Abby - NPR
Transcript of original welfare reform story for NPR, edited by Peggy Girshman
Two years ago, the state of Vermont began an experiment in welfare reform. The new law imposed deadlines for welfare recipients to go back to work. Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Young has been following the lives of a number of welfare recipients as they’ve moved through the new system. Here’s one such story, about a single mother named Abby, who lives in Burlington:
In July of 1996, Abby Russell was 19 with a one-year old daughter and many adult responsibilities. But she still carried the traces of her teen years. She was pale and slight and her small hands moved restlessly as she spoke. A black tattoo wrapped itself around her left arm, an intricate design of arcs and spirals. Abby was raised in Utah as a strict Mormon, one of seven children. Her parents divorced when Abby was in her early teens, a traumatic event in a devout Mormon family. When she was 17, she moved to Burlington with her boyfriend,
ABBY: At the time I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, my
boyfriend and I were broken up. But I wanted so much for this child to
experience life. You know, I wanted her to taste an ice cream cone and jump in
puddles and experience this world.
For Abby to raise her child alone, she decided she needed financial help. In 1996, Abby started receiving $434 in welfare or Aid to Needy Families with Children per month. She also was eligible for food stamps and subsidized rent and the state paid her college expenses. Under the Vermont workfare plan, she was told that her ANFC would be cut off in eighteen months or by February 1998 if she didn’t find a job by then. She called the deadline unfair.
ABBY: I can understand where they would hope that people would be
able to get off welfare in a timely manner. But for a nineteen year old girl,
there's no way. because I can't go to college and raise my daughter and pay my
rent without welfare.
Abby’s situation is pretty typical in a few ways. At least half of women on welfare became pregnant as teenagers. Also, she’s never received child support from the father. Two years ago, Madeline’s father, Poncho, was visiting her but contributing little, only about $150 since the baby’s birth. Whatever he paid would have been taken out of Abby’s welfare check but so far, the state hadn’t tried to collect it from him. Abby said she didn't want to press him about it.
ABBY: I try not to make more issues than we already have because I
don't want to chase him off because of child support because I think the
relationship between his daughter and him is more important than the fifty
bucks I would be getting from him a month. He works a restaurant job and it's
not worth fighting about.
SOUND: Abby and daughter on playground, kids playing
A year later, in August of 1997, Abby plays with her daughter in a park along Lake Champlain. She said the previous year had been constructive. She was continuing her art studies at Community College. She was even working six hours a week doing clerical work at a non-profit arts organization. She was still on welfare but she said she wasn’t concerned about the deadline, now only eight months away. The only dark cloud was that Poncho had moved to San Francisco several months before. Abby said she’d given up on any future with him and now seemed ready to press him to pay child support.
Abby: We've spoken already about him coming back and I said that's fine, if you want to come back. Maddy would be happy to see you but you need to commit to her. You need to have an apartment. You need to have a job and you need to be paying child support before you're going to be allowed to see her.
In the end, Poncho did come back to Burlington, but not to stay. Last fall he headed west again and disappeared into San Francisco.
SOUND: ABBY TEACHING AT YMCA How many of you have made butterflies with me?.....Meeeeeeee...................
This summer Abby is teaching art at the Burlington YMCA ten hours a week for minimum wage. In February of this year, Abby reached her deadline. Her life actually hasn’t changed much from two years ago. Under Vermont’s workfare plan, she’s allowed to keep full benefits as long as she works or attends school 30 hours a week. Abby says the major difference is that she has to fill out more paperwork:
Abby: It's just...It's just annoying. It's truly annoying that I receive
all these letters, I receive all these things saying I have to do this, I
have to do that. And I already do it and not because somebody requires me
to do it because I want to do that. I want to go to school, I want to work
with these kids and learn about teaching art and about who these kids are.
And that's what's important to me.
Abby may be doing this for her own reasons, but the state believes that higher education is important to the futures of all welfare parents. So much so that it’s one of only four states that subsidizes welfare recipients who go to college. Jackie Levine of Vermont’s Department of Social Welfare says the point of Vermont’s deadline is not to force parents off the rolls immediately but to provide an incentive for them to eventually become more self-sufficient.
Levine: There is not a drop-dead point. We want parents to work as much as they can work, and to do the best that they can for their kids, but we also feel that we are here to help those who aren't able to work and also those whose skills or job availability is insufficient to meet the needs of the family.
Under Vermont law, Abby could continue collecting benefits as long as she’s in school, at least until the year 2001. She’s optimistic about her career prospects but realistic about the possiblity of finding a partner to help raise Madeline:
Abby: Well I'm 21 years old, men, 21 year old men run from me like the
plauge. It's the truth I'm sorry to say, but there's not too many people
that 21 year old men that can deal with a relationship and deal with a
relationship with someone who that has a young child.
That’s fine, she says. She has plenty of other things to focus on in her life. She’s counting on the state’s continuing help to do it. For NPR News, I’m Steve Young in Burlington, Vermont