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  • Hundreds of Maryland families still on welfare after five-year limit.

  • Chart: Targeting of long-term welfare families slows growth of 'hardship' cases.
Baltimore Mom Still Faces Hardships After Hitting Five-Year Welfare Limit

By Michelle Krupa
Capital News Service
Thursday, April 25, 2002

BALTIMORE - Ursula Rodriguez lives in a rowhouse on a noisy block in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood. It is the last house on the block -- the one that hangs onto the rest of the row on just one side.

It is not unlike Rodriguez, a 29-year-old mother of five, who is also hanging on, at the brink of what she fears could be a life-altering fall.

After getting welfare checks since 1997 -- when Maryland enacted federal welfare reforms -- Rodriguez has run out the government's 60-month time limit for cash assistance, and she does not have a job.

If it were only a matter of effort, if she could summon the ambition that drives her dreams of owning a home or invoke the discipline that keeps her white carpet spotless, finding full-time work would be simple. But for a woman without a car or a free babysitter or a college degree, effort is not enough to climb from welfare to work.

"I don't want to be on social services," she said. "I don't want anyone in my business like that. But you can't take a child to work, and you can't buy child care on credit."

Ironically, the very obstacles that have kept Rodriguez from leaving welfare are the ones that allow her to keep receiving it after the five-year limit.

In Maryland, recipients can continue collecting welfare indefinitely if they show a "hardship" -- like a disabled child, a drug problem, limited education or lack of child care -- that prohibits them from working full-time, thanks to an exemption in the tough federal law. Currently, the state has about 700 families under the rule, and the number is expected to swell every month.

To welfare caseworkers and advocates for the poor, hardship is too weak a word to describe Rodriguez.

A domestic violence victim, she has five children by three different men, only one of whom pays child support. Her sixth child -- a baby girl -- is due in July. She is alone in the city, without family or friends. She has bounced on and off welfare in Maryland and Pennsylvania. For a time, two of her children lived with their grandmother in New Jersey.

State officials say they work especially hard to help residents get off welfare. But Rodriguez didn't even realize she was nearing her 60-month limit until she arrived in January at a seminar for the first group of Maryland recipients to run out of time.

"Sure, we were surprised," she said. "We'd never heard of it. We never knew about the time limit because we're the first people to be kicked off ... or supposed to be kicked off."

At that meeting, when Rodriguez finally connected the condition of her life with the government's calendar, she got anxious. Sure, the state promised it would maintain her benefits, but wouldn't her family's future be at the whim of the system, she wondered.

"I was worried," she remembered. "It wasn't because of the financial situation so much -- I mean, I have learned to live on the check. It was more about the health insurance that comes with the check. If they took that away, I wouldn't have any insurance, and with the baby due and everything."

It wasn't like Rodriguez had not done what the state asked in return for her $590 a month. Her file of social services documents -- with letters from state agencies and welfare check stubs -- includes a certificate on thick paper that confirms, in stylish script, that Rodriguez's resume is accurate and that she can handle a mock interview.

She earned it through a job-training program the state required -- one she admitted did little to help her land a steady paycheck. Most government programs aimed at sending welfare recipients to work were lost on Rodriguez, who pushed herself to graduate high school after having a son at 16.

Rodriguez does not lack the intellect or confidence to land a job. But every job offer seems to weave a web of impossible demands through her life.

When a Baltimore hospital wanted to hire her as a clerk this winter, for example, it was good pay and a respectable job -- a way to serve the community and begin to climb the company ladder.

But the hours were a single mom's curse.

The job would have taken her away from home from 3 to 11 p.m. -- the time her 9- and 11-year-old sons and her 10-year-old daughter need her most, when the boys might be wooed by drugs or sex, or her daughter could get nabbed walking home from school.

"When I was growing up, we used to come home latch-key," Rodriguez said. "We used to rumble and fight and then be best friends. But I don't want that for my children.

"If I took that job, I would be on the phone to make sure they got home, then to make sure they didn't open the door for anyone," she said.

Jobs that require Rodriguez to leave her children -- even ones mopping floors or frying fast food -- seem to be the only ones available in this economy, she said. If she took one, the cost of child care would squeeze the family finances even tighter.

It wouldn't be worth it, even if it showed her siblings and children and friends that she could get off welfare: "I was going to take that job just to prove a point to everybody, but I can't, because of the kids."

Those circumstances convinced the state that Rodriguez needs its continued support to survive. But Rodriguez also admits that she has sometimes slipped into welfare's culture of inactivity -- one of waking up late and talking on the phone and watching soap operas while waiting for the kids to come home from school.

When she was making $2,000 a month at a desk job in the mid-'90s, Rodriguez said it was easy to splurge, buying clothes or art supplies for her daughter or leaving the mall with a new wardrobe. She somehow spent more money than she made, buying things she "didn't really need" on credit.

On welfare, she can manage. Food stamps and a federal housing subsidy help pay the bills, and Rodriguez makes sure the lights are off in empty rooms so the electric company does not get more than she can afford. Her children do not beg for toys, she said, and she is at ease.

"I'm just comfortable now," she said. "I keep the bills down, I don't have to get up for work. In some ways, I don't want to find a job because I can be on welfare. But then I'd like to do it, to show my kids that I can, to show my family."

With the job market still foundering, Rodriguez is not hopeful she will find a job that suits her family's needs any time soon. She knows, too, that no employer is likely to hire her just to turn around and put her on maternity leave.

She is confident that the state will continue to support her as long as she keeps looking for work. But she admitted that if the government chose, for some reason, to deny her welfare because she hit the 60-month deadline, she wouldn't argue.

"I wouldn't be mad if they kicked us off," Rodriguez said. "It's not like we didn't know.

"But if they do," she added, running her fingers over her swollen belly, "I don't know what will happen."

Copyright 2002 University of Maryland College of Journalism


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