Dubuque Telegraph Herald, March 16, 2008: Faces of welfare

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By Stacey Becker TH staff writer

Cheryl Sterling and her two sons, Rashae, (left) 12, and Jermaine, 13, make cheesecakes for her store inside her Dubuque apartment last week. Sterling, who has been on government assistance for two years, hopes to be completely off by the year 2010. Sterling says she is humbled by and grateful for the help.

Cheryl Sterling and her two sons, Rashae, (left) 12, and Jermaine, 13, make cheesecakes for her store inside her Dubuque apartment last week. Sterling, who has been on government assistance for two years, hopes to be completely off by the year 2010. Sterling says she is humbled by and grateful for the help.

The young mother of two little girls says she never wanted to ask the government for financial help.

But life threw Chiquita Kight some curveballs, and she had to do what she vowed she never would do.

Seven months after moving her family from Chicago to Dubuque in hopes of a better life, Kight applied for cash assistance from the Family Investment Program.

“I didn’t want to get on it at all,” Kight said. “I want to get off as soon as possible. I want to be able to supply for my kids myself.”

The 24-year-old says she tried to leave the program last year. She worked full-time, attended school full-time and was a mother full-time. She couldn’t juggle everything and had to quit her full-time job.

Kight has been on public assistance for 11 months and says she hopes to be off as soon as possible, maybe after she graduates from Northeast Iowa Community College with a degree in nursing.

“I’m basically living check to check and that’s not good,” Kight said. “I’m thankful for their help, but I don’t want to live on the government for the rest of my



Cheryl Sterling receives money from FIP for herself and her sons Jermaine, 13, and Rashae, 12.

After what she says was a nasty divorce that was finalized in 2002 and living with her mother, Sterling moved her boys to Dubuque.

She said she was self-sufficient while married, but the company where she worked full-time filed for bankruptcy in 2001. When she moved to Dubuque, Sterling worked full-time for more than a year, but quit because she said she was treated unfairly.

Sterling now intermediately baby-sits children and recently opened her own cheesecake business named Divine Desserts by Denise.

“God is doing the impossible with just a little,”

As of October 2007, there were 1,892 people in Dubuque County who received Family Investment Program benefits. The program Kight and others depend on is different from the welfare system a decade ago.

Welfare reform

In the mid-1990s, the welfare system in the U.S. went through a nationwide reform.

“Welfare today is nothing like welfare in the mid-’90s,” said Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

In 1996, the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children was replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Iowa’s version of TANF is known as the Family Investment Program.

In 2007, approximately 73 percent of the families on FIP were single-parent households.

Munns said that in the mid-’90s, there were more than 40,000 people in Iowa on AFDC. In 2007, that number decreased to about 17,000 families, receiving a monthly FIP cash-assistance average of $326.67.

As of March 2008, there were 12 TANF cases in Jo Daviess County, Ill. Eight of them are cases in which only the children receive assistance because they live with a relative.

Unlike the old system, cash assistance is no longer an entitlement for those considered poor.

Today, Iowans on FIP must sign a contract that outlines their plan to gain self-sufficiency. They also must become employed, receive training or attend school.

A major change in the welfare system is that people can only receive FIP benefits for a lifetime limit of five years. The average time a family spends on FIP, as of July 2007, was 22.8 months.

But there are exceptions for hardship cases who must apply regularly for assistance.

Wisconsin’s W2 Program

Wisconsin’s program led the nation in welfare reform. The Badger state’s version of TANF is the Wisconsin’s Works — or W2 — program. Then-Gov. Tommy Thompson pushed the program with the mission to employ people through training and other services.

People on W2 must be employed to receive cash assistance. They are allowed to use the program two years at a time and only for a five-year lifetime limit.

The reform package sparked a general outcry from those who felt people on the program were removed from it before they were ready to be self-sufficient.

A state official says Gov. Jim Doyle has heard the criticisms.

“While Gov. Doyle would have done things differently, he is currently focused on strengthening the program to connect more people to better-paying jobs, while helping participants retain employment and advance in their careers,” said Alec Loftus, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

In April 1998, there were three people in Grant County and four people in Lafayette County on W2. By January 2008, those numbers were reduced to two in Grant and one in Lafayette.

Welfare: A word not spoken

In the midst of such reform, driven by some serious abuses in AFDC, welfare took on an extremely negative connotation, experts say. The very word became a hot-button issue, and “welfare” remains almost taboo in many respects today.

“Governments avoid using that word,” Munns said.

Welfare no longer conjures images of people down on their luck who need some help, officials say. For many, the word brings to mind images of lazy bums and “welfare moms.”

“The word just has been politicized,” said Jim Ott, school psychologist with the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency in Jackson County. “It’s become a charged word and a charged debate.”

State assistance programs, such as TANF, FIP and W2, are no longer deemed welfare programs.

The troubles with FIP

While welfare reform arguably might have improved the situation of those on state assistance, there remain some problems.

One of the biggest challenges facing FIP recipients is finding a job amid fears of an economic recession.

“It’s very difficult for anybody to get a good job with benefits right now,” Ott said. “Those jobs are few and far between.”

Ott said the living wage in Dubuque is $12 per hour. Many people who left the FIP program in 2007 received an average wage of $7.81 per hour, which is projected to increase to $8.06 in 2009.

Another criticism is that people sometimes leave the system before they are ready.

“People can go from being on welfare to being (a member of the) working poor,” said Carroll Clark, Dubuque’s family self-sufficiency coordinator. “Unfortunately that does happen.”

Munns admitted that some people who leave the program because they don’t qualify for benefits will sometimes not make much more money than they did when they were on FIP. He regarded the situation as something positive, however.

“If you are making the same amount of money from a job that you would from the government, you’re basically better off,” Munns said. “There is now some structure to your life. You see the results of your life.”

There are others who leave FIP with absolutely nothing.

Clark said occasionally there are people who can’t fathom they can actually make it on their own at a job. After their five-year limit is up, these people leave the system.

“We’ve had those individuals and they literally live on nothing,” Clark said. “We can only encourage so much.”

Living on the margins

Families that receive FIP, food stamps and Medicaid aren’t exactly living the easy life, public-assistance experts assert.

Kight says she receives $426 in food stamps and $426 in cash assistance from FIP to support herself and her daughters Chaniah, 1, and Charnae, 4.

She receives Medicaid and has to pay about $60 per month for rent. Kight said she has very little money after paying other expenses such as heating bills, phone bills and filling her vehicle with gas.

“It’s difficult because the money is gone by the middle of the month,” Kight said.

Sterling every month receives $360 in food assistance and $426 in cash assistance from FIP. She pays $50 in rent. She also receives Medicaid for her boys.

“It’s hard to invest in anything or have a hope for tomorrow,” she said.

Bright future?

Since 2002, the percentage of people who left FIP and did not return to the program within a year has increased to more than 70 percent.

Kight and Sterling say they can’t wait for the day when they are off government assistance and are able to provide for their children.

Kight hopes to be off FIP soon, own her own home and help her girls save for their future.

“There’s nothing wrong with the government, but I want (my girls) to be able to supply on their own,” Kight said.

Sterling’s goals is to be off FIP by 2010, save for her boys’ college education and have a successful business.

“I’m humbled by it, but I’m grateful,” Sterling said. “Our future looks bright.”

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