From the New York Times, a series of stories on people surviving on the tatters of welfare as the jobless recession lingers:
Among the Arizonans who lost their checks was Tamika Shelby, who first sought cash aid at 29 after fast-food jobs and a stint as a waitress in a Phoenix strip club. The state gave her $176 a month and sent her to work part time at a food bank. Though she was effectively working for $2 an hour, she scarcely missed a day in more than a year.
“I loved it,” she said.
Her supervisor, Michael Cox, said Ms. Shelby “was just wonderful” and “would even come up here on her days off.”
Then the reduced time limit left Ms. Shelby with neither welfare nor work. She still gets about $250 a month in food stamps for herself and her 3-year-old son, Dejon. She counts herself fortunate, she said, because a male friend lets her stay in a spare room, with no expectations of sex. Still, after feeding her roommate and her child, she said, “there are plenty of days I don’t eat.”
“I know there are some people who abuse the system,” Ms. Shelby said. “But I was willing to do anything they asked me to. If I could, I’d still be working for those two dollars an hour.”
Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, “We rob wetbacks” — illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police. At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.
“I felt bad afterwards,” she said. But she added, “There were times when we didn’t have nothing to eat.”
One family ruled out crime and rummaged through trash cans instead. The mother, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, could not get aid for herself but received $164 a month for her four American-born children until their time limit expired. Distraught at losing her only steady source of cash, she asked the children if they would be ashamed to help her collect discarded cans.
“I told her I would be embarrassed to steal from someone — not to pick up cans,” her teenage daughter said.
Weekly park patrols ensued, and recycling money replaced about half of the welfare check….
The boy worries about homelessness, but his younger sisters, 9 and 10, see an upside in scavenging.
“It’s kind of fun because you get to look through the trash,” one of the girls said.
“And you get to play in the park a little while before you go home,” her sister agreed.
Why are these people losing benefits or living with reduced amounts?
Many people already found the underlying system more hassle than help, a gantlet of job-search classes where absences can be punished by a complete loss of aid. Some states explicitly pursue a policy of deterrence to make sure people use the program only as a last resort.
Since the states get fixed federal grants, any caseload growth comes at their own expense….
Arizona spends most of the federal money on other human services programs, especially foster care and adoption services, while using just one-third for cash benefits and work programs….
“Yes, we divert — divert’s a bad word,” said State Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican and chairman of the Arizona House Appropriations Committee. “It helps the state.”
While federal law allows such flexibility, critics say states neglect poor families to patch their own finances. Nationally, only 30 percent of the welfare money is spent on cash benefits.
There’s a vicious circle here, of course — as long as people are unemployed, the state budgets will face crushing shortfalls, and there will be less money to care for the unemployed….