January 4, 1998 in Idaho

Activist Aims To Ease Transition From Welfare

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Jan Peterson’s been there.

She wept 25 years ago when caseworkers cut the welfare checks that fed her and her five children. She felt fury heat her face when a welfare caseworker spoke slowly, loudly and simply, as if Jan could only understand monosyllabic words.

She suffered through postponed and last-minute appointments, employee irritation at her children and insulting suggestions that she divorce her husband.

And that was during welfare’s good times.

She fought back, and now she wants to use her experience to help hundreds of Shoshone County people struggling to survive under welfare reform.

With help from Shoshone County’s People’s Action Coalition, Jan, 54, is forming a welfare rights action committee. She wants social workers, ministers - the people who most often encounter the poor - to identify the major problems and propose solutions.

In July, Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho began cutting off welfare recipients after two years of payments. Those payments dropped since July to $276 a month regardless of family size.

“Idaho’s reforms are the most rigorous, and I think it’s totally unfair,” Jan says. “I don’t think $276 a month puts shoes on a child’s feet and gives a child an equal edge in school.”

Idaho’s bureaucrats have reveled in the state’s nationwide lead to cut the ranks of welfare recipients.

Already, Alan Rowland, the deputy administrator for Idaho’s Division of Welfare, is calling welfare reform a success and Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden Lake, calls the state’s numbers “stunning.”

But they probably don’t hang out in Shoshone County, where 16.2 percent of the population lives below the poverty level and the unemployment rate stands at 7.7 percent - nearly double that of anywhere else in the state.

“We know people who knew welfare reform was coming and worked hard for months to find work,” says Barbara Miller, who runs the grass roots People’s Action Coalition.

“They wanted to get in a stable condition before reform hit and couldn’t do it. Some had nervous breakdowns.”

Jan knows the fear.

She was a young mother of four with a fifth on the way when her husband lost his job in Tacoma. Qualifications for his state job had changed and edged him out. He wasn’t even eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

Her family headed to the welfare office, but was denied help because her husband was able to work. While he argued, Jan wandered through the building and found vocational rehabilitation training programs.

“There are all kinds of work programs they never tell you about,” she says.

That’s when Jan’s activism began. She insisted her family’s caseworker recommend her husband for a vocational rehabilitation interview. He ended up with a tool belt and 18 months of mechanic’s training.

While she lived on welfare, Jan organized a committee that listed basic rights for welfare recipients. They wanted timely appointments, courteous treatment and responsible handling of their paperwork.

They researched the chain of command and learned who handled complaints effectively.

“If we saw someone treated rudely, we’d tell them to ask for the caseworker’s supervisor, then for the general administrator,” Jan says. “It was very effective.”

Life brought Jan back to her birthplace in Kellogg in 1983. She’s stayed off welfare, but faced eviction last year as a pawn in her landlord’s family feud. It reawakened the activist in her.

“If I’m going through these situations, it makes me very worried about the tenants’ rights of others, specifically those on welfare,” she says.

She’s begun interviewing people in various stages of welfare reform and has already reached one conclusion: they need help earning their high school diplomas so they’re more employable.

“Welfare really isn’t welfare anymore, and there are some very, very frightening problems out there,” Miller says. “But, this committee in itself is one answer. People are empowering themselves to do something about the problem. Sometimes we fail to see these successes.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: To contact “Close to Home,” write to 608 Northwest Blvd, Suite 200, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814; or e-mail to cynthiat@spokesman.com.

This sidebar appeared with the story:

If you have a welfare reform story to share with Jan Peterson, call her at 784-6005 or the People’s Action Coalition at 784-8891.

To contact “Close to Home,” write to 608 Northwest Blvd, Suite 200, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814; or e-mail to cynthiat@spokesman.com.

This sidebar appeared with the story: If you have a welfare reform story to share with Jan Peterson, call her at 784-6005 or the People’s Action Coalition at 784-8891.

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