JEFFERSON CITY _ Carmen has been on welfare three different times since her first child was born 32 years ago.
Next March, the last of her eight children will turn 18, which means Carmen no longer will be eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children _ the state's main form of welfare.
Carmen, who asked that her last name not be used, said she plans to find a job _ hopefully with the Highway Department. She currently is taking classes to prepare her for the GED.
"I'm doing it because I want to get a better paying job," Carmen said, adding that even if she could remain on welfare, she still would be working toward her GED.
But job or no job, in less than one year, Carmen will be dropped from the welfare system.
Families on AFDC receive an average amount of $257 a month plus Medicaid. In order to receive these benefits, there must be a dependent child living in the home who is deprived of support from one or both parents.
And once that child turns 18 or moves out, the AFDC payments and Medicaid stop, leaving the parent or caretaker with no form of public assistance. The child, however, may remain on Medicaid until age 19.
Cash payments also would continue until the child is 19 if the child is still in school and is ready to graduate, Bentley said.
Carmen is part of the 4 percent of recipients who go off AFDC each year because their child's age or residency makes them no longer eligible to receive benefits, said Charles Bentley, program director for the Social Services Department. Although 4 percent is a small percentage of all cases closed, Bentley said it accounted for 3,758 Missouri families during a 12-month period that ended in June, 1994.
However, unlike Carmen, not all of these recipients look for work in the face of losing their welfare checks.
"A lot of times they find a way to get on disabilities," said Barbara Thompson, a case worker in Doniphan, Mo.
To qualify for disability assistance through the Supplemental Security Income program of Social Security, a physician must determine that the person has a mental or physical handicap that would last more that 90 days. A state agency reviews the medical evidence and determines whether the applicant is eligible.
But what qualifies as a disability?
An official at the Jefferson City Social Security office said that any severe condition could qualify as a disability if it keeps someone from performing any job that the applicant's age, education and past experience allows the person to hold.
These conditions range from heart problems to obesity, which has brought Social Security under fire for allowing too much room for abuse.
Thompson said that she's been surprised by how easily some of her clients have been approved to receive disability payments.
"But then there's some who I thought would qualify but didn't," she said.
Bentley said that since an applicant has to convince both a doctor and a review team of a disability, there isn't much room for abuse, unless a doctor falsely reports the applicant's condition.
"Someone would have to commit intentional fraud," Bentley said, "and I don't think there's very much of that."
The state doesn't directly track the number of recipients who go straight from AFDC to SSI. In Thompson's experience as a caseworker, she said that most recipients find work rather than trying to get disability payments once they no longer are eligible for AFDC.
"But I do see it a lot," Thompson said.