The concrete steps up to Chia Pao Chang's house are crumbling so
badly it's probably wiser to hike up the hill around them to get to
the front door.
The living room is furnished with an old couch and bench seats
from a van. In the next room, a shamanic shrine, laden with
ceremonial objects and chicken feathers from a recent sacrifice, is
the focal point.
The Changs are a long way from refugee camps of Thailand and the
hills of Laos, their native country. But for these Hmong refugees,
and thousands like them in the United States, there's little choice.
When the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, Hmong farmers - recruited
to fight in the CIA's secret army - had to leave Laos.
Now many are here. The least-well-off are navigating a changing
welfare system that requires self-sufficiency. Here in Wisconsin,
one of the most aggressive proponents of welfare-to-work, the
challenges are daunting.
So far, after five years here, the Changs and their six children
are surviving. They're even a little hopeful, as they prepare to
farm a few acres outside the city. Still, their case shows the
hurdles faced by some of America's neediest families, and the
government, case workers, and activists must go to keep people on
track with welfare-to-work.
"What's left are the toughest cases," says Bill Hamilton, a
refugee services official at the Department of Workforce
the state's welfare-reform agency.
According to state figures, welfare dependency among Hmong
immigrants in Wisconsin dropped from 77 percent to 12 percent
1987 and 1997, following an aggressive employment program. The ones
who are left - and who are subject to rigorous work requirements of
Wisconsin's welfare reform - will be the hardest to place.
Overall, Wisconsin's Hmong population - about 40,000, second only
to California - has had a harder time leaving public assistance than
the general welfare population, since the inception last September
Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program, known as W2, says Hamilton.
Hmong families tend to be large, and the parents often have
disabilities that date back to the Vietnam War. This includes the
women, who lugged ammunition cases and performed other difficult
tasks. Many also can't speak English, are illiterate even in their
native language, and lack job skills. And since most of Wisconsin's
Hmong aren't US citizens, those in the country more than five years
have faced the elimination of food stamps for legal immigrants that
was part of federal welfare reform.
Last week, the Wisconsin legislature restored food stamps for
legal immigrants. In Washington, the Senate has voted to reinstate
food stamps for some noncitizens.
At the Hmong-American Friendship Association, in northwest
Milwaukee, the food-stamp cutoff has boosted demand at the food
pantry, which serves between 65 and 70 families a week and has a
waiting list of 110 families.
The case of Mr. Chang and his wife, Chia Yang, who look like
they've walked straight out of the hills of Laos, is difficult to
track. The family claims benefits were cut off for a while, then
restored. But a caseworker says their records indicate continuous
benefits. Mr. Chang had a factory job for two months, then developed
an eye problem and was laid off. Now he's found a new factory job.
His wife is at home with the children.
There are days, says Mr. Chang, when the family goes without food.
"They can cut off older people, but children shouldn't go to bed
hungry," he says, speaking through an interpreter. …