Cook County Struggles to Shed Cases

After a decade on welfare, Vernette Hughes, 30, studies for the GED at Sylvan Career Center, 5712 S. Pulaski Road. Three months ago, she finally got a job she liked, as an administrative assistant.

After a decade on welfare, Vernette Hughes, 30, studies for the GED at Sylvan Career Center, 5712 S. Pulaski Road. Three months ago, she finally got a job she liked, as an administrative assistant.

At 9:35 on a Tuesday morning in June, the windowless waiting room in the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Woodlawn office was already crowded. All the brown chairs were taken, and women were lined up on both sides of the large room, looking tired and annoyed, waiting to see their welfare caseworkers.

The office, at 915 E. 63rd St., was just as crowded as it was five years ago, when a sweeping new federal welfare reform package pushed recipients to work and set a 60-month time limit for getting cash benefits. As a key component of the legislation, states were allowed to design their own welfare programs.

Moving into welfare reform’s critical fifth anniversary this July, Illinois’ rolls are down 73 percent, leaving 50,712 cases as of June 2002.

But 77 percent of these remaining cases are in Cook County, up from 65 percent in 1997, according to an analysis of Human Services data by The Chicago Reporter. The statewide caseload also has become increasingly African American, with black recipients making up 74 percent of the rolls, compared with 62 percent five years ago.

Figuring out how to help these women off the rolls will be the next task of state and federal lawmakers reauthorizing welfare reform this year.

It probably won’t be easy. Human Services officials, social service agencies, experts and the recipients themselves say a combination of factors have left so many black women from the state’s most urban area on the rolls.

Many live in impoverished areas where they haven’t had access to good education, jobs or, if needed, emotional help or treatment for mental illness and drug addiction. Also, studies show black welfare recipients often face discrimination, both from employers and welfare caseworkers.

John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, has lobbied federal lawmakers to increase job training for welfare recipients and to promote poverty reduction for those who have left the rolls. He had a quick response to the Reporter’s findings.

“Race, race, race,” he said. “It is all about employability, and employability is all about race. Unless lawmakers take a good look at race and admit that there is a racial issue here, then we will not move closer to making this system fairer.”

Welfare caseworkers feel pressure to close cases any way they can, said J.R. Jordan, the director of community services at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, an 8,000-member congregation in south suburban Harvey.

“It [is] about a quota, not about getting a woman a job to earn a livable wage,” he said. “Women here resisted giving up their safety net.”

State Rep. Mary Flowers, a Democrat, said getting off welfare has been especially hard for women in her South Side district because many of them come from families who had lived by the rules of the old welfare system for generations.

“They had been told for 30 years, –˜You can’t get married, you can’t get education, you can’t get a job if you want any type of benefits,'” she said. “Now they have been told they should do these things. But it is going to take more than five years to convince them.”

Women can remain on welfare for good reasons. Illinois allows recipients to continue getting some aid, with the clock stopped on their 60-month time limits, until they earn three times the amount of their monthly public aid check. Full-time college students and victims of domestic violence can also get exemptions.

In June, 18 percent of all recipients were working, according to Human Services.

Moving remaining cases off the rolls “is a challenge, and we work on that everyday,” said Karan D. Maxson, the department’s director of transitional services. “We are trying to put the resources that are needed in the city.”

As welfare reform enters its next phase, the department plans to offer additional training to recipients who are working, as well as to struggling families who have moved off welfare, Maxson said. But its major responsibility is focusing on the hard cases left on the rolls.

In the past year, the department has hired social workers and counselors specializing in mental health, drug addiction and domestic violence to set up shop in Chicago welfare offices.

“Frankly, just the problems they face of living in pockets of poverty in the city are a lot more difficult to address than they are in smaller communities where every one knows everyone and they are more comfortable leaving their immediate community to find work,” Maxson said.

Work First

Although in some ways Illinois took a moderate approach to welfare reform, Human Services officials were strict in one aspect.

“We want you to work first and then get education and training. I don’t care where you get a job, even if it is at McDonald’s,” B.J. Walker, then the department’s community operations director, told the Reporter in 1999.

The state has required all recipients to participate in job searching, job training or job readiness programs, or risk having their benefits discontinued.

The process now works like this: When clients show up at welfare offices, caseworkers direct them to start looking for work on their own if they are deemed capable. But those with “barriers,” such as little work history or no high school diploma, are sent to social service agencies, which typically have eight weeks to get them jobs. The agencies receive extra state stipends if their clients stay in their jobs for 90 days.

St. Mark was one of about 25 Cook County agencies that took on the task. The village of Harvey, where the church is located, is 81 percent African American. Twenty percent of Harvey’s families live below the poverty line.

The church implemented a program to teach recipients how to fill out applications, go through interviews and act on the job. But church leaders quickly realized the economic troubles of the region would hinder their success. “There are no jobs around here, and it is hard to convince someone to take the bus for an hour and a half each way for a $6-an-hour job,” Jordan said.

Two years later, Jordan’s church stopped taking the state’s welfare reform money and discontinued the program.

The Chicago Urban League had a similar experience. The league’s president and chief executive officer, James W. Compton, said the state sent clients to the agency who had few skills.

Eight weeks wasn’t enough time to train welfare recipients, Compton said, so the league tried to convince clients to take service industry jobs. The women became discouraged by the low wages and tedious work, and quit, he said.

“It may be easier for agencies outside of Cook County to find people employment,” Compton said.

The experience of Compton and Jordan is backed by a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development. The center looked at where 480 recipients were working in 1997 and 1998 after being placed into jobs by Human Services. Recipients who lived in northern and western Cook County got jobs near their homes, but those who lived in the southern part of Chicago and Cook County traveled to find work.

Nearly half the new jobs created in the area over the past decade were in northwest Cook County and DuPage County, whereas affordable homes and rental housing is mostly in the western and southern parts of Chicago, southern Cook County and other parts of the region, according to an April report by Chicago Metropolis 2020, a nonprofit regional economic development organization based in Chicago.

Welfare recipients from these poor communities may also have a hard time because they haven’t had access to good education and lack basic skills.

Elsie Norberg and Erin Fountain, co-founders of the Institute for Positive Mental Health, a Chicago agency that prepares welfare recipients and others for jobs, were “floored” to be referred so many welfare clients who didn’t know how to read. A volunteer retired elementary school teacher helps their clients with basic reading and math.

In 1998, two of the city’s largest social service organizations, Catholic Charities and the Heartland Alliance, helped create an alternative to the state’s approach to try to reach the clients with the most barriers. Along with social service agencies in 33 other states, they began placing recipients in subsidized jobs for six months and helping them work through the issues that might cause them to lose their positions.

“Left on the rolls, you have African Americans that live in devastated communities and come from families that have been on welfare for multiple generations,” said Joe Antolin, executive director of Chicago Connections, a Heartland Alliance program. “They need job experience. They need to learn how to work.”

The transitional jobs program provides basic education classes, social workers, mentors and transportation assistance. Funded by the City of Chicago, it costs between $7,000 and $9,000 per client, compared with about $1,152 per client in the state’s Work First programs in the 2002 fiscal year. The program works with about 300 clients at a time, and 78 percent of those who completed it held onto their jobs for at least 180 days, Antolin said.

Bad Treatment

After years of trying to feed and clothe three children–”now ages 8 to 23–”on a public aid check of $377 a month, Jacqueline Trotter of Chicago knows better than most how hard it is to get off welfare.

After participating in St. Mark’s program, she was hired in 1999 to be the church’s receptionist. Before that, Trotter, who is black, found a job as a housekeeper at a south suburban hotel. She describes the experience as bitter.

“Even though we would do our work, the lady who was the boss was never polite to us,” she said. “She treated us so bad. She called us lazy and said [it was] no wonder no one wanted to hire us.”

Discrimination in the workplace and in welfare offices bears some of the blame for black women not getting off the rolls as quickly as white women, said Menachem Krajcer, the director of welfare programs at the Oakland, Calif.-based Applied Research Center, a public policy advocacy group.

He cited studies showing that blacks and Latinos at welfare offices aren’t offered the same level of services, such as child care or transportation assistance, as whites. For example, a 1998 survey of 2,166 Illinois families receiving welfare found that half of white recipients were referred to educational programs, compared with 18 percent of African Americans.

In addition, Chicago recipients reported having much more of a problem finding child care than people from other parts of the state, according to the survey, which was done by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Urban League and a Chicago-based advocacy group called Work, Welfare and Families.

Phyllis Russell, executive director of Work, Welfare and Families, said Cook County caseworkers may offer fewer supports to families because they have higher caseloads than those downstate.

“In smaller communities it might be easier to work with families intensively,” she said. “And what we have found is that the better the case management, the better position the recipient is put in.”

Although what has happened in Illinois is an extreme example, across the nation welfare has increasingly become a black, Latino and urban issue, Krajcer said. The Applied Research Center and other grassroots groups convinced U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, to introduce a bill that would provide $500 million to increase access to services for people of color who are receiving or seeking welfare. It would also force states to collect uniform information by race about case closings and openings.

Chicago Democratic representatives Luis V. Gutierrez, Rod R. Blagojevich, Danny K. Davis, Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Bobby L. Rush and Janice D. Schakowsky are all co-sponsors.

Changing Mindsets

Trotter said she was a victim of discrimination and knows other women who had trouble handling long commutes from their south suburban homes to their jobs. But she is convinced that attitude explains the difference between those who successfully got off welfare and those who did not.

With her youngest son no longer a baby and her oldest son almost a man, she felt it was time to get a job. “I was ready,” she said. “The people who dropped out of the program weren’t. They were comfortable staying on welfare.”

Vernette Hughes, a petite 30-year-old black woman who had collected public aid since she was 19, said she clung to welfare because of personal battles.

She was pregnant five times. She felt fat. She felt ugly. She had low self-esteem. She didn’t feel like anyone would want to hire her.

She admits she got discouraged easily. One placement program had her take the bus from her home in the South Side’s Washington Park neighborhood for an hour to a job that had already been filled. “I never went back to the program,” she said.

Another program got her a job taking care of the elderly in a nursing home, but she didn’t think working part-time at $5.75 an hour was worth her while. She also worked as a hotel housekeeper, but didn’t want to scrub toilets all day.

“If you don’t like the job, you are not going to stay on it,” she said.

Hughes finally got a job she liked three months ago, when the Heartland Alliance offered her a permanent position as an administrative assistant. She is now working on her high school equivalency diploma, and said she would like to get married and buy a house.

Hughes’ boss, Pamela Jones, an administrator, gets a sad, stern look on her face when she talks about why so many of the people left on the rolls are black. Most of the women who come into her office are African American, and many are struggling because they have not been exposed to work, said Jones, who is black.

“That is all they know how to do, is to sit at home and think of ways to get out of work,” she said. “It easily becomes a lifestyle.”

Norberg and Fountain said many of their clients at the Institute of Positive Mental Health struggle to be independent. Many are also deeply entrenched in difficult family situations. One client’s daughter, for instance, is about to have a baby. Another has a son who was killed. Another is getting beaten at home.

“Almost every day, one person here cries,” Norberg said.

Soap Watchers

Because of the state’s requirements, even those on the rolls who aren’t working have probably not been sitting back collecting their checks, said Margaret Stapleton, a staff attorney for the Chicago-based National Center on Poverty Law.

“There are no soap watchers anymore,” she said.

Those on welfare today are not necessarily the same people who were on when welfare reform began, she pointed out. The caseload is always in flux, with new cases being opened, closed and re-opened all the time.

Much of the decrease in the caseload stems from a decrease in case openings, she said. During 2001, an average of 3,393 cases opened every month, with minorities accounting for 80 percent of them. In the first year of welfare reform, the monthly average was 11,024; minorities accounted for 78 percent of them.

“The word on the street is that you can’t get welfare,” Stapleton said.

Illinois’ welfare program has been successful overall, said Dan A. Lewis, a Northwestern University professor who conducts an annual survey of families who were on welfare.

Lewis notes Illinois has taken a moderate approach to welfare reform, stopping the 60-month clock–”but not necessarily cutting off benefits–”as soon as recipients begin working at least 30 hours a week. People can also get benefits such as child care assistance until they make more than half the state’s median income of $24,000 a year.

And, in the last year, Illinois has become even more flexible, creating more opportunities for people to remain on the rolls for legitimate reasons. Victims of domestic violence and full-time college students with grade point averages of at least 2.5 can now stop their clocks.

Felicia Morgan, 23, is one of 1,831 recipients taking advantage of the provision.

But Morgan, a sociology major at Chicago State University, bemoans the fact that her clock ticks during summer break. The same is true if she goes to school part time. Human Services officials recently told her she had used 31 months of her eligibility.

Still, she is grateful to get benefits. She plans to be done with the welfare system for good once she graduates–”and never again step into the dark, stuffy Woodlawn office.

“They can say goodbye to me,” she said.

Contributing: Janelle Frost, Priya Khatkhate and Jocelyn Prince helped research this article.

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