Welfare to Work Not Easy in Deep South in Alabama and Mississippi, Former Recipients Face Greater Obstacles In

By Michael Sznajderman, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Welfare to Work Not Easy in Deep South in Alabama and Mississippi, Former Recipients Face Greater Obstacles In


Michael Sznajderman, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Beulah Edwards wakes hours before dawn to work the 4 a.m. housekeeping shift at a state university in Alabama.

Just over a month ago, Ms. Edwards was on welfare. Today her early rising earns her slightly over minimum wage - better than what welfare pays, but not enough to buy a car or fully support her three children. So her family will continue to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and rent subsidies, at least for awhile.

Edwards is part of a mass exodus of single mothers from Alabama's welfare rolls. Indeed, three years after Congress and President Clinton agreed to reform the welfare system, Deep South states have been among the most successful in slashing their caseloads.

Even so, here and elsewhere in the Deep South, former welfare recipients may not be doing as well as those in other regions. With many rural areas of these states deeply mired in poverty, some clients continue to struggle with a lack of jobs and limited opportunities for training - even as most of the country enjoys robust economic times.

"If {the goal} is to get people off welfare, it has been successful," says Danny Collum, project director at the Mississippi Coalition of Block Grants, a group of organizations that work with the poor. "If it is to get people out of dependency and into self- sufficiency and out of poverty, it's certainly not working in Mississippi."

Toward self-sufficiency

Edwards is struggling to be self-sufficient. Her job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is only a 15-minute drive from Bessemer, the working-class suburb where she lives. But without a car, she has to ride along with another woman who also works the 4 a.m. to noon shift. It's not the most reliable arrangement.

Still, Edwards may be doing better than many former welfare recipients in Alabama and Mississippi.

Jack Tweedie, a welfare reform expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says most states that have tracked their former clients show between 55 to 60 percent of them holding at least part-time jobs.

Alabama hasn't completed such as survey, Mr. Tweedie says, but Mississippi reported just 35 percent of welfare recipients forced off the rolls working.

Anne McDonald, an expert who has tracked welfare families in Mississippi, says the low numbers are due partly to former recipients whose benefits cut off temporarily after they failed to follow state requirements. She says many of them weren't working while they waited to be reinstated.

But after compensating for those former clients, she says the numbers still show fewer than 50 percent were working.

For many poor people in Mississippi, the state's low welfare benefit - $170 a month for a single mother with two children - is hardly worth the hassle of meeting the state's tough work requirements, says Mr. Collum.

Many people make do by working odd jobs, or relying on relatives or on local charities, he says.

State officials, however, argue that welfare reform is working. …

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