Less than a mile from the neon-lit nightclubs on Beale Street, where hard-luck tunes tug the heart and water the eyes, 34-year-old Mell Miller is living her own version of the Memphis blues.
After bouncing from the homes of friends and relatives, Miller, her daughter Jessica, 10, and son Anthony, 9, have taken refuge at the Salvation Army homeless shelter. It’s not quite the government-subsidized housing Miller was hoping for, but it beats the bus station where they had been staying.
Homeless and jobless, Miller nonetheless is a success story. She’s a former welfare recipient, one of more than 1 million nationwide to leave the rolls since federal welfare reform became law a year ago.
With the nation’s booming economy and record-low unemployment, it would seem that most of those who left welfare have found jobs. But Miller’s experience suggests a more dismal reality. While many left to take jobs, thousands of others have chosen to leave or have been dropped for violations of confusing new policies. And with no job prospects.
No state provides more than a cursory check of those who leave public assistance. But selected reports from various states suggest that up to half of the recent welfare departures may be unemployed. And interviews with former clients and advocates for the poor show that many are living a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on relatives, charities and street smarts to survive.
So while politicians boast of dollars saved and case loads trimmed, the numbers offer no insight into how the reductions affect individual lives, or to what degree the reform’s true goal - moving people from government dependence to economic self-sufficiency - is being met.
“There’s a great deal of assumed virtue placed on case-load declines without the appreciation that they can include good and bad situations,” said Jodie Levin-Epstein of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington that advocates for the poor.
Many states had already implemented their own reforms by the time the federal law was enacted last year. The initiatives have helped reduce the nation’s welfare rolls to fewer than 11 million people, the lowest percentage of the population since 1970.
Tennessee’s experience in the past year offers a telling glimpse into what may lie ahead for other states. Since its Families First plan took effect in September, Tennessee has the nation’s third-highest welfare exit rate.
But unlike the declines in previous years, the exodus since September hasn’t been fueled by employment. State records show that fewer than one-third of the 18,802 people who left welfare through February did so for jobs. The rest left without employment or were kicked off for violating state rules.
Marilyn Leakes is one of the lucky ones.
The Memphis resident left welfare last month. She said she couldn’t walk her 6-year-old son to school, care for her diabetic aunt, look for a job and attend the training classes the state requires. Losing the monthly $142 check and $212 in food stamps forced her to clean friends’ and relatives’ homes while applying for work. She recently landed a job dismantling defective computers. “I’m just glad to be working,” she said. “I just hope I can hold onto it.”
But other former welfare mothers haven’t made the transition. Their experience was reflected in studies of almost 7,000 former welfare recipients in Massachusetts. About half found work. Twenty-four percent either moved out of state or relied on unearned income, such as child support and Supplemental Security Income. Others relied on support from family and friends, couldn’t be found, or were reapplying for benefits.
An Iowa study of 129 people whose welfare was terminated for six months because of rules violations, likewise found that about half had found jobs, while the other half relied on friends, family and community services.
That’s fine in the short run, said David Ellwood, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But “those sources will dry up, and I suspect over the long-term those people will be more desperate than before.”
Tennessee law requires state nurses to visit within 30 days those families who leave welfare without jobs. Troubled families or children are referred to social service agencies if needed. But Deborah Johnson, child health director for the Tennessee Department of Health, said they haven’t found many families in dire need.
The state sent 15,000 letters to former recipients explaining they could call a hotline and receive emergency cash if they faced eviction or cutoff of utilities. By last month, 351 calls had been received and fewer than 200 emergency payments made.
“They seem to be getting assistance from family, friends or other folks, or they’ve found another source of income,” Johnson said.
But Russ Overby, an attorney with the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Nashville, questions that finding. He said his agency has helped about 20 families who should have received emergency aid, but only one had been visited by a state nurse.
“We’ve seen a number of people with bills that far exceeded their income,” Overby said. “Some had been evicted. A couple of them were in shelters. Some were facing utility cutoffs. It suggests to me that the process is not working.”
Johnson and Patricia HarrisMorehead, spokeswoman for the human services department, said they were unaware of such problems.
A state study is under way to determine how former welfare recipients are faring. A previous one surveyed 49 former recipients in the Nashville area and found about 60 percent were working. But the responses of some of the other 40 percent revealed that many were struggling.
Miller, a petite woman with glassy brown eyes, lost her $185 monthly welfare check in March after missing three required job-readiness classes. Once, she couldn’t find a baby-sitter, she said. Another time, Jessica’s eczema required medical attention.
At the time, Miller was a live-in helper for a stroke victim. When the woman’s condition required hospitalization, Miller lost her home and income. In the months that followed, she and her children lived a fretful pinball existence, traveling between friends’ and relatives’ homes in the Memphis area, accepting money and food where they could find it. Miller sometimes went days without food so that her children could eat.
“I’ve never been in that situation,” she recalled. “My kids were asking, ‘Mama, where we going now?’ I couldn’t tell them. I didn’t know.”
People who leave welfare without work have long puzzled researchers, said LaDonna Pavetti, senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington.
“No one has really focused on it so we really don’t know anything about them,” Pavetti said. “We don’t know whether the group is bigger than before, how they’re changing and what the implications are for them over time.”
As pressure builds for more information, several states are undertaking studies similar to the ones done in Massachusetts. Results may be a year or so away. Until firm data are available, advocates and social observers say they will skeptically view claims of the reform’s success.
When Overby, the public interest attorney from Tennessee, recently called the Memphis Salvation Army shelter to check on Miller, he found she had left without a trace.
“They didn’t know where she was or how to reach her,” Overby said. “I hope she’s OK.”
Welfare recipients outlook
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BACK ON THE DOLE A 1996 study of 600 welfare mothers by the University of North Carolina found that more than a quarter who left welfare returned within a year. And 42 percent returned within two years.
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