Welfare to Work: A Sequel

By Jason DeParle
The New York Times Magazine
December 28, 1997

At 7:30 on a November school morning, the twins finally stir. They tumble off the couch in the kindergarten outfits they have worn for 24 hours and pad down the hall, all whispers and giggles. They turn the bathroom sink into a balance beam and dangle themselves from the shower rod. They paint luncheon meat with stripes of mayonnaise to make breadless breakfast sandwiches. What they cannot do is rouse their mother, who remains slumped on the couch with a worrisome case of depression and a lapsed prescription for Prozac.

"Fifteen minutes, skinny little girl," she says to a tap on her shoulder. "I ain't ready to get up." The tap continues, and her voice sharpens: "Girl! Would you stop!"

The apartment looks like a thrift shop hit by a cyclone. A month of dirty laundry sits stuffed in plastic bags and a week's dishes are scattered around the kitchen. The blinds are drawn, the room is dark and when Mary Ann Moore opens her eyes, she peers out with a cracked gaze.

By 8:15, she pulls herself up to brush her daughters' hair. By 8:30, she orders them into their coats and points them toward the door. "Bye, you little smookers -- I love you," she says, on her feet for a goodbye kiss. She watches from the window until they reach the Chicago schoolyard and returns for a day on the couch.

Three years ago, she was beating the sunlight to the streets. She was up at 3:30 A.M. the first time I visited her, snapping on lights and bundling up children. She was out the door at 5 and on the job, as a cook, by 6. Her car scarcely worked; the twins' father felt neglected, and the routine left her bone-tired. But after 14 years of public aid, she had kept the job for nearly a year and talked of escaping to the suburbs.

Now even she has a hard time explaining her tailspin into homelessness and addiction. Perhaps the depression keyed her drug relapse; certainly the relapse deepened her depression. Three years after starring as a welfare-to-work heroine, Moore is back among the 2,000 welfare families living in and around the public-housing high-rises of Cabrini-Green.

Impressed by the recent caseload declines, much of the country has already declared last Washington's monumental welfare overhaul a success. But the new system has barely begun to grapple with the Mary Ann Moores -- the one or two million long-term recipients who pose the greatest challenge. For all the drama of last year's debate, welfare is mostly a proxy for a far larger problem: the condition of the central cities. There are more people on welfare in Chicago alone than there are among the combined populations of Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming. There are nearly as many welfare families in Cabrini-Green as there are in all of Wyoming.

Last year's debate brought extravagant claims on all sides about what time limits and work requirements would mean in these neighborhoods. Bemoaning the "stereotypes," one side argued that long-term welfare recipients were basically like everyone else -- just less lucky. Then it argued that new restrictions might cause children to starve. The other side warned of a welfare underclass so dysfunctional it posed a threat to civilization. Then it supposed that a legal finger snap would prompt the poor to stand up and prosper.

After spending a week with Moore, and piecing together her fall, it seems safe to say three things: She and many people around her very much need help. The old system wasn't providing it. To do better, the country will have

to do far more than celebrate caseload declines.

"It's like I went through a depressive stage," Moore says, her face puffy with fatigue. She is picking at a diner omelet and trying to explain what went wrong. Depression, drugs, a tangled life with an unemployed man -- Moore is talking about herself. But she is also describing the troubled landscape in which the new welfare programs will try to take root. She is mapping an ecosystem of inner-city defeat. What's missing is the spirited, self-mocking humor that used to abound despite the unhappy basics of her life: a childhood in Cabrini without a father; no high-school degree; four children by three men; dozens of jobs, and eventually an addiction to crack. Her mood swings could be biological, of course. Or they could be rooted in the violence that has saturated her life. (She saw her first neighborhood shooting when she was 8.) A doctor recommended an antidepressant a decade ago, but Moore, who is now 36, says, "I thought it was for crazy people or something."

Examined in psychological terms, her staccato bursts of work seem less a plan for self-support than an expression of underlying mania -- the mirror image of her current, depleted self. In the fall of 1994, Moore worked her kitchen job for stretches of two weeks at a time. She never went to bed; she had no bed. Then as now, she catnapped through the night on a living-room couch. "I'm depressed when I'm not doing something," she says.

At times, her mood swung around Michael, the father of the young twins. When I first visited in 1994 his place in her life was unclear. He was a handsome, articulate man in his mid-40's who had worked in a steel mill before he developed a cocaine habit. They met at a party where Moore had gotten high, and they conceived the twins that night. They reunited two years later, after Moore had finished a drug treatment program, when they happened to be staying at the same shelter. Outwardly, she rolled her eyes at his love poems and his roses. But she also kept him around.

The role of the men is one of the great missing elements of the welfare debate. Like many women leaving welfare for work, Moore had to contend with a man who felt left behind. Michael beseeched her to work less, and told her that her emotional neglect had pushed him to a relapse. When a relative of Moore's moved in with a crack problem of his own, the household was poised for a fall. Mary Anne was home one afternoon with a stomach virus when she awoke to a familiar smell. The pipe passed into her hands, and in just a few weeks, her job was gone, food was scarce and dealers were banging on the door to collect. "It got bad," she says. "It got real bad." It took her teen-age son, Marchello, to summon a posse of relatives to put the addicted men out. Moore says she later found powders, leaves and "something like an eyeball in a little, bitty medicine jar" that convinced her Michael had harmed her with voodoo. "Every time I tell somebody about that, they think I'm crazy," she says.

Whether by black magic or bad judgment, Moore virtually collapsed. Marchello, who is now 17, escaped on scholarship to a boarding school in Colorado. She sent her other son, Omotunde, now 8, to live with his father. And for most of the next two years, Moore and the girls, Roshea and Roshaun, became inner-city nomads. They slept on a couch in the overcrowded apartment that belongs to Moore's mother, and sublet rooms from Cabrini addicts for $100 a month.

Amazingly enough, throughout this time Moore mostly stayed employed. Her mother is a tenant manager in Cabrini, and when all else fails Moore signs on as a security guard. (In that job and others, she has rarely earned enough to leave welfare; over the last 10 years, she has received some cash aid in all but eight months.) Some theorists argue that work is a reforming force in itself: a bond to a larger community that brings meaning and purpose to life. Moore accepts the idea -- she feels better about herself when she works. But a job alone has never been enough to rescue her. "We'd get our paychecks, buy food, go off on a binge and go back to work two days later," she said.

When help finally came, it did not come from the welfare department, which simply mailed a monthly check. Years earlier, Moore had joined a Salvation Army program for homeless women and children, and the social workers there went to extraordinary efforts to stay in touch. Often unable to reach her by phone, they would show up at Cabrini with baskets of food; they once talked their way in to see her in the middle of a gang shooting. Their files reveal a sustained, personal relationship almost unheard of in the public realm: "She was supposed to work yesterday but the depression came over her....There has been gang fighting going on all morning and it is getting on her nerves... She had a lot of clothes over at L.'s house. ...She left there because he was starting to want sex from her... They are not eating well since MA did not get paid this week.'

By contrast, Moore's welfare file looks like a work sheet at H&R Block: it is choked with the arithmetic of grant calculation and devoid of any other insight. The Salvation Army workers have college degrees and six to eight clients at a time. Half of the welfare workers are high-school graduates and they carry caseloads of 180. They are the ones, as Illinois phases in the new welfare rules, who are expected to take charge of the nation's toughest social problems.

In the end, the Salvation Army all but dragged Moore back into drug treatment. Arriving there with the recidivist's shame, she wrote angry diatribes at herself. ("A supit fool. Thinking I alright because I have a job. when in fact I was working for the dope.") She also wrote apologetic letters to her family and friends, many of which lie unmailed at the bottom of her closet.

One is addressed to Toby Herr. At 54, Herr is a nervous, talky, leaf-thin woman whose prominence in the welfare world has surprised no one more than herself. Unlike her clients, she was raised in material security, but she describes her childhood as an 18-year panic attack. "When they called attendance in grammar school, I'd practice saying 'Here,' because I couldn't stand to hear my voice," she says. In 1968, Herr landed a job teaching grade school in Cabrini -- hardly a haven for the emotionally fragile. But she felt as though she had found a home. "I could identify with low self-esteem," she says.

Three decades later, Herr may know as much as anyone of the dynamics between inner-city women and work. In 1985, she converted a dozen years of Cabrini experience, teaching and evaluating social services into a shoestring employment program called Project Match. At first it seemed remarkably easy: her first eight clients got hired. But most quickly quit or got fired. "The job loss was staggering," she says. Or as she put it, in what has become a maxim of the field, "Leaving welfare is a process, not an event."

Few people cover the pitfalls as encyclopedically as Moore, who joined Project Match in 1989 and raced through eight jobs in the first three years. She drove a delivery truck; peddled nuts; fried eggs, and guarded a parking lot. She quit because her car died and her baby sitter fell through; because her boyfriends were jealous and she wanted to get high. Because "I was young-minded." Because "I just got tired." Because "I just got depressed."

The job losses posed a question to Herr that the country now has to face: how to design an effective program when failure is so frequent? Herr tries to reduce the time spent between jobs. She tries to get clients to learn from mistakes, while celebrating the "incremental progress" that even a short-lived job can represent. And she emphasizes a long-term relationship with clients that can unmask the underlying problems; Project Match helped Moore find her first treatment program.

The results look as good as any, but still the numbers are cautionary. Herr (with a research associate, Suzanne Wagner) has found that about 36 percent of her clients settle into stable employment within two years. Another 13 percent do so after a much longer period of spinning their wheels. That still means half either do no formal work (23 percent) or, like Moore, work intermittently but never stabilize (28 percent). "The question is, What do you do with this large group of moms who really don't function very well?" Herr says.

Last year, a Republican Congress and a Democratic President settled on an answer: time limits and work requirements. While most of her profession reacted with dismay, Herr has more complicated feelings. Thirty years in one of the nation's most blighted neighborhoods has convinced her that everyone can do something, even if it's just volunteering at a school. At the same time, she does not believe most Cabrini women can do what the law en-visions: work full time while raising children.

The law restricts most recipients to five years of Federal support in a lifetime. While states can grant extensions to 20 percent of their caseload, Herr thinks that won't be nearly enough. Her hope is that the law will serve as a sorting mechanism "to figure out who can do what" -- who can work full time; who can work part time; who needs to mix volunteer work with drug or mental-health treatment. It is revealing that her mission statement says nothing of "self-sufficiency," the buzzword of the moment. It aims at "economic and social stability," a more important goal. "We're trying to get people's lives together, not just get them off of welfare," she says.

One question is whether her notion of flexible-but-rising expectations can find any political support. (Herr says it might if recipients seem to progress -- a big if.) Another is whether caseworkers have the competence to formulate and enforce such individualized plans. And the country will still be left with a group -- "and it's not a small group," Herr says -- that cannot or will not comply. What to do then? It's easy to talk about orphanages. But as Herr notes, "Mary Ann, for all her shortcomings, has a very strong bond with her children." She may seem inadequate. She's also irreplaceable.

"We have no reason to believe a lot of pressure will push her forward, because it hasn't. But she can work. She does work. She needs to be in a system where she's closely monitored.

"I'm furious at her and I'm crazy about her," Herr says. "She is everyone's concern."

And she is lying on the couch in the early evening when Jean knocks on the door. A thin, neatly dressed woman with watery eyes, Jean comes in, sits on the floor, smokes cigarettes and says that she has been through drug treatment six times. She has ostensibly come to help with the chores, since Moore's grandmother has just died. It also appears that she has no place else to spend the night.

Moore never fully committed to the drug treatment program and left it in February without much of a plan. She moved to a shelter with the twins and mixed welfare with unemployment benefits. Her big break came in June when she landed a subsidized apartment in a private, well-guarded building a few blocks from Cabrini. It is her first home in nearly three years.

When I leave one morning last month, Moore is on the couch and Jean is in the kitchen, smoking. When I return in midafternoon, Moore smells like wine, and she volunteers that they've been drinking. When I pick her up for dinner, she meets me outside, and by now she is exploding with anger.

"I'm not stupid!" she says. "She's using me!"

She says the talk of chores was just a cover for an addict needing a place to stay. Moore's welfare payment had just arrived, and in her view, Jean borrowed the money and bought the bottle in the hope of igniting a binge. "She thought I'd have some wine and trigger off" -- get high -- "and just go spending money!"

"I'm vulnerable right now!" she says. "I'm grieving!"

In three years I've never seen her so upset. I'd known she was hurting when I came to Chicago, but I hadn't gauged the fullness of her pain and defeat. As we sit in the car, she rails at Jean and then she rails at herself: for her deficiencies as a worker, as a woman in recovery and as a parent. Then, oddly, she begins to apologize for a more obscure sin: her failure, three years ago, to thank the readers of the Magazine article who sent her money. She chooses this, of all times, to worry that she is not teaching her children to say thanks. "I didn't send a card or nothing!" she says. "It's hard to tell your kids things when you don't practice it."

Sitting beside this grief-stricken woman, the welfare debate seems far removed. Time limits, work requirements, bonuses to reduce out-of-wedlock births -- the welfare bill is 250 pages of small print rooted in theories of cause and effect. Do this and the poor will do that. But Moore's life is guided by different physics: the constant collisions between the decency of her intentions and the depth of her wounds.

The discomforting truth about situations like this is that no one really knows what to do. Even in her crisis, Moore seems to suggest as much with a flash of self-awareness. "I said, 'Jean, I cannot help you, 'cause what I'm going through, I can't even help myself."'

After I left there were a few more developments. Throughout our visit, I had noticed that Moore was talking about Michael in surprisingly nostalgic tones. ("He cared about me, but the way he cared -- it was dangerous.") After a separation of three years, he began writing and calling again, and he was now disabled with kidney disease. His first visit came a week after I left. Moore played it down, but the reunion continued over subsequent days.

About the same time, Herr spent half an hour waiting outside Moore's apartment. They were supposed to go get the Prozac refilled, but Moore never appeared. And with Michael disabled, it turns out that the twins now qualify for Social Security payments. Since the $594 total exceeds Moore's $485 welfare grant, her case has just closed. For her, at least, the great national welfare debate has just become a moot point. She is off the rolls, an addition to the celebrated statistics, and as much in need as ever.

Copyright © 1997 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.







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