The Hassle Factor

Welfare reform turns check recipients into job seekers

Derica Lee is being hassled and doesn't like it. "I have to fill out all these papers here for a check of $322," she says, waving a bundle of 10 sheets of paper at me, each with five places for employers to verify that she has looked for work. The 20-year-old mother of one hasn't even been on welfare a year, and she has already been "sanctioned" twice for not conforming to the system's requirements. As a result, her monthly check has been halved to $161. And if she doesn't get the 50 employer signatures in the next 11 days, she'll lose that.

Derica is a participant in Work First New Jersey, the Garden State's new welfare program that insists beneficiaries sign a contract to engage in some sort of "work-related activity" for 35 hours a week. Derica's mother and grandmother both relied on welfare to support their families. And when she got tired of being "in the streets" and wanted to take custody of her 4-year-old daughter, she decided to follow in their footsteps. The case workers signed her up for the system, but only after she promised to engage in some activity resembling work. Because she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, that means going to classes to prepare for her GED in addition to applying for jobs. She has already had two jobs since entering the system in June 1999: a short-term job as a security guard and a job at McDonald's that ended on the first day. "I couldn't take that because they wanted me to wash some toilets," she explains.

But toilets or no toilets, the system expects her to work. And if she wants that $161 each month, she has to get those signatures. To assist her in her journeys, the welfare office has included a complimentary bus pass.

"It don't make no sense to do all that," she explains. "If I get all that done, why not just get a job? It ain't worth it."

A Few Miles Into Hell

Derica, dressed in black jeans and a snakeskin jacket, is venting her frustration on a dreary Saturday in Camden, New Jersey. It's March, and I've traveled to Camden to spend a few days investigating the reality of welfare reform in this, one of the great lost cities of America. We're at Nancy's Rest Home, a boarding house for Camden seniors, and we're not alone. Ella Hilton, the daughter of the boarding house's owner and a longtime community activist, is our host. Her friend Cynthia "Cookie" Pulliam sits in the corner under the front window. Seventeen-year-old Tiffany Washington, her belly full with a baby boy due in April, sits in front of the door. Cynthia Jordan Hannah, known as "Blondie," joins us midway.

Everyone in the room except me has personal experience with "the system," the shorthand term for the constellation of government programs, including welfare, HUD, food stamps, and family and youth services, that sets the parameters of life for so many in this grim town of burned-out buildings and empty storefronts. For two-and-a-half hours, we ponder the same questions think tankers, welfare bureaucrats, academics, and advocacy groups are asking about welfare reform: Why have the welfare rolls dropped so drastically? What is happening to those who leave the rolls? Where are they going? Has the reform been successful?

Nancy's Rest Home is located just off Atlantic Avenue, a boulevard of broken dreams if ever there was one. Not dreams of fame or fortune, but the more practical middle-class dream of a stable job that pays the mortgage and gives the kids hope for a brighter future. Brick two-story rowhouses sit abandoned, boarded up, or on the verge of that fate. The most common window-covering in Camden is gray-painted plywood stenciled with "Camden Community Housing Campaign" or "Department of Public Works."

Camden is a place where people are so poor that cigarettes are sold one at a time. It's a town where drug dealers, whose names are well-known to residents, reportedly buy up entire blocks of row houses so as to post effective lookouts. Stand at one of Camden's numerous homeless shelters and look left to see the open-air market for heroin; look right to see where you can pick up a hit of crack. In a city that covers nine square miles, there's no movie theater and only one supermarket, so far on the south end of town that it's useless to the many residents who don't own cars.

Located directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden was once a bustling burg known for its shipyards, its RCA plants, and its Campbell Soup factories. But businesses left Camden years ago, and there is no reason to expect them back anytime soon. New York Ship built its last vessel in 1967; the RCA Building has sat empty for years; and Campbell Soup, still technically headquartered in Camden, quit cooking there about a decade ago.

Today, if you don't work for a government agency or a hospital, you're not likely to work in Camden. Its population peaked at 125,000 in the 1950s. It is now down to 83,000 and dropping. The average household income was a measly $17,386 according to the 1990 Census, compared to $40,927 for New Jersey as a whole. Three thousand buildings sit boarded up. At one time, Camden was the destination for South Jersey shoppers. These days, all that suburbanites send to Camden is their excrement, which is treated at its sewage facility. "Driving into Camden," writes a New Jersey editorialist, "is driving a few miles into hell."

Which is to say that Camden is ground zero in the debate over welfare reform, at least in an urban setting. If reform can work here, it can work anywhere. So does it?

Good on Paper

"Welfare reform—it looks good on paper," says Blondie, a compact woman whose idea of an interview is to lecture me in a voice just short of a yell. Blondie has lived in Camden for more than 30 years and has seen many welfare programs come and go; she recently received an award from the city council for her "lifetime of community service." She's skeptical of the abilities of county, city, and federal bureaucrats to make people's lives better. She lives in a world of constant conflict: European–Americans against African–Americans, the system against the people. At Nancy's she tells me how things really work in Camden: "Camden City is based on the slave mentality: 'Yes'm boss, yes'm boss.'"

Blondie unabashedly prefers the old welfare system, the system she was on from 1975 to 1978. She signed up because she had a baby and signed off when she got tired of being on welfare. Still, Blondie credits President Jimmy Carter for her success. She says Carter was for the people because he made getting welfare easier. When she got her act together and decided to go to college, she got to keep her food stamps, welfare check, and Medicaid for three years. "They offered me a good package," says Blondie. After earning her associate's degree, she was hired by the Camden County Board of Social Services and has worked a series of government jobs ever since.

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