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What's Wrong with Welfare

State Capital Bureau

April 14, 1995

NOTE: See sidebar stories on GOP welfare bill and the AFDC program.

JEFFERSON CITY _ Most who know the name Genoa City, Wisc. recognize it as the setting for the soap opera, "The Young and the Restless." But life in that small town isn't always as glamorous as it appears on television.

At least it wasn't for Laura Parker, who lived there until she moved to the central Missouri town of Hallsville in 1992.

Eleven years ago, Parker became one of the millions of Americans on welfare.

It had been two years since Parker's divorce. She had two children, ages 7 and 4, and no means of transportation.

"I never wanted to be on AFDC," Parker said. AFDC stands for Aid to Families of Dependent Children, and is the main welfare program in all states.

Parker said that food stamps and her part-time job at a local restaurant weren't enough to support herself and her children, especially since her ex-husband wasn't paying child support.

So, in 1984, Parker walked into the nearby welfare office and applied for AFDC benefits. She says she's hated the system ever since.

Today, Parker has a master's degree in social work and investigates child abuse and neglect cases for Missouri's Family Services Division in Columbia. In essence, Parker works for the system she says once betrayed her.

"If you'd have told me five years ago that I'd be in the position I'm in now, I probably would have quit school," Parker said with a laugh.

Parker graduated from high school with honors in January of 1976, and began operating the local restaurant and coffee house. After she got married the following September, she sold her business.

"It was a dumb thing to do," she says now.

Parker said she tried to continue her education by taking classes at a technical school. But after her divorce, she had no car. She dropped her courses as a result.

Parker and her two children lived in a rural area outside town. With no car, looking for work was difficult. Child care wasn't easy to come by either, she said.

When she did find part-time work, Parker said the system penalized her.

"It would cut my income so drastically that it didn't pay to have a part-time job. A woman with small children and a husband who has a steady income, if she gets a part-time job, it enhances their income. If I got a job, it just cut my grant," Parker said.

"The end result was that I would make more money if I didn't try to work."

So, Parker decided to quit her part-time job and stay home, venting her frustrations by writing letters to her Congressman and President Reagan. She said she wanted to show them how welfare was discouraging her from working. She wanted them to change the system.

"I had it in my head that if they only realized how stupid the system was, and how it actually effected people and encouraged them not to work...someone would change the system. I was that naive."

Despite Parker's efforts to change the system, the system was doing a better job of changing her. She said she had become depressed with an eroding self-esteem. One of the worst parts about being on AFDC is feeling judged by others, she said.

"They're judging what you're buying, they're judging what you're doing," Parker said. "Everything in the media is saying that these people need to get out there and get a job, and you know when you get out there and get a job, it doesn't help you. And yet, everybody thinks it should."

Tired and frustrated, Parker wanted off welfare. In 1985, she was accepted for admission at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater _ a 45 mile drive from her house.

That summer before she started school was the worst of her life, Parker said. With no car, Parker didn't know how she would get to class in the fall. "I mean, I was depressed," she said.

Finally, after scrimping and saving, Parker bought a 1972 orange and green Buick with 150,000 miles from a friend. Parker started class in January.

"I remember my first days on campus. I walked around campus and I was scared to death. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb."

The excess money Parker received from her student grants and loans cut her food stamps from $200 a month to $50 a month soon after her classes began.

"I was always getting cut off for stupid things," she said.

Parker recalled a time when she served jury duty. The compensation she received for mileage in addition to the money she had gotten back from an income tax return was enough to stop that month's AFDC payment.

Parker's frustrations with the welfare system mounted when the Wisconsin legislature passed a mandatory community service bill that required AFDC recipients to work 20 hours a week or give up that month's payment, which was around $500.

At that time, Parker had secured $300 a month from her ex-husband in child support.

"I said, screw it. All I had to do to make up the difference once they cut my food stamps off was $200 a month, and it made more sense to get a job making $200 a month than it did working 20 hours a week in a volunteer position."

In 1988, four years after applying for welfare, the payments stopped. "It was really scary to take a leap and not have any insurance," Parker said. Parker went without health insurance for nine years. Her children were covered through their father.

During her years in college, Parker said it was difficult to juggle time with her children with studies. "I did everything in my power to work my hours so that I would be home," she said.

Rather than studying when she got home, Parker spent time with her children. She said that she would wake up at 3 a.m. every morning to study. In the car by listening to tapes of class lectures and recorded summaries.

"There were times when I sat and cried, `I don't know how in the hell I'm going to do this,'" Parker said.

A close-knit family and a tight network of friends helped Parker juggle going to school and raising a family, she said. Without them, "I never would have gotten through that time period."

Parker graduated summa cum laude with bachelors degrees in social work and Womens Studies studies in 1991. Her anger towards the state of Wisconsin had her looking at Missouri as a place to live. Parker and her children moved to Hallsville, and in 1994, she completed her masters degree in social work at M.U.

Parker said she wanted to do something about the system that dominated her life, so she chose social work as a major. "I wanted to understand how that system got so screwed up and what I can do about it," she said.

Parker's student loans require her to work for the state for one year. Although her job as a child abuse and neglect investigator will end in July, she plans to continue working in the welfare field by earning a Ph.D. in policy and administration with a social work bend.

Parker describes her experience as a social worker as educational. She said she better understands that those who work in the welfare offices are just as powerless as those on AFDC.

"In order to be effective, you've got to understand all sides of the issues of the issue," she said. Which her experience on AFDC, Parker understands more sides of the issues than most without that experience.

Part of what got Parker through college, she said, was the desire to speak clearly and explain welfare issues. "I wanted to be able to stand up to anybody and not be intimidated," she said.

Parker's determination to change the welfare system and to inform others about it has her lobbying at the Capitol for the Reform Organization for Welfare, also called ROWEL. It's objective is to educate the public on welfare and to change public policy.

Robin Acree, an organizer with ROWEL, said that Parker's experience as an AFDC recipient is one of the things that makes her testimony effective. "She brings in another perspective because she's so in tune to the statistics and information," Acree said.

Like Parker, Acree too is an ex-AFDC recipient who is motivated to change the system. She described lobbying as "a way to deal with your anger effectively."

"Once you've been dehumanized and put through the system, then once you've become educated and empowered, you can't stop," she said.

Parker said she loves lobbying legislators and testifying at committee hearings. It's the desire to do that type of thing that motivated her through college, she said.

"I wanted to be able to stand up to anybody and not be intimidated," Parker said.

The reform that is being considered now in Missouri is similar to programs that the state of Wisconsin has implemented already.

In 1987, the Wisconsin passed a program called Learnfare _ a program similar to one being proposed in Missouri. To encourage graduation, teens who don't attend school regularly face the penalty of a reduced AFDC check.

Wisconsin also is piloting a project that cuts payments to welfare recipients after two years, which is one of the main features of Missouri's welfare reform proposal this year. Another feature of the program is that it requires able-bodied welfare recipients to work for their AFDC checks.

To address the criticism that the welfare system discourages work, the state has set up a pilot project in three Wisconsin counties that allows recipients to keep more of their earnings made through lawful employment.

And, an state law passed in 1993 allows AFDC recipients to work more than 99 hours a month without losing benefits.