Gazette photos by LAWRENCE PIERCE
Greene plays with her daughters at her apartment in Cottle, Nicholas County. Greene has had to cut her college hours in half in order to keep getting welfare benefits under new federal rules.
By Linda B. Blackford
COTTLE - Misty Greene had a plan to get off welfare.
The 21-year-old single mother was in college full time to finish her degree so she could enroll in training classes to become an ultrasound technician. As a sonographer, she could get a real job at $15 an hour and become the kind of productive and independent citizen she's always hearing about on television.
But last year, the federal and state governments devised another plan to get people like Greene off welfare. They decided recipients had to have work experience, but college didn't count. To keep her check, Greene cut her college hours in half, and found a job at the local senior center kitchen where she works half a day.
The Nicholas County resident says she doesn't mind working. But she is frankly bewildered by the Catch-22 that has emerged: The new rules will extend her time in school, and as a result, her time on public assistance. She and her kids will be on welfare at least three years longer than she planned.
"It's hurting people like me who are trying," she said, holding two squirming armfuls of identical daughters, Alicia and Felicia, at her small apartment. "I don't want to stay on this forever, but it's going to take me so much longer because I can't go to school full time."
Greene also estimates she now gets more money from welfare, rather than less, since the government pays for day care for her 2-year-old twins four days a week.
"They're defeating their purpose," she said. "The purpose is to get off welfare and they're just delaying that."
Greene is living proof of the credo of West Virginia Works, the state's pilot welfare program. "Work is the focus of the WV Works Program - NOT educational activities" declares one flier about the program, which has already started in nine counties.
"Some educational activities will be available," it continues, "but work will be the first goal."
This credo flies in the face of what makes people independent, says Rick Wilson of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization working for economic justice.
"If you look at statistics, post-secondary education is extremely efficient in reducing poverty and helping permanently escape poverty, and yet as I understand West Virginia Works, there's no incentive or encouragement for people to attend post secondary education," he said. "There's one obvious way to help people out and they can't do it. It's a real paradox."
According to the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., the percentage of adults below the poverty line is cut in half with only one year of post secondary school.
Two-year community colleges, which offer many vocational degrees like sonography, can raise the average income by 41 percent.
The state actually pays more child-care costs for Misty Greene's 2-year-old twins, Alicia and Felicia Sullivan, now that she is working and going to school at the same time.
Lisa Diehl of the Center for Economic Options, is also amazed at the apparent contradiction.
"We do have lots of statistical information that does show the more education, the more self-sufficient and secure people are," she said. "It does seem to worth working on."
In West Virginia Works, welfare recipients can be placed in vocational training programs as their work experience, but that's limited to 12 months, said Sue Buster, a policy manager in the state Division of Health and Human Resources' Office of Family Support.
On the other hand, teen parents who don't have a high school diploma or a GED have to get back in school to be eligible for assistance. "Your job is go back to school," she said.
Buster thinks politicians believe people should have to work for the privilege of higher education. "Most kids work when they're in college," Buster said. "I think that's the attitude."
But welfare never paid for any college costs before, Buster stressed. "They had to find money for tuition, books and costs like that," she said.
'A real job'
Many welfare workers are trying to help their clients cope with the new rules.
"I encourage my workers to go ahead and be as flexible as possible," said John Maloney, the family support supervisor in Summersville. "To deny someone their benefits when they have one semester to go and a promising future would be ridiculous. But at the same time, if someone is just beginning that degree, we won't be able to be nearly as flexible."
Colleges around the state aren't sure how this will affect them yet. Most problems are dealt with at the welfare office rather than the college campus.
"It's certainly a concern if these students have to drop out," said Jim Skidmore, the acting vice chancellor for community and college education at the state college system. There will have to be efforts among colleges and the state to work it out so these students can keep going to school, he said.
Skidmore also says that many people work and go to school at the same time. He has asked if welfare recipients are prepared for a double load of work and school.
"I'm just wondering if they try to enter both arenas at the same time - are they equipped?" he said.
Cheryl Covey worked for four years to get her GED. She finally graduated and found a job at the Foodland delicatessen in Summersville to help support her three children. She still gets some federal assistance.
"I'm happy where I'm at, but you can't get above minimum wage," she said. "I'd have to go back to school to get a better job but I probably won't be able to."
Misty Greene wanted to skip this step and start out with a job that paid better than minimum wage. That way she would be independent.
Now, Greene's average day starts at 6 a.m. when she dresses and feeds Alicia and Felicia and drops them off at day care.
She goes to her job at the local senior center, where she peels potatoes and washes dishes in the kitchen for five hours. At 12:15 p.m., she drives to Summersville for an afternoon of college classes. Then it's back to Cottle to pick up, feed and undress her twins before a few hours of homework.
The rambunctious twins, who require constant supervision, also go to day care on Fridays. That's Greene's day for homework and studying for the next week.
"I like my job and I like going to school," she said. "It's just that it's going to take me so much longer to finish now."
Greene got straight A's in high school and was already enrolled in college when she got pregnant. She stayed in school until her doctor ordered complete bed rest for several months. After the twins were born, she went back to school as soon as possible.
The twins' father helps out, but only recently found a job to contribute his share of child support.
Greene says she doesn't think she should be given a free ride, but she doesn't believe she should be penalized for trying to do what most Americans expect as natural rights: go to college and get a good job.
"I wish those people born with silver spoons in their mouths could come here and do what I do every week," she said. "Maybe if they did, I could go full-time to school, and have a real job that's not minimum wage."