CHRIS DORST/Sunday Gazette-Mail
Patricia Jennings lost her welfare benefits under the new West Virginia Works program, even though Jennings has three children to support and is an unlikely job candidate. From left are Christopher, 11, Ronnie Lee, 4, and Mikey, 2.
By Dawn Miller
CRUM - Angela Fugate was delighted when a social worker said she would have to work for her $312 monthly welfare check.
"I thought they were finally going to help me get a job," said the 30-year-old mother of three.
She was also a little scared. New welfare rules give her and 36,690 other state welfare recipients two years to find jobs. Until then, they can work for state-approved public offices, nonprofit groups and even some private companies in exchange for a check.
West Virginia's version of welfare reform has been in effect for nine months in nine counties: Greenbrier, Mercer, Monroe, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Tyler, Wayne, Wetzel and Wood.
Between January and July, West Virginia cut more than 7,500 families off welfare, formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
As the state prepares to enact its new rules - called West Virginia Works - in another 12 counties next month, no one can say for sure why families go off welfare, or how many people now have jobs instead.
Fugate's hope of finding a job faded quickly.
Even if she finds work, child care and transportation may be in short supply. Businesses are not necessarily hiring. Child support from her absent husband has been uncollectable. Her social worker told her she would probably have to move to find work.
That wasn't news to her. She had worked as a waitress at various restaurants across the county line in Mingo County or Kentucky, where most of Crum's residents work, eat and shop. But that was before her children were born. Until her husband took off, he supported the family. She tried to get a job after he left. At that time, her mother and sister lived nearby and would have watched the children.
But no one would hire her. Fugate said she bugged people for work, but there aren't many jobs in and around Crum, at the southern tip of Wayne County.
That's when she started receiving welfare benefits for her and her children, ages 10, 9 and 7.
After going jobless for so long, Fugate was unsure of her abilities.
"It really did scare me," Fugate said. "It was like a kid starting a new school."
So when chance and her typing skills landed her 26 hours a week at Starting Points, a nonprofit group in Crum that helps low-income people, her spirits rose again.
There, Fugate answers the phone, takes messages, runs the copy machine and types letters for Starting Points Director Pauline Sturgill. Fugate learned to type on a typewriter. On her first day of work last month, she sat down at the computer for her first point-and-click tour of Windows and the modern world of word processing.
"I do think it's good to try to make people self-sufficient," Fugate said. "Who wants to be on welfare?"
Cutting people off
Of the 7,500 West Virginians cut off welfare so far, almost half live in the nine counties where the new rules took effect. People have also quit collecting welfare checks in the other 46 counties, but at a slower rate.
In the first nine counties, the state cut off 44.3 percent of the people on welfare between January and July, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources. In the other counties, where the old rules are still in effect, welfare cases dropped by just 16.8 percent.
The suspicion is that few of those cut off are actually working, because the new rules took effect in very rural regions such as Crum, where even willing workers such as Fugate have a hard time.
"All we know at this point is people are being dropped from the rolls in large numbers, and we have a real concern as to why they're being dropped, and whether they are in fact working," Sturgill said.
The department can say that in July alone, 268 people in those counties stopped getting welfare. Of those, 99 were working. Another 77 left the rolls because of various reasons, such as they made too much money, got married or moved away. Another 50 people were cut off because of one new rule that's tougher than even the federal government requires.
Formerly, social workers ignored federal disability checks called Supplemental Security Income when judging whether a family needed help. Now, they are required to count it.
That means many families with a disabled member have had their welfare cut off.
That's how Patricia Jennings lost her benefits in April. Jennings gets a $484 monthly SSI disability check. When her social worker re-evaluated her case under the new rules, she came out $80 too wealthy to qualify for welfare under the new rules.
Jennings, 34, also lives in Crum, and she also has three children, ages 11, 4 and 2. Several years ago, her oldest son was hit by a truck, leaving him with development problems today, and her with enough money to buy a modest mobile home where the four of them live. Her mobile home sits on a patch of land she rents for $50 a month. A small, open dump spills into nearby Stonecoal Creek, tempting the children every time they're allowed off the porch.
Since welfare reform came to Wayne County, Jennings has stopped taking the children out to eat once a month. She cut her oldest son's allowance, which varied from $1 to $4 depending on how much money she had and whether he helped by tidying his room and taking out the garbage.
"By the time you pay bills and buy soap powders, there's nothing left," Jennings said.
State welfare officials guess it'll be a cinch to cut the first 20 percent of people off welfare. They might be people who want to work and were collecting checks temporarily, just to get over some bad times. Or they could be people who have been working all along and not reporting the income. Rather than deal with the hassle of new, tougher rules, they will just quit applying. Or they could qualify for such a small check, such as $20 or $30 a month, they decide they don't want that little bit to count toward their lifetime limit of 60 months.
Then there's another 20 percent who will never hang on to a job, even in the best economic times. Those people may have never learned basic manners and skills, such as how to answer a telephone courteously and volunteer to take messages. Or they may not show up on time, or at all.
It's that 60 percent in the middle - about 21,600 families in West Virginia - that has them puzzled. These people can work, want to work, but who is going to hire them?
'Somebody like Angela'
The new welfare program, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, is actually three old welfare programs combined - emergency assistance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and a job-training effort called JOBS.
In JOBS, welfare recipients work for nonprofit companies or do community service work in exchange for a check, as Fugate does in Sturgill's office.
As grateful as Sturgill is for the help, she is determined that Fugate will work there as briefly as possible.
Fugate is bright and pleasant. She is helpful and quick to smile.
"She's wonderful," Sturgill said. "I don't want to part with her.
Angela Fugate, 30, learns to use a computer for the first time as part of a job she was assigned in order to continue getting her welfare check. Fugate hopes the training leads to a paying job and no need for welfare.
"Somebody like Angela, I'm going to do all I can for so she can get out and get a job in six months."
She's trying to enroll Fugate in computer classes in nearby Naugatuck, Mingo County. With no car, Fugate is unsure how she will get there, but Sturgill hopes to line something up.
Sturgill has seen other welfare recipients placed in fast-food or cleaning jobs as training. It's honest work, but when their time is up, the workers aren't prepared to do anything that will enable them to support their families, Sturgill said.
"I feel very strongly a welfare worker should not be an indentured servant," Sturgill said.
It's not supposed to work that way, said Charlie Workman, who runs the welfare office in Wayne County.
"We're trying to make sure placements do lead to employment," Workman said. "Because of time limits placed on people, they can't afford not to train for something."
Although the work incentives are old and have had uneven levels of success, there's more emphasis on them under the new rules, Workman said.
The Wayne County Board of Education, for example, recently entered an agreement to hire workers and train them to be bus drivers, custodians and aides.
Another work-incentive program, called JOIN, allows welfare recipients to work for either nonprofit or for-profit companies. The company pays a $1-an-hour training stipend for 32 hours a week as part of the state and federal program.
It's up to state officials to make sure companies don't take advantage of $1-an-hour trainees to replace higher-paid workers.
"They can't fill vacant positions," Workman said. "We make sure that doesn't happen. We make a lot of inquiries with employers beforehand."
Companies that have recently laid off workers or otherwise downsized are not eligible, he said.
"They don't get free labor. This is a training program. It's not to support their work force. We've learned down through the years who's trustworthy and who's not."
Not only have welfare recipients had to adjust to new rules, but so have the social workers who serve them.
Under the old rules, workers spent most of their time figuring out if people were poor enough to qualify for help. They met welfare recipients once every six months or a year in most cases.
Now, welfare recipients are required to sign "personal responsibility contracts" outlining all the things they agree to do to collect a check. Some are the same for everyone, such as keeping children in school, cooperating to collect child support payments or getting children vaccinated. Others vary with the individual and include how they will go about getting a job or more training.
That means workers must sit down with each family and sift out the family's individual needs and talents. That takes longer. So each worker can handle fewer families.
Pauline Sturgill, Fugate's boss and director of Starting Points, a nonprofit office in Crum, Wayne County, that helps low-income people, says people are being cut off of welfare, but they're not necessarily able to find work.
"It's a different type of situation," Workman said. "The new job title is family support specialist. They will be more of a case manager than a case worker. As a case manager, they work one on one with customers, helping customers achieve self-sufficiency through various means.
"They may have to help come up with other resources. They help come up with referrals to other agencies they may not be aware of, transportation or day-care needs."
Wayne County's eight workers who enforce the new rules started with about 100 cases each in January. With closures, they're down to about 70 cases each, Workman said.
"That's almost manageable," he said. "If we do everything we need to do with face-to-face contacts, and we keep all the workers healthy, 75 per worker is what we would try to shoot for."
Workers who handle food stamps and Medicaid still have 500 or 550 cases each. If the caseload ever drops to 450 each, "We'll be doing well," he said.
The Kanawha County welfare office plans to assign 100 cases to each of its 31 workers when West Virginia Works takes effect next month.
That's lower than the 400 or more cases handled by 26 workers now, said Community Services Manager Troy Posey.
Some workers will be diverted from helping people get food stamps and Medicaid.
"Unfortunately, it's going to drive those up," Posey said. Food stamps and Medicaid workers will juggle 500 or 600 cases each before it evens out to about 450, he said.
West Virginia Works takes effect in Kanawha County next month, along with Cabell, Raleigh, McDowell, Marion, Monongalia, Harrison, Doddridge, Mingo, Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan. It hits Fayette County in November and Putnam in December.
Watching the watchers
While people such as Fugate, Jennings and their children face time limits and new income caps, West Virginia as a whole has also been handed tougher new rules to follow.
When Congress passed the new welfare law last year, states were allowed to choose one of several funding options - whichever was most beneficial for the state.
West Virginia officials chose to keep its 1994 funding level - $110 million from the federal government and $40 million from the state.
To keep getting its federal money, the state has to keep up its $40 million part of the bargain.
In the old days, if times were hard and the state wanted to funnel more money to welfare, the feds would match it. For a poor state like West Virginia, the match rates could be pretty generous.
The old match rate for Aid to Families with Dependent Children was $3 in federal money for every $1 in state money, for example. The JOBS program had several different rates, depending on how the money was used, but it could go as high as $9 to $1.
With welfare reform, the feds cut all that out. Now, it doesn't matter if your state is one of the poorest in the country.
"We get exactly the same amount of money we got in 1994, exactly the same," said Sharon Paterno, director of the state Office of Family Support.
"That's the entitlement issue and the end to the entitlement," Paterno said.
West Virginia is paying less in cash to individual families, but other costs are going up, she said.
The state has much higher computer costs, for example. A $12 million to $15 million computerized reporting and tracking system for welfare recipients was voluntary and heavily subsidized by the federal government in the past.
Now, any spending on that has to come out of the state's $110 million block grant, the same pot of money given to states to help families pay the rent or buy toiletries.
"That's money that could be going to families," Paterno said. "It's just like a household budget, and we only have so much money."
Just as the state has handed individuals new work requirements, the federal government handed the state the same requirements.
West Virginia must be able to prove that 25 percent of its welfare recipients are working, or else the state could lose 5 percent of its federal grant, or $5.5 million.
So it is in the state government's best interest to eliminate from the welfare rolls as many people like Jennings as possible.
Jennings has worked before. She was trained as a nurse's aide at Logan General Hospital, but she's not working now and she's not considered a good candidate for a job.
Jennings' disability is not evident. An 11-year abusive marriage to one man and later involvement with another man has left her nervous and uncomfortable with strangers. She lapses into inexplicable tears. Her doctor prescribes Xanax and Prozac.
Sitting on a porch built for her by a church group, Jennings spends much of her time sipping coffee and watching the children play. Just before school started, she found a ride to Wayne and stood in line with dozens of other low-income parents for a chance at $75 clothing vouchers for Christopher and Mikey. Mikey started school this year, but didn't want to go because he didn't have any clothes to wear. She got one voucher for Christopher. Her old welfare check would have bought clothes for both children.
But if Jennings isn't collecting a welfare check, she can't jeopardize the state's federal welfare funding by not working.
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