WELCH, W.Va. (WOMENSENEWS)–If rural welfare reform has a face, many people in West Virginia hope it looks a lot like Violet Lester’s.

The 47-year-old Lester applied for welfare benefits in 1998, after the restaurant she owned went belly-up. She spent just three months on the welfare rolls, even though there were no jobs to be found in McDowell County, a former coal mining mecca that’s now one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation.

Lester found work at a restaurant in neighboring Mercer County, a 40-mile drive one way that she admits "ate up most of my paycheck." But she kept looking, and early this year landed a full-time job just minutes from her home, at the Lightstone Community Development Corp. The state-funded organization offers micro-business loans to help others leave the welfare rolls for good.

Lester, the daughter of a coal miner and divorced from one as well, has faced hard times before. She once lived with her kids in a car while she held down a job at a bank. But she calls the day she had to apply for welfare "the most devastating day of my life."

And despite her own success in getting off the welfare rolls, Lester says welfare reform, with its work-or-else emphasis, has been difficult for many other women in her community.

"We have women who have never worked, that are devastated by divorce, devastated by family situations," Lester says. "’It’s just so terrible to be without anything."

Women Are 70 to 80 Percent of Welfare Recipients in West Virginia

Women represent 70 to 80 percent of welfare recipients in West Virginia. The average recipient is a 31-year-old white female who lives in an urban area and has two children.

But welfare reform often poses the toughest challenge for women like Lester, who live in rural counties where transportation, jobs and access to the information superhighway are extremely limited.

An ongoing, 15-state study of rural women’s well-being after welfare reform suggests the odds are stacked heavily against women in rural areas. An initial report, to be officially released in the first week of June, is expected to conclude that Lester’s life is far from unusual–a life marked by stress, low-wage jobs and unstable employment. The report is also expected to conclude that poor rural women also frequently suffer from disruption in family lives, unreliable child support, health problems, lack of health insurance and lack of transportation.

The working poor in rural areas make much less than their urban counterparts–about $7,000 compared to $40,000 annually per household, and that figure drops to a little more than $5,700 if the family is headed by a woman.

Depressed Coalfield Towns a Laboratory for Rural Welfare Reform

Places like McDowell County, located in the belt of the state’s depressed southern coalfields, isolated by mountains and crippled by decades of poverty, are now the laboratory for rural welfare reform. And Rick Wilson of the state’s American Society of Friends Committee, which has focused on welfare reform in West Virginia since 1997, says the results so far suggest more time in the lab is needed.

"I think it’s pretty clear that the folks who thought up welfare reform at the federal level didn’t have places like southern West Virginia in mind," Wilson says.

Since welfare reform was implemented in West Virginia in 1997, under the name West Virginia Works, the number of welfare cases has dropped dramatically, from 33,000 to about 14,000 today.

Even in McDowell County, which has the highest number of caseloads in the state, the caseload has fallen from about 1,600 in 1997 to 1,100 last January. But looked at another way, about 3,000 of the county’s 27,000 residents are still receiving welfare–more than 11 percent.

The caseload drop was even more dramatic at first, with one big reason being the state’s decision to count supplemental Social Security income against a person’s welfare benefits. That decision removed thousands of people from the welfare rolls statewide–many of them children and the disabled, but obviously did nothing to help them improve their economic well-being.

But the decision was eventually reversed, one of several changes Wilson says has been for the better over the past few years.

"It’s taken a lot of lobbying in some cases, but we’ve come a long way since 1997," he says.

State: People Are ‘Kind of Better-Off Now,’ With Added Resources

Rita Dobrich, a program manager for the state Office of Family Support, points out that while total numbers have declined under welfare reform, the amount of benefits for a family of three has almost doubled, from an average of $253 in 1997 to a current average of $453 per month.

And, she says, the block grants awarded to various community groups under welfare reform have given welfare recipients a wide variety of additional resources. They include child care, clothing allowances and low-cost car leases and repairs–a must in rural West Virginia, where there’s little or no access to public transportation.

"People are kind of better-off now," Dobrich says. "There are a variety of services available now that weren’t around prior to welfare reform."

One resource in McDowell and neighboring Wyoming County is Survival Skills for Women, a course run by Catholic Charities of West Virginia and funded through the state’s block-grant money.

In the past four months, the 30-hour, twice-weekly course has had 140 students, most of them welfare recipients. And Sister Libby Deliee, the head of the program, says several graduates have found work, some of them hired by the program itself to serve as mentors.

But Deliee says the lack of jobs and transportation "are a pretty even split" as obstacles that face women in McDowell County. Child care "is a close third," she says, and domestic violence is also a major problem.

"In discussions, it always comes up as a topic," Deliee says.

Study: Off Welfare, Many Sometimes Lack Money for Food, Medicine

There’s also been a lack of information about what happens when people leave West Virginia’s welfare rolls after they find employment or are no longer eligible for assistance. However, a recent study of about 1,000 former state welfare recipients–most of them women in their 20s and 30s–indicated that many still hadn’t found work.

The West Virginia University Research Task Force on Welfare Reform report, released in late 1999, found that about 43 percent of respondents had found work since leaving the welfare rolls, at an average salary of about $10,000. And while a majority of respondents said they felt better-off than they were before, more than 40 percent also said that in the last year, they had faced times when they had no money for food, medicine or doctor visits.

The study also found that women, particularly those with a spouse or partner, were less likely than men to complete job training programs while receiving assistance. Wilson says that’s likely to be true especially in rural areas, where "girls are not given a lot of signals about options that are open to them, in education or careers."

State Slow to Recognize Education as Ticket Off Welfare

But while education is often touted as the ticket to prosperity for welfare recipients, state lawmakers have been slow in acknowledging that fact. One of the controversies of welfare reform in West Virginia has been the state’s reluctance to exempt people in "educational activities" from the work requirements of West Virginia Works.

The result was that some people attending programs ranging from Graduate Equivalency Degree classes to college courses ran afoul of the system. Only last year did the state legislature pass a bill exempting them from the work requirement, and even now, Wilson says, the intent of the bill "seems to be taking a long time to trickle down."

"I teach a GED class, and I still sometimes have to intervene for some of my students" with their caseworkers, he says.

Child care is also an obstacle for the average welfare recipient in West Virginia. And while the 1999 West Virginia University study suggested it’s more of a problem in urban areas, where people may not be as likely to have family members living nearby, there’s also a shortage of child care facilities in rural areas, says John Walters, director of the Lightstone Community Development Corp.

Walters’ organization, which employs Violet Lester in McDowell County, also operates in 27 other counties, many of them rural. "A good number of our clients are women," he says, and many of them apply for micro-loans to start their own child care businesses. If they’re successful, he adds, it can help other area women with children who are looking for work.

After Five-Year Benefit Cutoff in January, Many Face Uncertainty

Advocates like Wilson wonder how the coming battle over time limits is going to affect the progress so far. Like many other states, West Virginia has set a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits. Next January, West Virginia’s welfare reform will be five years old and state officials will have to decide what to do with recipients who haven’t found work and have used up their eligibility.

The state can exempt 20 percent of its total caseload from the five-year cutoff. Cases where only children receive benefits are exempt, too, meaning the state will probably be able to offer about 2,000 exemptions, if current caseload numbers stay consistent.

But it is not known who will get the exemptions. Will rural residents, who often face more difficulties finding work, be considered? Dobrich, from the state Office of Family Support, says no decisions have been made yet, but suggests that priority for exemptions might be given to disabled recipients who aren’t receiving Social Security or supplemental Social Security income, domestic violence survivors or recipients with learning disabilities.

One alternative to exemption might be In Service to West Virginia, the state’s new public works program. Time spent in the program won’t count against welfare time limits, and Wilson, from the American Society of Friends Committee, hopes recipients will be able to spend at least one year in the program.

"We’re advocating that. Realistically, the job market in McDowell County and other rural places demands it," he says.

The poor job market and all the other obstacles facing rural women prompt the commonly asked question: Why don’t they just leave West Virginia? Lester, who’s left and returned, says it’s not always that simple.

"When you’re a woman, you don’t always have the money to leave, especially if you’re on assistance. You’re just here," she says.

"But on the other side," adds Lester, like many other die-hard mountaineers, "I love my home. Nothing can get what’s deep down inside of me out of me."

Dan LeRoy, a free-lance writer from Morgantown, W.Va., has covered West Virginia politics and welfare reform for the Charleston Daily Mail.

For further information, visit:

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources:

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West Virginia Welfare Reform Coalition: