare mother, she remembers, “I used to have the attitude that if poor people would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they wouldn’t be poor anymore. I didn’t know what it was really like. How can you know unless you’ve been there?”

Back then, especially at holiday time, she did think now and then of doing something nice for the poor. “I wanted to give to those less fortunate, but I didn’t even know how to find them in affluent Orange County.”

Then one day 3 years ago, poverty found her, and suddenly she discovered those bootstraps didn’t exist. But since then, she’s been doing her best to pull herself up anyway. Now, thanks to a new program aimed at helping Orange County welfare recipients graduate to jobs that pay a livable wage, Martha hopes that she has found a way out of the welfare trap.

“I can’t wait to start paying taxes again,” she says.

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The program is called GAIN--Greater Avenues for Independence--and it combines educational training, employment services, child care and other assistance to help clients make themselves marketable in an increasingly competitive job market.

The program, which began in Orange County in September, is the model for a national program mandated by the Family Support Act recently passed by Congress, according to Wayne Warner, program manager for GAIN, a division of the county Social Services Agency.

“Past attempts to break the welfare cycle have had less than desirable levels of success,” Warner says. “But those were more short-term oriented. This one is longer range. We start with where the client is, and take them on up through the level where they are truly competitive, not just for minimum-wage jobs.”

Another difference is that GAIN addresses the client’s family situation as well. The program not only pays the complete cost of child care but also helps clients find the best arrangement for their children. And because Orange County has such a shortage of child care, GAIN is also advertising and making other efforts to recruit new providers.

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Although Martha is not the typical county welfare mother in many respects--she has a high school diploma, speaks English and doesn’t need remedial education--she is caught in the same Catch-22 that affects most recipients. In order to support her children by working, she would have to abandon them because she can’t earn enough to pay for child care.

Now being implemented in the central and north county, the GAIN program will be countywide by spring, 1989, Warner says. GAIN is mandatory for clients whose children are over age 6 and who have no physical or emotional problems that prevent them from participating. But Martha, whose youngest is only 2, volunteered for GAIN as soon as she heard about it. She is now studying full time at Fullerton College, and her goal is to become a high school math teacher.

About one-third of the county’s Aid to Families With Dependent Children client list are in the mandatory category, Warner says. In addition to those 5,000 clients, he expects that about another 500 will volunteer. GAIN has a $5.7-million budget for its first 10 months. Because it is funded by the state and federal governments, GAIN is not affected by the county government’s current belt-tightening.

Warner says that so far, “65% to 70% of the clients we have encountered are in need of remediation. Their basic skills have to be addressed first.” Refugees, most with limited English skills, account for about half the mandatory group, he says.

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Each client undergoes extensive independent testing to determine his or her skills, interests and aptitudes, Warner says. Then the client, case manager and program administrators decide on the best course of action. There is no limit on the amount of remedial training a client may receive, but higher education is limited to 2 years.

In order to become a teacher, Martha would need to go on and earn a bachelor’s degree. The GAIN program will take her only part of the way through college, but she hopes to find some way to continue after the assistance ends.

Three years ago, Martha, 39, was an office worker living with her five children and second husband, an electrician, in a comfortable three-bedroom Costa Mesa house. There were problems--for one thing, her husband was an alcoholic--but she was hopeful that with patience and therapy, everything could be worked out. And especially with another baby on the way, she needed to believe that the worst was over.

“Then one day he came home; he had quit his job and he sat down with two cases of beer and started drinking them down. The beer wasn’t even cold,” she says.

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The doorbell rang. “It was our landlord telling us we were 3 months in arrears on the rent and he was giving us 7 days’ notice. I didn’t even know; my husband had handled all the finances.”

At that, Martha announced that she was leaving, “and the landlord changed it to 24 hours’ notice.”

She took the children and fled to a women’s shelter. But with a 2-week limited stay, she knew it was only a temporary refuge. At that point, she had no choice but to swallow what remained of her pride and apply for Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

“I had always worked. Always,” Martha says. “But it’s always been a supplemental income to my husband’s. The maximum that I could earn with my skills and experience was $5.50 an hour. And the rent for my apartment is $775 plus utilities--that’s a bargain for a 3-bedroom. I couldn’t make it. And how was I going to work when I had no money for child care?”

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On AFDC, Martha receives $899 each month, plus $97 in food stamps. Now instead of shopping at South Coast Plaza, she goes to the Salvation Army thrift store. She drives a 20-year-old car, “with bald tires.”

Now living in Garden Grove, Martha asks that her real name not be used because she fears harassment from her ex-husband.

“It’s not that it’s easier to be on welfare,” Martha says. “It’s that mothers become desperate to feed their children. It’s not that we’re incapable. We’re unprepared.

“Not being able to provide for your children is demoralizing. It’s emotionally draining even more than it is financially draining.

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“The hardest part is people’s attitudes,” she says. “Too many people believe the myth that people on welfare are just sitting there collecting money and getting rich. Nobody gets rich on welfare.

“They look you square in the eye and say: ‘Why don’t you go to work?’ It’s just ignorance. And it’s hard for people to look at misery. If you say that it’s through no fault of the person, then you have to admit it could happen to you, too. So it’s a defense mechanism if you say it’s their fault.”

Two of Martha’s children are grown now and on their own. The four who live with her range in age from 2 to 14. “It’s been hard for them,” she says. “The other day my 7-year-old said, ‘There’s a good thing and a bad thing about Christmas. The good thing is we get gifts. But the bad thing is that I don’t have any money to buy gifts for other people.’ ”

Martha’s friends have purchased gifts for her children this year, “to be from me. That humbles me and makes me realize how loved we are.”

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