Community Comment : Welfare Moms: The Biggest Need Is 'Safe, Free Child Care'

California's new state budget calls for substantial changes, including cuts, in welfare programs, primarily Aid to Families With Dependent Children. To learn more about how families end up on welfare and what they need to get off, interviewer Trin Yarborough spoke with three mothers who are supported by AFDC. All were born in Southern California and all are attending college.

They are: Emily Monge, mother of two sons, 6 and 3; Patricia Blanco, mother of a 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, and Sherri Smith, mother of two sons, 6 and 3, and a daughter, 2. All the mothers and children are covered by Medi-Cal and all say the children's fathers have never paid child support.

Jamie Court, Coordinator of the Community Advocates Program at Harbor Interfaith Shelter in San Pedro, says that the three are "more and more representative" of people now coming to the shelter . "We're seeing a large increase in families, and people who are ambitious, and formerly employed, but who can't get jobs since the economy got worse and (social service) benefits have been cut," he says.

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Question: Was there a particular low point for you before or after you began receiving AFDC?

Patricia Blanco: I lived with my children's father 12 years, but he was abusive. The night I finally left with our two children, he tried to stop us by smashing in the front and back windshields of the car we were in. For awhile we all lived in the car and I got down to $10, and the children kept asking, "Mommy, why can't we go home?" But I couldn't take the abuse anymore, and I knew it had begun to affect the children.

Emily Monge: When Gov. Wilson introduced Proposition 165 a year ago, which would have led to big AFDC cuts, I began worrying all the time. Everybody on AFDC knows what it is to run out of food at the end of the month. I began to stop eating to be sure my children would have food. One day we had no food or money and I had my two little boys hunt through the house for nickels or pennies to buy bread, but we couldn't find enough. I sent them to a neighbor to borrow two slices of bread. I was too ashamed to go myself.

All this time I was going to school because I knew that education was what would make the difference in our lives. I kept pushing on, and I got real good grades. That helped me feel better about myself.

Sherri Smith: When my little girl was 20 months old, she got pneumonia and her fever went to 105.6. I didn't have the money to buy Tylenol (Medi-Cal does not pay for over-the-counter medicines) and she went into seizures from the fever. I got her to a hospital, but looking down at her lying there so tiny and sick was the worst moment in my whole life. I kept thinking it was my fault somehow. I don't believe in stealing but when I left the hospital that night I went and stole a bottle of (children's) Tylenol.

Q: What led to your asking for help from AFDC, and what's happened since?

Monge: My two babies and I left my husband in 1991. We lived awhile in a housing project, but there were gangs and other situations that worried me for my children. After I got AFDC I got a part-time job for about $250 per month and my AFDC was cut by the same amount, to $403, plus $140 in food stamps. We've just moved into half an apartment at a much higher rent and I've just gotten a letter saying the AFDC may cut off everything. Being poor has sure done a lot for my character. I remember when I'd see an old car go by and say, "Why would anyone drive that old clunker?" Now I wish I had one!

Blanco: During my marriage I worked as a Social Security clerk, but was laid off for a year. I waited until I was completely out of money before I asked for help. After we got AFDC I got a part-time job for $200 per month and my AFDC was cut by the same amount, to $520. We also get $130 in food stamps. Some people ask how I could have left where I had financial security, but the abuse was too hard.

Smith: I married at 18 and had three babies. During my marriage I managed two restaurants and a portrait studio. I was so judgmental then! I didn't know what it was like to struggle. One day I came home and found a letter from my husband saying he'd left me. At first I kept working and got food stamps and Medi-Cal coverage for our three children. But two months later, because of state budget cuts, all that was cut off too. By the end of the month we were homeless. We slept in the car until we got into the Harbor Interfaith Shelter. They helped me get into Section 8 housing (low-cost federally subsidized housing now limited to families with children), where I pay $126 per month. I get $743 cash from AFDC and $170 in food stamps every month.

Q: What are some compromises you make on the money you receive now?

Monge: One of my sons wanted this little cheap ball, and I just couldn't get it for him. It felt so bad--like a kind of child abuse.

Blanco: Laundry is real expensive. I don't let my kids change clothes as often now. And when they go to a birthday party they can't take a gift; if they have a birthday, I make a cake and let them invite just one or two friends. Also, we run out of food most months, and ask for food at our church.

Smith: My 2-year-old is legally blind in one eye. Her glasses are broken but Medi-Cal only pays for one $30 pair per year. Most of all you can't keep children healthy if you can't feed them properly. Last week the four of us went without meat.

Q: What do you see for the future?

Monge: I've completed four semesters at Harbor College and have four more to go to be a legal secretary. And I've asked my case worker several times to be put on the GAIN program (Greater Avenues for Independence, an education and employment program), but she hasn't answered. I can't wait to be established in a job where I don't have to fear every day that my check might get cut.

Blanco: I applied to GAIN two years ago, and just got accepted. It's great--I will get the costs of books, child care and transportation while on GAIN. I've completed two years toward becoming a nurse at Harbor College and I was student body vice president. I want to become a productive member of society, pay taxes, and I'd love to someday volunteer to talk with others about welfare and social problems.

Smith: I'm carrying 14 units at Harbor in business management and social sciences, and I've completed two semesters. My children take a lot of time. My 3-year-old has asthma and about once a week needs breathing treatments--he turns blue, can't breathe--on a machine we have at home. Sometimes I have to rush him to the hospital. When I started college I thought I'd go into business, but now I want a public service job. I want to do advocacy work on behalf of children, and be politically active.

Q: What changes would you make in AFDC?

Monge: Good child care for everyone--that's real welfare reform. So many mothers stay on welfare because they can't work or go to school because there's no way to take care of their children. And some mothers have been on AFDC so long they feel that's all they're worth. They've given up hope. Instead of cutting their checks, we should interview all of them, see what's holding them back. Then we'd begin to see patterns on which we could base real solutions.

Blanco: I'd also start with safe, free child care. Everybody's children are everybody's future. We on AFDC are not just here to collect money, but to make the future better for everyone by teaching our kids right from wrong, making sure they turn out right. That's to everyone's advantage.

Smith: Child care, and educating the caseworkers. Sometimes they treat people badly, or don't tell us about a program until too late. And I'd like to see the collection of child support really enforced.

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