Coastal Post Online


November, 2002

It's Time to Make Welfare Work for Families
By In Hui Lee

Word on the street is that "welfare reform works." But while politicians continue to point to large caseload reductions as a sign of success, those of us struggling to get our families out of poverty know the real story.

I should know: my family should have been a welfare reform success story. When we first applied for assistance, my two children and I had just fled an abusive household. Like most welfare moms, I've had many low-wage, dead-end jobs. Although I was college educated in South Korea, it didn't count for much here. I started from scratch by taking English as a Second Language classes and then working my way up to San Francisco State University.

Last October, my employment counselor told me immigrants didn't deserve to get an education while on welfare. She never informed me of the full extent of California's welfare program, and I was denied support for small but important things that I qualified for, like tuition and textbooks. While waiting for the Civil Rights Bureau of California to investigate my complaint, the welfare office refused to give me a new caseworker. Then they took away vital services like transportation assistance that helped me get to and from work.

I am not alone. While the welfare program in California isn't considered one of the most restrictive programs in the country, thousands of families like mine are still being denied help and pushed off assistance just so the state can say they lowered their rolls. In February of this year alone, 42,748 recipients in California lost their benefits due to punitive sanctions, compared to a mere 7,160 that left welfare for work.

A new bill now being considered in Congress would be a huge step towards preventing the mistreatment of low-income people by making welfare offices more accountable. The measure would restore fairness to families by preventing arbitrary or unwarranted sanctions, such as wrongful denial of transportation or child care benefits, to eligible recipients. It would also ensure that families would receive translation services so they can understand and comply with program miles. And it would require states to notify all families of the program they may be eligible for, as well as their rights for when things go wrong.

No matter what happens with welfare reform, up for reauthorization this year, no one should be denied benefits they are entitled to because of mistreatment, racism or misinformation. A number of research studies, such as those by the Illinois Department of Human Services, Wisconsin's Legislative Audit Bureau, and From Poverty to Punishment by the Applied Research Center, found that people of color are more likely to be sanctioned, less likely to receive work supports and, in turn, less likely to leave welfare for good jobs. A Virginia study in the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy found that nearly half of whites were offered transportation assistance, while no blacks were. Recent analysis of US Census Bureau data by the National Urban League found that white mothers receive a significantly higher percentage of major work supports such as subsidized child care, transportation assistance, and college degree assistance.

In volunteering with Lifetime, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization which helps parents struggling to raise their children while going to school, I have heard countless stories of families losing assistance for missing appointments because they had to go to the emergency room with their kids, for losing their job because the state failed to provide the transportation and child care assistance it promised, and for not complying with program rules because they were never translated.

The Fair Treatment and Due Process Protection Act, which puts in place protections for families navigating the welfare system, can't solve all the problems created by welfare reform. But it can restore fairness to families by preventing arbitrary or unwarranted sanctions and discrimination in the welfare system in tight economic times like these, families are working harder than ever to get out of poverty. By passing the Fair Treatment bill, Congress can take an important first step in helping families achieve this goal.

Lee lives in Marin City with her two children and is working while attending San Francisco State University.





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