As if for a funeral they gathered, wearing black, vocally mourning the second anniversary of the act that was supposed to change welfare as we know it.
Appropriately, they believe, they entitled the mock funeral after an old Mel Brooks movie.Life Stinks.
That at least is the sentiment of people like Tamera Baggett, executive director of Justice Economic, Dignity Independence for Women (JEDI). For Baggett, the two years since President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act haven't been a time for celebration.
Welfare reform is nothing more than a repeal of the safety net that is supposed to save families in poverty, Baggett says.
But two days after the "Life Stinks" funeral, Utah state leaders gathered for a party of their own.
These guys did not wear black. Officials called it "Celebrate Success Day" and the Utah Department of Workforce Services honored four Utahns for their efforts toward self-sufficiency.
Welfare rolls, falling by 200,000 a month, are at the lowest they've been in the United States since 1970. But critics wonder where these people have gone. No one knows whether they've fallen off welfare and into jobs or if they've left welfare for a more desperate existence even further into poverty.
When Dawn Wood fell from the rolls of welfare she fell into a job at the Department of Workforce Services, where she was honored Tuesday as a success story for welfare reform.
Twice since coming to the department in October, she has been promoted. Though she still receives some food stamps and child-care subsidies, she feels she's put welfare behind her forever.
"It makes me feel really good because I like being independent," said Wood, 32. "I'm happy. My kids are all safe. I'm saving to buy a house. I have my own transportation. It's just nice to have money in my pocket."
Like Wood, about 35 percent of the families who left the Utah welfare rolls in June left for jobs. But 26 percent of those who left are grouped as "review not completed," which means required reviews to keep eligibility intact weren't done.
"They didn't come in or they didn't fill out the paperwork," said Mason Bishop, spokesman for the Department of Workforce Services. "If they got a job maybe they figured it wasn't worth doing a review. The concern is are they not completing the review because there is some paperwork shuffle or is there some reason they didn't want to come back into the office?"
These are people whose stories aren't told. And the face of welfare reform may include a kaleidoscope of people like Dawn Wood, who only needed a push in the right direction, and the faces of people who needed much more.
Helping people with multiple barriers - like lack of child care, education or a mental illness - get off public assistance is a difficult task. Like others on welfare, minimum wage will not lift them from poverty. Unlike them, these are people who need intensive and perhaps long-term services and help with transportation, education, life skills, literacy and self-confidence.
A University of Utah study, to be released in October, is looking at families with multiple barriers and preliminary results indicate they are even more severe than the state may have anticipated.
Mary Jane Taylor, assistant professor in the U.'s Graduate School of Social Work, said the study defines those with multiple barriers as families who have been on welfare for three or more years. Of the families on welfare in November 1997, about 43 percent had been on welfare for at least 36 months, Taylor said.
So far, researchers have found much more mental illness, physical and emotional problems and violence in the 250 families studied than in families who leave welfare sooner. They have also found a higher-than-expected rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in adults and children.
In October, Taylor and others who've worked on the project will present it to lawmakers. At that time, they will make a policy recommendation about the state's 36-month lifetime limit for welfare and whether that is long enough, especially for people with multiple barriers.
Helping families overcome barriers falls on the shoulders of the Department of Workforce Services. Since welfare was created in 1935, it has historically been a federal program. But the overhaul shifted responsibility to the states, which designed their own programs to get people from welfare to work.
Like the rest of the nation, Utah families are coming off welfare in record numbers. In Utah, welfare rolls fell from 15,785 in July 1995 to 9,851 this May. Nationally, according to Republicans, 6,000 American families are leaving welfare every day, an average of four per minute.
John Davenport, family employment program specialist, said the department is reviewing the cases of 2,000 Utah families who have used 18 months of their 36-month lifetime limit to assess how their needs can be better met.
Poverty advocates, like JEDI Women, worry about what happens to families as time limits run out. The Utah Nonprofits Association is also concerned about the impact on the state's homeless shelters, food pantries and other social service agencies.
People like Joy Proctor rely on nonprofits for things the government might have paid for once. Proctor, 21, has arthritis and thyroid disease. Because she has no children at home the most assistance she qualifies for is three months of food stamps at a time.
She seeks medical help at the Fourth Street Clinic, a free medical facility downtown. She starts a new job Monday, and though $8 an hour is the most she's ever earned, she'll still have to rely on the nonprofit clinic.
To find out the impact of welfare reform on churches and nonprofit social service agencies, the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration has begun a three-year study. Laurie DiPadova, deputy director of the center, said that in addition to research, the move will bring together nonprofits and churches in an effort to increase dialogue about what may be to come.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided the initial seed money and impetus to get the project started, and the center is now trying to raise the remaining money, DiPadova said. The concern is whether churches and nonprofit agencies are equipped to handle the problems of people who once relied on welfare.
"Churches have been doing a lot on the behalf of the poor long before the government dreamed of doing something," DiPadova said. "Now the government at the federal level - and the states have followed suit - has basically taken the stance that churches can take over, but churches have already done a lot. . . . What is the capacity of churches to do this?"
Matthew Penrose, 26, is a welfare dad.
He's working, going to school, shuttling from baby sitter to day care to make a life for himself and 4-year-old Nathan off of public assistance.
Before welfare reform, Penrose received enough money to stay at home with Nathan, who was then an infant. But with the passage of welfare reform, he was instructed to get a job, the quicker the better.
He wanted a college degree. He was pushed toward a minimum-wage job, he said. Finally, because of a back injury, vocational rehabilitation services agreed to pay for Penrose to get a two-year certificate as a paralegal.
He says he's "super poor" even with cash assistance and medical and child-care subsidies. But he considers himself lucky: His landlord father hasn't raised his rent, and his family helps with baby sitting and emergencies.
"If I didn't have my family's support, it would be impossible," Penrose said. "(Caseworkers) want you to go to work, to go to McDonald's. They don't want you to go to school at all. They don't allow you to get a decent job."
As Penrose quickly learned, the focus of the reformed Utah welfare system is work.
What were once welfare offices are now state-of-the-art "employment centers" where Utahns can get help with resumes and job searches, though the centers remain the place for people to apply for assistance.
The regulations on eligibility are tight. Welfare recipients lose benefits if they don't disclose paternity. Most welfare for illegal aliens ended. Drug addicts and alcoholics no longer automatically receive welfare as they did before the system was reformed in 1996.
The requirements of welfare reform in Utah include:
- Every adult must participate in work, a job search, education or training at their "maximum achievable level."
- Financial assistance is limited to 36 months.
- Educational training beyond a high school diploma is limited to 24 months.
Caseloads have dropped by about 40 percent over the past five years. A Tufts University study released in March ranked the states by their efforts to revamp welfare systems in a way that will improve the lives of the poor. Utah ranked 10th.
The state has done pretty well, especially compared to some other states, says Gina Cornia, the welfare reform specialist at Utah Issues. But she hesitates to call the last two years a stunning success.
Cornia is concerned adults aren't finding jobs that will lead to upward mobility. In the rush to keep families moving off welfare rolls, they are pushed into entry-level jobs with little future, Cornia said.
In April, the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., issued a paper that says without a comprehensive approach to education and job training, most welfare recipients will find only low-wage jobs and never move up the income ladder.
Lilli DeCair went from a $70,000 income to poverty after a divorce. She hasn't paid her utility bills all summer and isn't taking her prescription hypertension pills because she has no money. DeCair's doctors say she shouldn't work because of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Her caseworker signed her up for computer classes at Salt Lake Community College to help her toward employment.
DeCair criticizes the state for not adopting the 60-month lifetime limit the federal government allowed for states. To her, welfare reform is the Titanic, and vulnerable women and children are being allowed to drown first.
"For a state that values families and children . . . it's pretty ludicrous," DeCair said.
Bishop said tracking people who've left welfare rolls is "very, very difficult." He said poverty advocates talk about individual cases but they can't be quantified.
"I'm not sure there is any evidence that a large number of people are falling through the cracks," Bishop said.
Some who qualify for welfare may never get on, as part of a policy shift that helps the welfare caseloads in Utah and the nation continue to fall. In May 1998, 190 households were "diverted," offered one-time lump sums rather than being placed in the Utah system.
Diversions are a win-win for the department and for people who need quick cash but can find jobs on their own, Bishop said. The state diverts about 20 percent of its applicants before they get on the caseload.