She’s 22 and alone, with three kids and no job.
She has no employment experience to speak of, save a short stint at a nursing home, and a month behind an Arby’s fast-food counter.
She’s been six years on and off welfare - the same pattern as her disabled mother - and can’t even scrape together cash to cement her second divorce.
In two weeks the state will cut her $378 monthly benefit check by a third, while demanding she go to work.
Yet Jennifer Stenerson couldn’t be more pleased.
“I can’t wait to go someplace and cash an actual check, not a welfare check, that I earned myself,” the Post Falls woman said.
As the clock ticks down to a July 1 startup for Idaho’s mammoth welfare reform, Stenerson’s story is being touted as the kind of success that has eluded the 60-year-old federal welfare system.
After a recent meeting with her new social worker, Stenerson scoured classified advertisements and filled out a half-dozen job applications. She’s confident, eager and planning for a self-sufficient future.
Reformers contend it’s a new combination of carrot and stick - already employed in Stenerson’s case - that will raise welfare recipients’ self-esteem and get them to work.
They hope the program will halt skyrocketing costs, reverse a cultural spiral leading to permanent poverty and break the chain of second- and third-generation welfare families.
“This is a very big social experiment,” said Steve McKenna, welfare reform’s program director for the Panhandle. “We’re doing something very different than has ever been done before.”
State workers already see a drop in welfare rolls as residents find jobs in anticipation of changes. They’ve seen an about-face in the attitude of many recipients, who are thrilled with the prospect of going to work.
But state Health and Welfare Department officials don’t expect an easy ride.
They expect some recipients will refuse to participate. Others may try and fail.
Supportive social workers also acknowledge changes are so massive and untested success will be difficult to measure, let alone predict.
They count largely on a cadre of new rules, the enthusiasm of retrained caseworkers and a philosophy that people should and will work if given a push and encouragement.
Currently, only 2 percent of Idahoans receive support from the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the lowest percentage in the country. That’s about 20,000 people, a figure that has fallen nearly 25 percent in the past year.
On July 1, AFDC will cease to exist in Idaho, replaced by a $31 million state-run program called Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho.
The cornerstone of that reform is deceptively simple.
Participants can collect benefits for only 24 months in their lifetimes and must work part time. Benefits are capped at $276 a month, regardless of family size, although recipients whose benefits are cut may be eligible for more food stamps.
At the end of 24 months, benefits cease, in most cases, for good.
It’s that cut-off that critics most fear.
They contend North Idaho’s unemployment rate - consistently in double digits in counties like Shoshone - and the complexities of finding and keeping first-time employment leave the deck stacked against welfare recipients. Cutting off benefits could lead to increased homelessness, higher crime and more child abuse, they contend.
Additionally, because most of the recipients are single mothers, critics argue the children will suffer.
“We’re telling these people to hand over their kids to strangers to go work a minimum-wage job?” asked Phil Colozzi, co-founder of a nonprofit group that helps poor families keep their homes. “Is that really what’s best?”
But McKenna said that’s part of “the real world” and part of becoming self-reliant.
State officials insist they’ve spent months preparing to make the reforms work for low-income residents.
Caseworkers - now called “self-reliance” counselors - will meet regularly with recipients and help them get grant money for child care, clothing, transportation and job-skill training. The counselors, each of whom will carry a caseload of about 35 families, will help recipients find long-term employment.
In fact, the caseworkers themselves have gone through months of retraining so they focus primarily on clients’ talents and experience - especially during initial interviews.
“Some of them (recipients) come in here defensive, scared, frustrated,” said Linette Freeman, Stenerson’s caseworker. “But by the time they leave, they’ve spent 30 minutes telling me what a fabulous person they are. In most cases they leave feeling motivated.”
For their part, single parents will have to immunize their children, keep them in school and help the state collect child support from missing parents, a program the state contends already is working.
A new license-suspension program already has resulted in child support payment plans from 462 more families this year than last year, and the state expects to establish paternity for 500 North Idaho kids this year - nearly twice as many as in 1996.
To measure success, Health and Welfare will track 34 ingredients of reform - from job retention and wages to poverty levels and child abuse.
But they admit translating the data will be complicated.
After three years, figures from reform in Florida show 98.5 percent of enrolled recipients left the welfare rolls with a job or another source of income, said Mary Ann Saunders, who heads the program statewide.
But a study of child abuse rates after three years of welfare reform in Wisconsin revealed mixed results.
In extreme cases, where welfare recipients give up, can’t find work, or slide back into unemployment after their 24 months are up, the state may continue to provide benefits.
But officials are placing the most faith on changes at ground-level, emphasizing a relationship between recipient and caseworker.
That, according to Stenerson, is what makes the biggest difference.
Stenerson dropped out of junior high school, got pregnant at 15 and was married and divorced before returning to an alternative school to get her diploma in 1994. Rebellious and shy, she spent time with abusive men, moved to and from Oregon and bore two more children.
She was living with her mother on welfare in February when she first heard about pending reform.
“I was really scared and thought ‘Oh gosh, I can’t do this on my own,”’ she said.
But something in the way Freeman talked to her gave her hope, Stenerson said.
“She wasn’t cold, like normal social workers,” Stenerson said. “I could tell she really cared.”
She has two job interviews this week and expects to be employed by month’s end.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Graphic: Who’s on welfare
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WELFARE CHANGES On July 1, the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program will be replaced by a new state program, Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho (TAFI). Major changes include: A two-year limit: Idaho residents may receive welfare for only 24 months - consecutive or not - during their lifetimes. Welfare collected in another state will be included in that total. Work required: Recipients must work at least 20 hours per week or be actively seeking training and work to the satisfaction of their caseworkers. Social Security: For the first time, Social Security benefits will be counted as income when calculating eligibility for welfare benefits. Maximum cash grant: No family, regardless of size, will be eligible for more than $276 a month in assistance. Currently, AFDC rates rise with family size, from $251 for a family of two, to $448 for family of five and $776 for family of 10. Underage parents: Parents under 18 must live with their own parents or in a supervised living arrangement to receive benefits. The entire household must be eligible for any one member to receive assistance. Grandparent responsibility: Parents of minor mothers and fathers will be financially responsible for their children’s children until the minor parent turns 18. If underage parents aren’t living with them, grandparents will be subject to child support payments. New motherhood: Mothers with infants younger than 3 months won’t have to work, but may be required to take “life skills” training to learn about child care. After the first 12 weeks, however, mothers will be required to work 20 hours a week. Paternity: Single mothers will be required to disclose the identity of a child’s father, and cooperate with caseworkers in the collection of child support. Contract: All recipients must meet with a caseworker and sign a contract outlining the steps they will take to become financially self-reliant. Failure to meet those terms will result in penalties, including temporary or permanent ineligibility for assistance for the entire family. School: All children of families receiving assistance must be enrolled and attending school or face a $50 per month reduction in assistance per child. Changes already in effect: Food stamps: All able-bodied adults, age 18 to 50, who have no dependent children, must work at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits. Otherwise, recipients can get food stamps for only three months out of any 36. There is no lifetime limit. (Changes as of December 1996.) License suspension: Failure to pay child support or allow a parent court-ordered visitation may result in the loss of any state license - driver’s, hunting, fishing or professional - until payments resume. (Changes as of January 1997.) -Craig Welch