November 18, 1997 in Nation/World

From Welfare To Work Working Out Welfare Family Must Learn To Live By More-Stringent Rules

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A change in the weather sends John Thaemert to bed. A chore as simple as changing the spark plugs sends him to the Tylenol bottle.

He complains of aches in his arms, neck, head, ribs and back. He forgets basic math. He’s too tired to play with his five kids or mow the lawn.

It’s been a decade since Thaemert, 37, last worked full time. Since then, he’s been in pain and his family’s been on welfare.

His peculiar collection of symptoms - for which he’s been hospitalized a dozen times - has been diagnosed as fibromyalgia.

And chronic fatigue syndrome. And acute chemical sensitivity. And asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and gout.

“I go to bed in pain and wake up in pain,” said Thaemert. “I go to bed tired, and wake up tired.”

His doctor told him, among other things, to avoid stress, but it’s now unavoidable.

Rule changes in welfare put his family’s $1,120 monthly welfare and food stamp support on the line. He and his wife, Julie, must find work, their social worker says. Assistance is no longer guaranteed.

Julie is reluctantly adopting the role of breadwinner, but, at 33, she’s never held a steady job.

She was hired Monday by a geriatric care firm. For $5.75 an hour, part time, she’ll run errands and clean the homes of the elderly disabled.

She’s not sure how much she’ll work, but 30 hours a week would bring in $690 a month, before taxes. She worries if she’ll make enough to feed their five kids, who range in age from 2 to 14.

Her work puts the burden of child care on John. Both are unsure if he has the stamina. “How can I leave the kids when he can’t get out of bed?” she said.

John hopes his fibromyalgia will qualify him for disability benefits so he won’t have to get a job.

He’s been twice denied. The syndrome is new and controversial. He’s appealing the state’s decision, but that’ll take at least a year.

He’s also using an appeals process in an attempt to escape the new work rules. That, too, is pending.

“My social worker said, if you can drive here, you can work,” he said. “I came home from the welfare office and had to take a nap.”

His inability - and refusal - to work puts the Thaemerts in a perplexing group of welfare recipients. What should be done when welfare-to-work doesn’t work?

Cutting the Thaemerts’ welfare grant means the kids could go hungry. There are no loopholes yet to the new five-year limit on welfare. The Thaemerts have 56 months remaining.

And the state has new authority to slash the grants and send parents who won’t get a job into community service work. “In the past, we really haven’t done anything when they said no,” said Terry Covey, a spokesman for the local welfare offices.

The Thaemerts are considering a solution: running a natural food network business out of their home in Deer Park. It wouldn’t require much of John, and Julie could be near the kids.

They’re familiar with the product; John regularly buys the company’s homeopathic remedies. The freeze-dried aloe pills help with pain, he says.

But he questions if he could work on the venture more than a few hours a day. He recently picked up 2-year-old Ciera; shooting pains in his back sent him to the couch.

It wasn’t always this way, he says. He grew up in an upper middle-class family in Colorado. His dad, a flight mechanic, came home smelling of jet fuel. John dreamed of following him.

He joined the Marines after high school, but was discharged after nine months for scoliosis. He worked briefly at an airport in Oklahoma.

He later moved to Spokane and met Julie. They married in 1987. Soon after, he was hospitalized with pneumonia.

At her urging, he quit and they ended up on welfare.

He twice tried getting a community college degree in marketing, but flunked out with medical-related absences.

In 1989, another stab at getting off welfare - a $13-an-hour mechanic job in Seattle - fizzled when John again caught pneumonia.

“This patient has chemical sensitivity and chronic fatigue syndrome. Please excuse him from the work program,” wrote Dr. Keith Hindman last year. Hindman’s diagnosis helped John escape work requirements under the previous welfare system.

His illnesses have isolated the family. They stopped attending a local church, fearing scorn from members.

“I’ve been told it’s all in the head,” said John, a handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair and a trimmed beard. “You get judged a lot.”

Betty Freitag, Julie’s mom, admires her daughter’s devoted mothering, but questions John’s illnesses.

“I think he makes them a little worse than they are,” said Freitag, who sometimes baby-sits her grandchildren.

Julie also struggles with empathy. “I try to understand, but sometimes it’s hard,” she said.

Before being hired, she nervously wrote her first resume. It was a field of white, listing a single two-month stint at a child care center.

All the family budgeting - the food fund for seven is $283 a month - falls on her.

She also does much of the parenting and house work. During a recent dinner, Julie scrambled to clean up a glass of root beer spilled on 2-year-old Ciera. In one efficient swoop, she mopped up the mess, wiped off Ciera and grabbed the two-liter bottle from Jerome, who is 7.

John remained focused on his plate of chicken, exhausted from a drive to Spokane earlier in the day.

They have the trappings of a good life - a trim, government-subsidized, three-bedroom home, two cars and crushed velour furniture. They’ve charged so much on their credit cards that they pay $400 monthly minimums.

Julie made a painful parenting decision last week when she decided to send her oldest boy, Jason, 14, to a Christian home for troubled boys in Kalispell, Mont. He is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and receives $495 a month in disability payments.

Jason’s erratic school attendance and behavior already earned him a year at the Morning Star Boys Ranch. His treatment of the younger kids sealed the decision, even though the Thaemerts will lose his monthly disability check when he leaves.

They sense big changes are coming, the way John feels storms building in his joints.

“We just have to lean on the Lord,” said Julie.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

Profiles

John and Julie Thaemert Snapshot: John, 37, and Julie, 33, raising five kids, ages 14 to 2.

On welfare since: John quit working in 1987 because of medical problems.

Monthly grant: $841 in cash; $283 in food stamps; $495 in disability for son with attention deficit disorder.

Goals: Julie wants to get a job helping children or elderly; John wants to get on disability.

The series Will WorkFirst improve the lives of the state’s poorest citizens?

The Spokesman-Review is trying to find out. The newspaper will follow three families through welfare reform and report periodically on their progress.

Profiles of these families, representing a cross-section of Spokane County’s welfare population, conclude today.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Profiles John and Julie Thaemert Snapshot: John, 37, and Julie, 33, raising five kids, ages 14 to 2. On welfare since: John quit working in 1987 because of medical problems. Monthly grant: $841 in cash; $283 in food stamps; $495 in disability for son with attention deficit disorder. Goals: Julie wants to get a job helping children or elderly; John wants to get on disability.

The series Will WorkFirst improve the lives of the state’s poorest citizens? The Spokesman-Review is trying to find out. The newspaper will follow three families through welfare reform and report periodically on their progress. Profiles of these families, representing a cross-section of Spokane County’s welfare population, conclude today.


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