Wages of Welfare War

Down in the Liberty City projects, a growing number of women's voices are just saying no to workfare as we know it

The first and last WAGES job Bellamy worked lasted only a day. Although WAGES already had cut her cash assistance back in October, Gene Hitchens, a WAGES coalition community ombudsman who had attended one of Minority Families' public meetings, attempted to reinstate Bellamy in December. "I felt like they were trying to win me over," Bellamy says. "They found me a job so that I would stop speaking out at their meetings." Bellamy, who last worked as a phone-sex operator, would now be selling mattresses over the phone for Craftmatic. But the job was located in Pompano Beach, and Bellamy didn't own a car. WAGES would transport her to work for the first 30 days.

WAGES transportation, however, proved to be unreliable on Bellamy's first day of work. Her shift ended at 9:00 p.m. Transportation didn't come for another two hours. According to Bellamy it wasn't the first time there were problems with WAGES rides. "At Craftmatic I had people tell me they would sometimes have to hitchhike their way home," she says. Bellamy, whose mother had to miss work that night to care for her daughter's two toddlers, didn't go back to work the next day. Now she braids and grooms hair from her home to make ends meet.

Merlene Tassy has been through so many jobs, trainings, and caseworkers she's lost track of when she did what, and under whose guidance. Before entering a WAGES six-month training to become a code enforcer for the City of Miami, Tassy had volunteered for WAGES several times. Once she was a maintenance worker at Arcola Lake Park on NW 83rd Street and Thirteenth Avenue, where she worked 25 hours a week for $362 per month in cash assistance (what would amount to about $3.50 an hour). She also typed and filed records at a WAGES career-resource center.

When Treva Landrum decided to become a stay-at-home mom, she stopped receiving a welfare check
Steve Satterwhite
When Treva Landrum decided to become a stay-at-home mom, she stopped receiving a welfare check

In March 1999 Tassy enrolled in a paid training program that she says promised a $7-an-hour position working for the City of Miami upon graduation. Three weeks into the program, her instructors told her she would also have to attend a WAGES class every Friday for eight hours, for which she would not be paid. She had the option of learning Word for eight hours, or having the session reduced to six hours if she studied Creole or Spanish during the remaining time. According to Tassy her paycheck sometimes would be held for a few days as punishment for not attending the classes. "They treated us like children," Tassy says. "We even had to raise our hands to speak in the class and ask permission to go use the bathroom. I'm a grown woman."

Tassy dropped out of the program after five months when she learned there were no code-enforcer jobs for her or any of her 27 classmates. Tassy believes she and her classmates were just quotas the city was trying to meet in order to receive federal funding. Vickers denied the accusation. "No one goes into a training program with the guarantee of employment," Vickers says. Tassy finally found a job last month. Goodwill, not WAGES, connected Tassy to an opening at the Coast Guard station in Miami Beach. She makes $6.25 an hour washing dishes, serving food, sweeping floors, mopping, and wiping down dining room tables.

Treva Landrum had been working steadily for eleven years, first as a nursing assistant caring for an elderly patient and later as a cashier at Joe's Supermarket. When the corner store closed down, Landrum suddenly joined the ranks of the unemployed. For about two years, Landrum tried unsuccessfully to get off welfare on her own. She enrolled in vocational training courses and scrounged money for bus fare just to get to job interviews. Landrum had applied at every hospital in town; for a position as a switchboard operator at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now called the Department of Children and Families); and at the State Attorney's Office. "No one would call back," she says from the living room of her neatly kept apartment in Liberty Square.

When WAGES came into her life in 1997, the program forced her to do more job hunts or face sanctions. (WAGES withholds cash assistance and food-stamp benefits if welfare recipients don't participate in the program.) Every time Landrum didn't get the job, she would have to enroll in courses designed to prepare chronically unemployed women to re-enter the work force. "I went through that cycle of courses and searches several times," Landrum says. Victory to Vision, she recalls, was one such prep class. "It was a bunch of crap," Landrum says. "But I sat through it with the promise of a job." A job, that according to Landrum, didn't exist.

Landrum was tired. She decided not to comply with WAGES anymore. When the 38-year-old gave birth to her second child in 1998, she chose to become a stay-at-home mom. As a result WAGES cut off her cash assistance. Landrum, who depends on her fifteen-year-old son's SSI (disability check), child support, and food stamps, says her family no longer is covered by Medicaid either. "I don't want my children to step on the stones that I've had to step on," Landrum says. "I want them to step on some stairs, concrete stairs that go up."

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