Tennessee's Families First program is moving
thousands of people from welfare to work
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
It's a little after 5:30 p.m. on a warm but gray January Wednesday, and Yana
Truman has just arrived home from her second day of work, later than she
meant to be. Even as she sets down her purse and some bags, her
childrenverbal, friendly Kayla, 2, and round-eyed, toddling Mel,
1want her attention. She gets their coats off and gives each a piece
of gummi candy, then walks to the kitchen. Kayla follows her.
"My candy," the girl with purple hairclips implores her mother.
"No, Kayla," Truman says.
"P'ease?" "No." "P'ease?" "No." "P'ease?" "No, no more. Here, have some milk."
As Truman fills plastic spill-proof cups for both children, the white telephone
in her sparse but comfortable living room rings.
"Unh," the 20-year-old single mother groans, shaking her head. "I can't even
get in the door."
As far as Families First, the state's welfare reform program, is concerned,
Truman is in the door. The trick will be staying there. After a year
of training programs while living on government assistance, she's making
$7 an hour working for a Knoxville temp service (although, after just two
days at her first assignment, she's a little unclear what exactly she'll
be doing"mostly filing," she says). But the real test for Truman, and
for thousands of other women who have left the state's welfare rolls since
Families First took effect nearly a year and a half ago, will be whether
that first step will ultimately lead to the program's stated
It's too soon to gauge the long-term effects of welfare reform in Tennessee,
which began its program several months before the federal reform plan signed
by President Clinton. (In fact, most states are doing their own variations
on welfare reform, under waivers from the federal program. Most are broadly
similar to Families First, although Tennessee has one of the most aggressive
time limits in the country.) But already, it's clear the move from welfare
to workwork that is dependable, work that can support a familyis
a complicated proposition that defies bureaucratic formulas. In many ways,
the new problems of Families First, despite its much-touted changes in the
welfare codes, are the same as the old problems of welfareand also,
crucially, as those faced by the "working poor," an amorphous population
whose ranks have swelled as the number of Tennesseans on welfare has dropped
In the first 14 months of Families Firstfrom September 1996 to November
1997, the most recent month for which numbers are available from Tennessee's
Department of Human Servicesthe state's welfare membership declined
from 91,499 households to 56,611. Knox County has seen a similar drop, from
5,222 to 3,117. Despite some efforts to track the progress of those who have
left, officials admit they don't know the fate of many of the departed families.
The numbers have prompted Gov. Don Sundquist to claim some degree of victory
for Families First. But the experiences of people within the systemthe
vast majority of them single mothers with few outside resourcesgive
some indications of the long road ahead for any effort to remedy not only
welfare but the circumstances that produce it.
Sherry Williams is watching "Days of Our Lives" on a small black-and-white
TV she borrowed from her parents. Her own TV is broken. So is her car.
"I'd rather be working," she says, seated on the couch that takes up most
of the back wall of her small living room. It's a common refrain of welfare
recipients, but it's not an idle statement; until a little over a month ago,
Williams was working. Today, she's wearing one of the white smocks
from the uniforms she wore as a certified nursing assistantit's one
of the only shirts she owns.
Turning the sound down on the TV, Williams launches into a frustrated invective
against what she sees as the deceptions built into Families First.
"It's all a big hoax, every bit of it," the 22-year-old says bitterly. "It
might be somewhere else helping people, but here in Tennessee I just don't
think it's helping at all. Because you don't get nothin' that you're told
you're going to get."
As she speaks, her young son Jerden wanders in and out of the room sporting
a gray jumpsuit and pink, slightly smudgy cheeks, carrying a basketball,
a bulldozer, and assorted other toys.
Williams, a 1994 graduate of Halls High School, signed onto Aid to Families
with Dependent Children (AFDC) when she was seven months pregnant with Jerden.
She says she gets no support from
the boy's father. AFDC, established in the 1930s, is the program generically
known as "welfare" and the object of both state and national welfare reform
efforts. It does not include food stamps or SSI disability checks, separate
programs that often serve the same population (and that have undergone their
own "reforms" in the past year and a half). For all the attention it receives,
AFDC provides the smallest monthly payments of any of the benefit
programsin Tennessee, a maximum of $142 a month for a mother with one
child, compared to $224 a month in food stamps and sometimes several hundred
more if a child qualifies for a disability check.
When Families First replaced AFDCwhich had no time limit or work
requirementsWilliams says she was excited. Even though the new program
forbids anyone from staying on welfare for more than 18 months at a
timewith a lifetime maximum of five yearsWilliams liked its other
attributes. It offers child care and transportation assistance ($5 a day)
while participants are in job training, andor so Williams
understood"transition benefits" for 18 months after participants start
working. Williams had worked before, during high school and even for a while
after Jerden was born. But the latter job, at a Mrs. Winner's restaurant,
didn't pay enough to support her and her son. With Families First's job training
and new benefits, Williams figured she could make her way toward stability.
At first, it seemed to work out that way. She completed her nursing assistant's
training and quickly got a $7-an-hour job at Hillcrest North nursing home.
The work was toughbathing and caring for the home's elderly and often
ailing residentsbut Williams says she liked it. But if she was living
up to her end of the Families First bargain, she says she quickly found the
program itself wasn't. Expecting to get another 18 months of all of her
benefitsAFDC, food stamps, and rental assistance among themshe
instead found that all she got was a continued child care subsidy and TennCare.
Now, she had to pay $187 a month in rent, plus her utility bills, transportation
costs, $24 a week for her share of the child care bill, groceries, and all
other expenses on take-home pay of well under $1,000 a month.
In fact, the transition benefits in Families First do not include continued
AFDC paymentsthose stop as soon as employment starts. Other benefits,
particularly food stamps, are based on income, and Williams says she was
told her $1,120 a month gross put her over the limit. As for her housing,
Williams found out the 18-month rent freeze discussed by DHS workers applies
only to people living in public housing, not to those, like her, who receive
rental assistance at privately-owned apartments. She thinks it's a discriminatory
rule: "A home is a home. It's a roof over your head."
Russ Overby, a lawyer with the Tennessee Justice Center, which represents
low-income clients across the state, says Williams is not alone in her
"A common thing I've heard from people is, 'When they described this program
to me, they told me I'd have 18 months to get on my feet, and as soon as
I got my job, I got cut off, my food stamps went down, my rent went up,'"
Despite the financial shocksand, she says, not being able to connect
with her DHS case manager for four monthsWilliams stuck with her job
through December. It was a losing proposition. Her parents, strapped for
cash themselves, ended up chipping in $2,000 over the five and a half months
Williams worked to help pay her bills. In December, after a stretch of
absenteeism that Williams says was due to both Jerden and her having serious
medical problems (he was sick and briefly hospitalized; she had trouble with
a chronic knee injury), she was dismissed from Hillcrest. Williams says she
presented doctor's notes to her employer but was told they didn't matter.
(Hillcrest officials confirm Williams' employment tenure there, but won't
comment further, citing personnel confidentiality.) Frustrated, she reapplied
for Families First. Had she been able to maintain her benefits while
workingeven for a few monthsWilliams says she could have saved
up enough to tide her over while she looked for another job.
Her difficulties were compounded a few weeks later, when the front axles
on her 1988 Pontiac Bonneville gave out, leaving her without transportation.
Her DHS case manager has said there's money available through Families First
to help fix her car, but she can't qualify for the aid until she attends
more job training classes. But, she says, she can't get to the classes on
Fifth Avenue from her home in Northwest Knoxville until her car is
fixednot to mention getting Jerden to his Fountain City day care center.
"They're staying on my behind, no matter what, wanting me to go, making me
go," she says. "And like I told them, what am I gonna do, walk all the way
to Tazewell Pike, drop my kid off at day care, and walk all the way back
[to class]?" (Officials say women in Williams' position do qualify for a
$5 a day transportation voucher to use buses or other alternatives.)
After an hour or so of conversation, Williams is interrupted by the arrival
of her mother, Marlene, who's volunteered to drive Williams on some errands
this afternoon. A blunt-spoken, copper-haired woman who works at the Forks
of the River industrial park, the elder Williams seconds her daughter's
contention that Families First expects too much too soon of its participants.
"To me, it was the biggest blunder that I've ever seen," she says. "It turned
out to be a big mess. I agree with doing it, but do it fairly...What they
require, it don't make sense. If you're going to help, give them a fair chance
so they can stay on their own two feet."
Williams says she mostly wants to get back to work. But she's now skeptical
of how much Families First wants to help her. "If they stuck by their 18-months
[transitional benefits] plan, everybody could be off of welfare, I believe,"
she says. "When they've got it in the newspaper, this woman made it off welfare
and this and that, well, yeahI made it off welfare for six months,
but look what happened to me. It's not a guarantee."
Sherry Shipe has learned the same lesson. The 26-year-old mother of a 9-month-old
son talks fast, so fast that when she worked the drive-through counter at
a KFC in her hometown of Greeneville, both her customers and her manager
had to ask her to slow down. And she has a lot to say about Families First.
"What I don't understand is, I work 30 hours a week...and they still stripped
me of my AFDC check. They said I make too much money," Shipe says, seated
in the pyramidal lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where she works answering
telephones. "You can't make too mucha money with 30 hours a week,
no child support, and no food stamps, [making] under $6 an hour."
Shipe, the daughter of a Greeneville school administrator, had never been
on welfare before signing up last winter while she was pregnant (her son's
father is out of state and out of touch; Shipe says little about him, and
nothing complimentary). She had been working at the Hyatt prior to starting
Families First and planned to go back after having her baby. So she was somewhat
baffled by the program's requirement that she look for another job while
on maternity leave.
"I did it just to see if I could find a better job, but they won't hire someone
who's pregnant," she says. "[DHS] didn't understand that, but they didn't
care as long as you went out and tried to find a job."
After her son's birth, Shipe did return to work last summer. But she could
no longer work the overnight hours she had previously, because there was
no graveyard shift child care available. Working day shifts, she gets fewer
hours than she used to, although she works overtime when it's available.
With a salary of $5.46 an hour, she was shocked to discover she was over
the income limit for Families First. She was even more shocked to find out
that, because of an income reporting requirement that DHS count her overtime
pay as regular income, she had to pay back nearly $750 in food stamps that
had been improperly issued.
Not all of her Families First experiences have been negative. She found a
personal skills class valuable, and she appreciates the day care subsidy
and TennCare coverage she still gets. But Shipe, who has taken some college
courses and hopes to go to school full-time this fall to study human ecology,
is scornful of any attempt to classify people like herthose off of
welfare but struggling to make ends meetas "success stories."
"They're making it harder and harder for people to get back on the program
or stay on the program," she says. "If I made $300 a week, I wouldn't even
worry about the program. But I don't do that."
Experiences like Shipe's are what worry Barbara Soliday. Not for
herselfthe fourth-year University of Tennessee architecture student
expects to have plenty of earning power by the time she finishes her five-year
program, enough to provide for her 4- and 7-year-old children. But for women
in the situation Soliday was in three years ago, she fears the strict deadlines
and sudden cut-off of Families First could be a discouragement, maybe a
Wearing a light dress and cardigan sweater at a metal café table in
the skylit atrium of UT's Arts and Architecture Building, the 27-year-old
Soliday says she was already enrolled at the university when she made the
difficult decision to leave an abusive marriage. She and her children lived
in the Serenity Shelter for battered women for four months.
"The choice that was available to me was to stay in school and suffer the
humiliation of being on welfare until I could graduate, knowing that I would
be able to have a job that I could support my family on, or...to go to work
right away, to quit school, and to work at a low-paying job for as long as
it took to raise my kids," she says. "It seemed pretty obvious that I would
not be making enough money doing that to support myself and two kids."
But that was before Families First. Had she been facing an 18-month time
limit on her benefits, Soliday says it would have been a harder choice to
make. As it is, her welfare eligibility will run out this summer, with at
least a year left to go in her program. She may qualify for extended benefits,
but she's not counting on it. Instead, she'll probably make up the difference
by increasing her already hefty student loans (she expects to owe $50,000
by the time she graduates).
Now an active member of Solutions to Issues of Concern to Knoxvillians (SICK),
a social justice advocacy group, Soliday is troubled by much of the public
discussion of welfare reformparticularly media portraits that suggest
that all welfare recipients need is "a little encouragement, drug and alcohol
programs, or a shove, a kick in the seat of the pants; there's a lot more
structural problems in the way than just not having the initiative."
One of those problems, she says, is a lack of focus on education. Although
it's an option for Families First participants, Soliday doesn't think academic
pursuits beyond high school are encouraged. She notes her own case worker
questioned her decision to stick with such a long course of study, suggesting
community college or vocational training instead.
"The 18-month time limit is a big discouragement, because you can't even
get a 2-year degree," she says.
Overby concurs. "[A college education] is the surest way for them to be
self-sufficient, and [DHS] should be encouraging the heck out of it for those
who can achieve that," he says. He remembers that his first call about Families
First came in the fall of 1996 from a woman who wanted to know if she should
drop out of college because she wouldn't graduate by the time her eligibility
Soliday also questions DHS' commitment to collecting court-ordered child
support. Although Families First included new funding for stepped-up collection
efforts, so far it has yielded only a small dividend: support payments were
up to $206.1 million statewide in 1997, from $190.4 million in 1996. Soliday's
own experience suggests they could be much higher. She says she has given
DHS her ex-husband's home and work addresses, but hasn't seen any results.
"I've even called the child support office to ask if I need to do something
else, like take out a warrant or something," she says. "They don't call me
She says she's supposed to be receiving $800 a month in supporttwice
as much as her food stamp and AFDC payments combinedbut gets nothing.
Beyond those issues, though, Soliday thinks the focus on welfare reform itself
is off-target. The issue, she says, should not be who's on or off welfare
but who's able to provide decent lives for themselves and their children.
"It's talked about in terms of money. It's talked about in terms of how many
people are on this list, or how much it's costing, rather than in human terms:
What does this mean for people who are affected?"
DHS officials insist that question is their main concern. Dave Avans, the
earnest, mustachioed DHS administrative director for all of East Tennessee,
is careful not to call Families First a success simply because the welfare
numbers are down. DHS' own survey of former participants who are now employed
shows an average wage of just $5.82 an hour.
"We realize when they go to work they still have problems," Avans says. "Some
of them may be significant to the point they lose their jobs. Hopefully,
though, that's not the end of the line for them. Hopefully they're going
to be able to move up into something else."
DHS has been tracking, or trying to track, people who have left Families
First. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of
Memphis has been conducting surveys of current and former participants since
last March. A new set of figures is due out in a couple of weeks, but preliminary
results released in August showed 70 percent of people who had left the program
to go to work rated Families First either "excellent" or "good." On the other
hand, it also showed them working an average of only 33 hours a week, and
just 17 percent of them had jobs with medical insurance. Most troubling to
observers like Overby is that those figures represent the cream of the welfare
reform croponly about 30 percent of people who have left Families First,
either voluntarily or because of noncompliance with its rules, did so because
they had found full-time employment.
But Avans says things will get a little better this year with the infusion
of federal welfare reform moneydubbed "Welfare-to-Work" fundingon
top of the state's allocation. It will mean an extra $32 million for Families
First over the next three years, including $1.5 million for Knox County.
Avans says the money will provide some transportation assistance for people
after they start work, as well as counseling as they make the transition
to full employment, additional skill training, and an emergency fund for
thoselike Williamsfacing one-time expenses that threaten to force
them back onto welfare.
The department also has just started an independent review of every Families
First case that's closed for reasons other than full-time employment, to
make sure people aren't being cut off too soon. Overby praises the idea.
Even so, it's hard to escape the feeling that, in welfare policy-making,
success is always one more program or federal grant away.
"There are always things that come up that need to be addressed," Avans
acknowledges. Still, he says, "Around here, we've not heard too many of the
nightmare stories. I think we got labeled early on as the bad guy, and that's
For Yana Truman, life off welfare promises to be a challenge. But not as
much of a challenge as her life before welfare, when she was working
unpredictable minimum-wage shifts at fast-food restaurants, sometimes paying
for child care just to work three hours during the lunch or dinner rush.
"I was just working to pay day care, and that's where all my money was going,"
the 1995 Farragut High School graduate says. She signed up for Families First
in December 1996 so she could get job training and improve her prospects.
She's largely complimentary of the program.
"You can use it in a way to better yourself," she says. "You don't have that
much time, but the time you do have you can use."
It wasn't easyuntil she got a car a few months ago, Truman had to leave
home two hours early to negotiate KAT's unwieldy bus schedules and get to
her classes on time. She also endured DHS travails like an ever-changing
cast of case managers and the months-long disappearance of her case file.
But it was worth it, she says. Thanks to three 6-week clerical classes, she's
now versed in everything from amortization tables to desktop publishing and
But Truman also recognizes she's luckier than some welfare recipients. For
one thing, she had family and the fathers of her two children to help her
outtaking the kids to day care, paying child support, etc. For another,
she always viewed Families First as a means to an end rather than a long-term
support system. Many women, she believes, may not overcome the sudden loss
of benefits after they start work.
For herself, though, she's convinced there's no looking back. "I'm just glad
to be working, basically. I feel that with the training I've had, I can find
something stable. I'm not really worried."
By a little after 6 p.m., Kayla and Mel are tired of playing and ready for
dinner. If Truman's lucky, Kayla will be in bed by 8 and Mel won't pull one
of his night-owl routines, keeping her up to 3 or 4 a.m. But even if he does,
she knows where she'll be tomorrowback at work.