Report — From the October 2015 issue

Getting Jobbed

The real face of welfare reform

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One of these returning clients — a thirty-two-year-old married mother of three who had been through the EARN system in Philadelphia twice — was the reason I’d come to the center that day. I’d first met Rosie2 a few months earlier, at an antihunger conference hosted by Drexel University. Rosie was one of half a dozen women on welfare in Philadelphia whom I followed for more than a year. Two decades after Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, and facing the prospect of another Clinton presidency, I wanted to understand what life on public assistance is like these days.

2 The names of several of the women discussed here have been changed.

Rosie was one of the keynote speakers at the Drexel conference, where she had used the same motivational phrases that decorated the walls of the EARN Center: “I always say, we’re not looking for a handout, we’re looking for a hand in.” But when we next met, for lunch at her apartment, Rosie had lost her office job, and her mood was understandably darker. In person, Rosie was still forceful, and she still knew how to talk the motivational talk. “God will provide” was a constant refrain. But she’d lost a significant amount of weight, and she looked exhausted. We had to keep our voices down because her husband was sleeping in the bedroom upstairs after a midnight shift at the grocery store where he worked part-time. As we unwrapped sandwiches from Subway, she confessed that she hadn’t eaten anything yet that day. Her stomach, she said, was killing her.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Rosie and her husband had burned through their small savings in the first few months after she lost her job. Now their family of five relied on his minimum-wage paychecks (usually less than $600 a month), plus Rosie’s unemployment ($660) and food stamps ($793), which, combined, brought them to around $2,000 per month, just above the poverty line. That sum had to cover their rent ($250), pay down several thousand dollars in delinquent utility bills, and feed their three children and Rosie’s three teenage stepchildren, who spent most weekends at her house. This was to say nothing of clothes, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and co-pays for medication.

We ate at a table in her small kitchen. Behind us, a mold stain had spread up the wall toward the ceiling. Rosie scrubbed it with bleach every week, but it always grew back. Her kitchen shelves were crowded with cereal and canned goods that had been bought in bulk or collected from the local food pantry. Rosie’s favorite score was Beef with Juice, which came in no-brand cans. She drained off the juice to make gravy and mixed the beef chunks with mashed potatoes and string beans. “I know it sounds gross,” she said, “but it makes a meal.”

After lunch, we headed over to Walmart so that Rosie could stock up on food before the weekend. She riffled through coupons and read price tags with religious fervor — “This one’s two-fifty, but wait, wait . . . here we go, one dollar on sale” — and loaded up her cart with yogurt, spinach, more cereal, boxes of frozen waffles and vegetables, and frozen-yogurt popsicles as a treat for the kids. Thanks to her diligent price tracking, a cartful of heavy bags cost her less than a hundred dollars.

With an office job on her résumé, a strong personality, and an impressive eye for detail and organization, Rosie seemed like the kind of client whom an EARN Center might put on the fast track to employment, but it had been almost six months since her last job. Nothing since then had panned out. When I asked whether the EARN Center had put pressure on her to find a position within the first three months, Rosie couldn’t remember: “I told my employment adviser, ‘I’ll be out of here in two weeks!’ ” As we pulled out of the parking lot, she told me that she had recently cleared a drug test and three interviews for a Walmart cashier position, only to be told she was overqualified. “They thought I’d quit as soon as I got something better,” she said. Since then, she had picked up a few shifts at a community center’s after-school program, but she wouldn’t get paid for another week.

In the meantime, Rosie clocked in at the EARN Center from Monday to Friday. In the evenings and on weekends, she scrambled to make extra cash by cleaning houses, washing dishes at Shabbat dinners and bridal showers on the Main Line, and braiding hair for people in the neighborhood. These jobs brought in an extra fifty or hundred dollars here and there, but they didn’t count as one of her official work “activities” because they all paid under the table.

“When you go from working to back on public assistance — I’m not going to say I hate it,” Rosie told me. “I am grateful, but I just don’t want it. I want to work. I don’t want all the headaches of the paperwork and sitting in the EARN Center again. It’s hard to find yourself back there.”

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lives in New York. Her article “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” appeared in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This report was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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