In Annapolis, where the Maryland Legislature passed a welfare reform bill this month, and in Washington, D.C., where attempts to end “welfare as we know it” have yet to bear fruit, the welfare recipient who would supposedly rather sit at home than get a job is a recurring object of disdain.
But Vondale Davis, 20, one of several women on welfare asked recently for their views of the system and proposals for change, said getting off welfare is harder than it looks.
Davis cited the example of someone who gets a job and makes $80 a week. “You get that, they cut off your benefits,” she said as she sat on the steps to her apartment with her 10-month-old son.
“At least they should give you six months … to get up on your feet,” Davis said. “I know a lot of females, they feel like, why should I go out and work?”
In the bill that passed the Legislature April 8, the cut-off rate for a family of three was set at $117 per week.
Davis said she doesn’t get any child support because her son’s father, who was arrested when Davis was four months’ pregnant, is in jail. She looked away when asked if she knew when he was getting out.
“I guess you got to do what you got to do for you and your child,” she said. “You can’t let things like that stop you.”
Davis said she’s found friends to take care of her son while she takes classes at Prince George’s Community College to become a registered nurse.
“God has been blessing me,” she said, “It ain’t been the system.”
As a resident of Central Gardens Apartments, a subsidized- housing complex near the Addison Road Metro stop, Davis gets a break on her rent, something only 23 percent of the families on welfare in Maryland receive.
But it’s not a place she wants to stay, she said. Nor is being on welfare.
“I can’t see myself … watching the soaps all day, trying to make a life on it,” she said.
Davis said she’s been working since she was 14, “so it’s never come easy to me. But waiting for this check, that’s harder.”
In Hyattsville last month, Roxann Edwards expressed a similar dread of having nothing to do.
“I’m not the type, just sit in the house,” said Edwards, 21, as she waited in the welfare office on Ager Road to find out if her application for assistance had been approved.
Nor does Edwards, whose son, Blake, was born Feb. 1, intend to have any more children.
“Not until I’m on my feet, have a career, money in the bank and money in my pocket,” Edwards said. “I’m not going to do this again.”
But in Annapolis, a two-time welfare recipient said some people abuse the state’s safety net.
“The system is just making people lazy,” said Della Atkinson, 41, as she ate a meal with other guests of the Light House shelter on West Street.
“I know the welfare system makes it very easy and very comfortable to stay home,” she said. “You’ve got women at home with seven, eight, nine kids, getting a big old fat check.”
Some aspects of this year’s welfare reform bill, such as eliminating all restrictions on aid to two-parent families, will be a boon to recipients.
The bill was also designed to avoid further reductions in the basic grant in a year when the state was experiencing budget problems. That grant has fallen from $406 for a family of three in 1990 to $373 today. Together with food stamps, the current grant represents 62 percent of what the state defines as a minimum living level.
But the Legislature refused to reduce welfare grants to families receiving disability payments, which would have saved $14 million. And in the face of criticism by members of the House Appropriations Committee, state welfare officials backed off from plans to set a five-year lifetime limit on benefits.
Mary Lourcey, 37, of Gaithersburg, takes exception to the idea, implicit in time limits, that she would make a career out of welfare.
“I don’t want to be on welfare, no more than the man in the moon,” Lourcey said.
Lourcey said she’s taking classes at Montgomery College to improve her job prospects, but it hasn’t been easy.
“Believe me, I want to get off this just as much as they want me to,” she said. “I have literally sat on the edge of my bed at night with my head in my hands, crying,” she said, because she couldn’t find child care.
“Welfare reform, if it’s truly going to work, they’re going to have to spend money, number one. They don’t want to do that,” she said.
Lourcey said she needs a “half-way decent” job, one that pays better than five, six or seven dollars an hour.
But if a welfare recipient gets a job at Wendy’s, she said, the department says, “‘That’s it. We’ve done it,’ and they push her out.”
“They don’t have a clue,” she said.
Cindy McDonald, 25, a mother of three on welfare and a neighbor of Davis, said she had trouble getting assistance when she was homeless.
“I guess I just had enough common sense to realize [it] was a political war I was up against. It wasn’t just that I was homeless because I had failed, it was that they had failed. In a sense, they had failed us.”
McDonald said the debate over welfare reform needs to shift from casting blame to creating jobs. “I’m sick and tired of being … penalized, and all the blame for America being placed on me, like all the weight’s on my shoulders, all the fingers are being pointed in my direction, it’s my fault,” she said. -30-