MILWAUKEE (WOMENSENEWS)--In 2001, Lisa Craig snuck out of her home in Chicago and boarded a bus for Milwaukee with her three children, leaving behind an abusive husband, a stable job and most of her possessions.
The elimination in 1996 of federal welfare entitlements had its roots here in Wisconsin, where voters in the 1980s were angered over perceptions that poor Chicago "welfare queens" were heading north to take advantage of more generous programs. But Craig headed north because she had family there to help her.
After a short stay with her sister, Craig took her children--aged 1 to 8--to a homeless shelter. In order to receive a monthly welfare payment of about $600, she entered a three-month training program with the hope of a landing a job at the end of it.
But the training didn't pay off. She didn't find full-time employment until 2006, when she was hired as a retail clerk at Goodwill, which paid enough to cover her $600 rent but not much else. The job lasted only until last November and she has been looking for another since.
Over the years, Craig has made ends meet with the help of Wisconsin Works, or W2, the state's overhauled welfare system. But she is "disenchanted" with the program because it has not lived up to its promise of helping her obtain long-term employment. "They need to come up with something else," she said in an interview.
Craig is caught in the public policy experiments that began in Milwaukee in 1987 when Gov. Tommy Thompson tied welfare payments to behavior, including requiring recipients to engage in work-related activities, not need. Thompson stiffened the requirements in 1994. The country took notice as Wisconsin welfare rolls plummeted.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton teamed up with a Republican Congress to enact the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a welfare overhaul reflecting much of the new policies in Wisconsin. The law was reauthorized in 2006.
Advocates working on behalf of single mothers say the law, which ended government's obligation to provide minimum support to impoverished single heads of households, has exacerbated poverty.
"It definitely has played a role in the demise of the city," said Sangita Nayak, an organizer with 9to5 National Association of Working Women, an advocacy group based here.
12 Percent of Women Are Poor
In 2006, 12 percent of Wisconsin women lived in poverty, compared to 9.7 percent of men, according to census data.
Advocates see some rays of hope that life will improve for the city's poor. In April, voters elected the only woman to the 15-member city council; in May, a philanthropist gave $50 million to boost low-income neighborhoods; and in June, the state opened a new department to improve the life of children and families.
But without the welfare benefits, poor women are giving up on government to help them survive, said Joyce Mallory, a former program director at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in Madison. "A lot of people just stop trying," she said. "They just figure, 'Hey, I'll try to get by. I'll do whatever I have to do.'"
Source: Congressional Research Service.To see the chart, please go to:http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3656
Some 15 million U.S. women live in poverty, according to 2006 Census data collated by the Washington-based National Women's Law Center. Poverty rates are especially high among women of color, older women and single mothers. Black and Hispanic women are about twice as likely to be poor than white women. Roughly 1 in 5 elderly women are poor, as are 1 in 3 single mothers.
For many, poverty has worsened in recent years due to the shrinking economy, higher unemployment rates and the rising cost of fuel and food.
That is especially true in Milwaukee, now the seventh poorest city in the nation. Here, temporary homeless shelters have become permanent, food pantries are pleading for donations to meet demand and public schools now serve universal free breakfasts, Mallory said.
Like many other cities in the Rust Belt--the swath of industrial states that stretch from the Northeast through the Midwest--Milwaukee has seen a steady loss of jobs, many in the decent-paying manufacturing sector.
Economic Downturns Hit Women Hardest
Economic downturns hit women the hardest because they earn less then men; are more likely to work part-time; are less likely to be eligible for unemployment insurance; are less likely to have health insurance; and are more likely to leave their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities, domestic violence, or harassment or stalking.
Since the welfare overhaul, the number of recipients plunged as many found stable employment. At the same time, the number of single mothers who are unemployed and who receive no welfare assistance has doubled, from 16 percent in 1996 to nearly 33 percent in 2005, or 1 in 3 single parents.
Wisconsin's welfare provides unemployed single heads of households with children payments of up to $673 a month and the parent must participate in at least 40 hours of assigned work, work-related activities or training programs a week. That averages to about $4.20 an hour, considerably below the current minimum wage of $5.85 an hour, which is set to increase to $7.25 per hour next July.
Parents can apply for county-based programs to help them pay with child care, medical treatment and food. Some parents can work part-time for pro-rated benefits.
Proponents say the effort to move people from welfare to work has been a tremendous success, helping parents--especially single mothers--find stable jobs to support their families. The welfare overhaul, they say, has also helped women collect child support.
'A Signal Achievement'
"Welfare reform stands as a signal achievement, in my judgment, in social reform policy," Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt said in a 2006 speech marking the law's 10th anniversary. "The act brought significant improvements in the lives of many Americans by helping them break the cycle of dependency and encouraging them to pursue self-sufficiency."
He pointed to a 57 percent decline in the national welfare caseload between 1996 and 2006.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in Wisconsin, where welfare participation has dropped from 90,000 in 1996 to 6,400 today, said Reggie Bicha, head of the state's Department of Children and Family Services. In 2007, over 5,000 participants found work, with an average hourly wage of $8.54.
But critics say the numbers don't tell the whole story.
More single mothers are employed now than were in the 1990s, according to Liz Schott, a welfare expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But recent declines suggest a healthy economy--rather than changes to welfare--helps people transition to work, she said. And many of those now working are still poor because they do not earn enough to afford child care, transportation and other work expenses, she added.
Moreover, the government did not implement a mechanism to track those who left the system. Countless others are now homeless and living in extreme poverty, she added.
"This is going to catch up with us," Schott said. "We no longer have the very, very, very weak safety net that we used to have for poor families with children."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.