|Baltimore Mom Still Faces Hardships After Hitting Five-Year Welfare
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
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
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
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."
University of Maryland College of
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