WASHINGTON – Fatima Wilkerson just needed a little help.
Two years ago, when she was 18, the Baltimore woman found herself raising her 2-year-old son alone after the boy’s father was shot in the head and disabled. She also took in her two younger brothers when their mom and dad wound up in jail.
“I had to quit my job because I couldn’t handle it all anymore,” Wilkerson said.
She quickly qualified for cash assistance, but it took eight months of getting “bounced around” the welfare system before she finally hooked up with Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake.
The nonprofit quickly helped Wilkerson find child care and temporary work as an office clerk to supplement her welfare check. That eventually led to a full-time job at a litigation services firm, which ended Wilkerson’s dependence on the public rolls.
Wilkerson told a House Way and Means subcommittee Thursday that, despite efforts to move welfare recipients to the workforce quickly, the system’s red tape can delay anyone for months on end — even a “success story” like herself.
Advocates for welfare families told committee members that bureaucratic delays keep their clients idle for too long while government workers decide which options in their patchwork of services best suit each recipient.
They also said the welfare system is so convoluted that it forces poor people to navigate through several agencies to register for the help they need. Often, recipients do not get all the services they qualify for — like job training, child care, health insurance, food stamps, housing assistance or drug rehabilitation — and fail to join the workforce because they cannot become self-sufficient.
Ideally, each welfare recipient would have a case worker to manage his or her entire case, said Marge Thomas, of Goodwill of the Chesapeake. She told the subcommittee she takes several steps to help clients get off welfare — assessing their literacy and skills, providing job-readiness training, offering a period of subsidized employment, moving them into permanent work and continuing to monitor each case.
“Flexibility is key to eliminating the confusion among workforce programs and rules governing those programs,” Thomas said. “There are too many issues and too little collaboration among programs and organizations. . . . And there is a strong desire for a more coordinated system.”
But advocates worry that President Bush’s proposal to increase job requirements and stiffen time limits for welfare families would force states to spend more money on work training. That would pull funds away from organizations that try to integrate welfare services for recipients, they said.
The advocates urged committee members to be flexible when rewriting rules about how states may spend welfare block grants, so local communities have the freedom to create seamless systems that help move the poor from welfare to work.
Congress will consider changes to 1996 welfare reforms before it votes to reauthorize the laws this year.
Wilkerson asked representatives to give more money to people trying to work their way out of welfare. And she reminded that there is no cure-all for poverty.
“You hear a lot about statistics and numbers, but you don’t hear enough about the individuals,” she said. “Each individual has special circumstances and the need to be dealt with in their own way.”