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 children—verbal, friendly Kayla, 2, and round-eyed, toddling Mel, 1—want 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 goal—"self-sufficiency."

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 work—work that is dependable, work that can support a family—is 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 welfare—and 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 precipitously.

In the first 14 months of Families First—from September 1996 to November 1997, the most recent month for which numbers are available from Tennessee's Department of Human Services—the 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 system—the vast majority of them single mothers with few outside resources—give 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 assistant—it'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 programs—in 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 AFDC—which had no time limit or work requirements—Williams says she was excited. Even though the new program forbids anyone from staying on welfare for more than 18 months at a time—with a lifetime maximum of five years—Williams liked its other attributes. It offers child care and transportation assistance ($5 a day) while participants are in job training, and—or 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 tough—bathing and caring for the home's elderly and often ailing residents—but 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 benefits—AFDC, food stamps, and rental assistance among them—she 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 payments—those 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 complaints.

"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,'" he says.

Despite the financial shocks—and, she says, not being able to connect with her DHS case manager for four months—Williams 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 working—even for a few months—Williams 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 fixed—not 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, yeah—I 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 her—those off of welfare but struggling to make ends meet—as "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 herself—the 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 life-threatening one.

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 reform—particularly 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 ran out.

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 back."

She says she's supposed to be receiving $800 a month in support—twice as much as her food stamp and AFDC payments combined—but 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 crop—only 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 money—dubbed "Welfare-to-Work" funding—on 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 those—like Williams—facing 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 not true."  

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 easy—until 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 spreadsheets.

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 out—taking 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 tomorrow—back at work.