By SISTER ELAINE BERKOPEC
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
The heading "Welfare should provide help just in the short term" on the Wednesday June 26 Vindicator editorial page caught my attention. The author of the letter to the editor expressed some common misconception about persons on welfare.
One misconception is that anyone can find a job. However, lack of transportation is a major obstacle to poor adults finding and keeping employment. So is lack of affordable childcare. And finding a job does not guarantee overcoming poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a single adult who works at minimum wage earns $10,712 a year before taxes, which is nearly $4,000 below the poverty line. Imagine trying to pay for childcare, or an education, or maintain a car, or do all three on minimum wage.
The writer states that some people on welfare are "picky or lazy about where they work or the time they can work." Being picky is not the issue; finding transportation and affordable childcare is. Imagine traveling without a car or good transportation to a childcare site, to work, back to the childcare site after work, and then home.
Sometimes public buses do not run at night. Often low-wage jobs are at night or after normal business hours. Persons on welfare living in the city, in relatively unsafe neighborhoods, may be wise to be "picky" about where and when they work.
Another misconception is that finding a job will lift a person out of poverty and eliminate a need for welfare. However, low-wage jobs offer few benefits. Only about one third of these employers offer health insurance or paid sick leave ("Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Welfare," Alan Weil, May 5, 2002). The U.S. Census Bureau states in its report, Poverty in the United States: 2002, "having a job, even a full-time job, does not guarantee an escape from poverty." The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that 64 percent of the working poor have full-time jobs.
Welfare does "cut the strings" of those on welfare in Ohio after a lifetime 36 month limit. (The federal limit is actually 60 months). One in seven adults nationwide who leaves welfare has no other means of support: no employment, no family members who are employed, and no disability benefits. Thus in the U.S., several hundred thousand families with children fall into this category and are caught in the vicious cycle of poverty. Perhaps welfare should "feel bad about cutting the strings."
At times the problem is the welfare system itself. The Ohio Employment Coalition conducted a survey of 950 individuals and agencies in the state. They found that:
1. Miscommunications between recipients and caseworkers resulted in nearly half of the welfare sanctions and terminations.
2. A majority of respondents had problems with childcare arrangements and transportation, which led to their being sanctioned.
3. Caseworkers errors accounted for nearly one fifth of the sanctions and terminations.
4. Being sanctioned or terminated did not lead to employment.
5. Sanctions caused tremendous stress and hardship on these families.
Add homelessness to poverty, and the obstacles become nearly insurmountable. Most of Mahoning Valley's homeless and poor people live in the city; most jobs are in the suburbs. How does a person get a job if he or she does not have a residence: no address, no phone number? Who takes care of the children when a parent is looking for a job? How does a homeless person find, let alone pay for, transportation to interviews or to a job?
Welfare reform legislation is short sighted. Welfare needs to be seen as an investment that pays dividends later on. If welfare truly helped people get out of poverty, we would have more contributing citizens, more stable homes, and a more productive society. There would be more success stories in the newspaper, which the letter writer and I would both like to see.
There are many obstacles that those in poverty must overcome. I suspect most of us who have never been caught in poverty or had to deal with the welfare system are unaware of them. Perhaps talking with someone who has been caught in the system would provide enlightenment to those of us who think ill of welfare and those who receive it.
X Sister. Elaine is the program coordinator at Beatitude House in Youngstown