Every night Debra Jean Miller puts herself in danger so she can stay off welfare.
Twice she has been followed en route to her part-time job at First National Bank in Baltimore, where she works Monday through Friday, 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Since she cannot afford a car, Miller relies on public transportation. Most nights find her waiting on a dark street corner for a bus that can be up to 30 or 45 minutes late.
“It is dangerous traveling at that time of hour,” she said. “But those are the sacrifices I have to make to have a roof over my head.”
Miller, 35, is among the almost 80,000 people who have left Maryland’s welfare caseload since January 1995. As a single African-American female with one child, Miller also fits the statistical profile of the typical family leaving welfare, according to a recent study.
Her message to others on welfare is simple: “Don’t give up. It can be done.”
Cynthia McMullen, 40, knows the struggles and sacrifices Miller faced getting off the system. She experienced them too, off and on for 10 years.
The two women are among the many success stories of people breaking their dependence on a system that is in the midst of a massive reform because of federal policies.
McMullen and Miller can each point to specific events in their lives that prove they have succeeded in beating the system.
For Miller, it was the chance to give her daughter a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant.
“I am able to buy things for my daughter,” Miller said with tears in her eyes. “When you have a job, you get a whole different look and the atmosphere is different.”
For McMullen, it was the purchase of a 1988 Chevy Nova.
“I now have hopes, dreams and I have a car,” she said. “Not a fancy car – but I love it. It’s mine.”
For years, McMullen was comfortable receiving her monthly welfare checks from the social services department.
“It was basic survival,” she said. “People can get accustomed to just about everything.”
But in 1990, she moved to Anne Arundel County to find a new way of life. Instead of starting over, she became pregnant with her third child. McMullen tried to “scrimp and save” money whenever she could, but the system once again took over her life.
When the baby, Tiffany, turned two, McMullen’s caseworker forced her to make a decision — go to school and get a job or lose her public assistance.
“I didn’t like how somebody was making a decision for me,” she said. “I thought it was terrible and I didn’t want to do menial things.”
But that was the push McMullen had been needing for almost 20 years. She got involved with Project INDEPENDENCE and went through a series of programs that helped build her self-esteem and strengthen her job-searching skills.
“I got hungry,” she said. “It woke me up and I was eager to learn.”
The critical part of the program for McMullen was six months of on-the-job training, in which she was placed in the Budget Analysis division of the state Department of Budget and Management.
Now, four years later, she is a fiscal associate with the department.
“The program is a gift from God,” McMullen said. “I saw an opportunity to grow and I took advantage of it. A program like this could be a stepping stone off of welfare.”
However, the program was discontinued when the state accepted a federal block grant as part of the Oct. 1, 1996 federal welfare reforms. The state has now created its own variation, called Work Opportunities Program.
Miller tried to turn to the same system that had helped McMullen get back on her feet. Instead, she found one riddled with problems and unable to support her or her daughter.
The food stamps, cash benefits and assistance from the Women, Infant and Children program weren’t enough, she said.
“The cash benefits alone didn’t pay for rent and having a child, there are certain things you need to buy,” Miller said.
With “lots of prayers, looking at my little girl and family support,” Miller found the inner strength she had been needing to get off the system. She spent weeks searching the employment section in various newspapers, visiting employment agencies and asking friends if they knew of any available jobs.
It was by calling the First National Bank job hotline that Miller found her current job as a data entry clerk and check processor. “I love being independent and getting off the system,” she said. -30-