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From Welfare to Work

Wisconsin's tough rules transform a mother and her caseworker.

By John McCormick and Evan Thomas
Newsweek, May 26, 1997

Welfare mothers, informed that they will lose their monthly checks if they don't go to work, can become abusive at the Milwaukee Job Center North. Many case managers have little red diamonds on their computer screens, panic buttons they can press to call security.

Preston White, a 30-year-old case manager who has worked in the Wisconsin welfare system for five years, declined to have a panic button. And he kept telling himself not to take the insults personally, though he had to admit he was tired of being treated, as he put it, "like a punching bag."

The next woman in line to see Preston on this late afternoon in March 1996 could have been attractive to him, under different circumstances. She had beautiful, almond-shaped eyes, marred only slightly by a thin scar over her eyebrow. But her eyes, as she stared at Preston, were cold; her arms were folded, her shoulders hunched up. At least, Preston figured, she won't come on to me. He was accustomed to sexual advances. He understood that to many of the single mothers on welfare, he was a rare prize, a handsome, considerate African-American man with a steady job.

To Shari Pharr, waiting impatiently for her turn, Preston White was just one more man to put her down. "Men," she would say, making a cross with her fingers, as if to ward off vampires. The scar over her eye was made by flying glass when a boyfriend kicked in the front door after she threw out his belongings. "I was pretty attitude-y," she later recalled. Actually, she was afraid. Time was running out for Shari. Two weeks earlier, the state of Wisconsin had begun requiring welfare recipients (who are almost all women) to earn their monthly checks by attending job-training classes or looking for a job for 35 hours a week. Starting in September, everyone must work: women who can't find jobs will have to toil for community-service programs.

Although he was determined not to show it, Preston White was as scared as Shari Pharr. For most of his career, Preston's job had been fairly easy--boring, perhaps, even deadening, but not fundamentally challenging. Welfare caseworkers did little more than add up benefits for poor women on the dole, or "the grant," as welfare is known in Wisconsin. But now Preston and the other case managers had to begin cutting off benefits for women who failed to show up for classes. Preston was afraid of "throwing their kids into the street." He wasn't sure he could make himself do it, and he was afraid that he'd be fired.

No state has gone further to reform welfare than Wisconsin. Since 1987, Gov. Tommy ("Get a Job") Thompson has slashed the state's welfare rolls by 58 percent. Thompson recognized that to save money Wisconsin had to spend it, so he has invested an extra $383 million in health and child care to enable single mothers to work low-wage jobs. As a result, Wisconsin has saved $1.5 billion by shrinking its welfare rolls. Thompson's efforts have been a closely watched model for the nation as a whole. Under the welfare-reform act passed by Congress last year, the states must find a way to put half their welfare recipients to work--or at least into job-training programs--by 2002. It will be years before welfare reform can be judged a success or failure. But the experiences of Shari Pharr and Preston White show that welfare reform can be made to work--despite considerable suspicion and resistance.

At the Milwaukee Job Center North, a blandly neat building in a neighborhood of shabby working-class bungalows, instruction is offered in how to get a job. The lessons can be quite blunt: Use proper English. Don't dress like a slob. Like most of the welfare mothers, Shari Pharr, 28, felt patronized. "They called us lazy," she said. She was particularly incensed when she was told that until she got a real job, she would have to sort and fold old clothing given to Goodwill Industries. "I want to see Preston White!" she demanded when she stormed into the job center. But there was already a long line waiting. One woman ahead of her described herself as a "bomb waiting to go off."

When Shari had finally reached the front of the line, she lit into Preston. She was damned if she was going to dig through bags of someone else's underwear. She had to fold enough laundry at home. "Here we go," thought Preston. "Shari," he said, "you can't refuse." He had seen her reaction plenty of times before. Many women come in brimming with a kind of wary hauteur. They won't take just any job, they say--"No McDonald's." Preston regards McDonald's, which pays about $6 an hour, as an excellent entry-level job, a way to learn the habits of work. But most women, he says, come in insisting on at least $10 an hour. They certainly don't understand why they should have to do make-work or lose their welfare checks--which, they believe, are rightfully theirs. "The Man," they say, "is taking away our money." In the peculiar logic of the street, they scornfully demand of each other, "You gonna work for The Man for free?" For some women, says Preston, getting any kind of job is seen as "selling out to The Man." "I guess misery loves company," he says. Rooted in race and victimhood, this terrible downward pull is, he wearily confesses, his "biggest problem" getting women off welfare.

Preston was initially put off by Shari's all too familiar attitude. But, at the same time, he sensed that she was "tired of being dumped on." She was angry, but not sullen. She was neatly dressed, unlike some, and she seemed intelligent. He decided to give her a chance at better work than sorting laundry. He asked her to help him with his own files. For the next few weeks, Shari plunged into work, straightening up Preston's cluttered desk. He was sufficiently impressed that he sent her to see an office manager for more work. She asked if Shari could file. The answer was encouraging: "Alpha or numeric?"

Shari remained guarded around Preston, but he decided to try to learn a little more about her. He asked her if she had a boyfriend. "I don't want to talk about it," she said. But she did, telling Preston a story that would be horrifying if it weren't so commonplace in her world.

Shari's mother had had six children by five different men. After 26 years on "the grant," Barbra Pharr was on disability, partly because one of her ex-husbands had kicked her out of a moving car after she caught him in bed with another woman. Shari had seen her real father only once, when she was 5. Sometimes, she would look up men by the same name in the phone book and call them. They were all wrong numbers, or said they were.

Shari followed family pattern and became pregnant before her junior year in high school. She says the father of her child abused drugs and alcohol and beat her. When she criticized him for getting drunk and losing his job, the boyfriend retorted, "Well, you're on welfare." Shari punched him in the nose. Rather than pay child support, the boyfriend denied paternity of his child.

Shari got off welfare for a time to earn $4.35 an hour at a company that made decorative candles for Kmart. To save bus fare, she walked 40 minutes every day to and from work. One dark winter morning, a man with a butcher's knife tried to rape her. As he grabbed her hair, she thought to herself, "I could die now or die later." She swung at him and somehow struggled free.

The company moved shortly thereafter, and Shari lost her job. She got pregnant again. The father of her second child, she says, became a crack addict. He, too, would tell her she should be ashamed that she was on welfare. "If I'm so worthless," she retorted, "why aren't you doing something for your child?" Their little girl, Salina, now 4, hasn't seen her father in more than a year.

There were times when Shari felt a sense of despair. "I kept asking, 'What's wrong with me? Why is my life not working out?' " she recalls. She would cry with her mother over all the bad men they had known. But she did not give up. Every day she rose at 7, if only to take her children on long, aimless walks. She hated the stereotype of a welfare mother, sitting in front of the TV in her bathrobe. And she hated being poor, trying to raise kids on $517 a month.

To Preston White, Shari was not so different from most other welfare mothers. Their lives had been miserable, they were defensive and angry, but eventually most were willing to work. As time went on, Preston found that about three quarters of his caseload (usually around 150 women) could find some kind of job. He remained worried about the other 25 percent, roughly half of whom had serious drug or alcohol problems. At first, he would "let them slide." More recently, however, he has been cutting off benefits for the 10 percent or so who simply won't show up. He's not sure what will happen to them. He hopes they will be supported by family or eke out a living on their own. "People aren't stupid," he says. "They know how to hustle to stay alive." After a year under the new rules, he does not know any horror stories of homelessness or hunger, at least not yet.

His own attitude toward welfare, he says, has changed. A liberal Democrat who grew up in the same poor neighborhood as Shari Pharr, he was initially hostile to conservatives who complained about "welfare queens." But slowly, he began to regard welfare as an addiction and himself as "an enabler." When he was just calculating benefits, he says, he had felt like "the walking dead. I didn't care." Now he becomes involved in the lives and hopes of the single mothers he is trying to help.

At the job center, his co-workers joke that no matter how chaotic their lives, the women in Preston's caseload are always on time to see him. Some want more than advice on getting jobs. "I'm a pretty good-looking guy," says Preston with a sly smile. He was not surprised when Shari asked him if he had a girlfriend, in a way that indicated her availability. Preston replied that he was "flattered," but he already had a girlfriend. He told Shari that if she got a real job, she would find a good man.

Finding a job in Milwaukee for a poor woman with a high-school-equivalent diploma and a spotty work history can be difficult, but not impossible. As its famous breweries shut down, Milwaukee lost manufacturing jobs (from a peak of 220,000 in 1979 to about 180,000 today). But unemployment in the city stands at under 6 percent, low for an urban core. In May of last year, Shari was able to find an opening at a warehouse that sorts and packages chemicals for shipment. The manager, an open-faced ex-marine named Tim Holahan, found her bright and eager. He didn't know if she had been on welfare and didn't ask; Holahan, 36, assumes that most single mothers on his payroll have been on "the grant." At her interview, a supervisor passing through Holahan's office said in jest, "Hey, I need a truckdriver. Can you do that?" She earnestly answered, "No, but I can learn if that's what it takes." That cinched it; Holahan gave her the job.

Shari faithfully showed up at work every day at Aldrich Chemical, whose warehouse is now sheathed in aluminum because so many gang-bangers shot bullets through the windows. Holahan noticed that Shari was quiet and a little withdrawn, but that she worked more diligently than most. Her job is not make-work: she must sort and check thousands of different chemicals, many of which are hazardous. And as Preston had predicted, she found a nice boyfriend, a fellow packer named Pat Whiteman. Whiteman, who is white, was greeted coldly by some of Shari's girlfriends, but he made them laugh by dancing and singing, "I'm a honkie! I'm the white devil!"

As Shari stood in her small, tidy apartment in northwest Milwaukee on a warm spring day not long ago, her life seemed to be full of promise. She was earning almost $10 an hour, enough to actually save some money--to buy a house one day, she hopes. But her 10-year-old son, Charlie, was clearly sullen and depressed. A bright and loving son, Charlie had just been suspended for fighting at school. He had stopped paying attention and his grades had plummeted. Shari was obviously agitated and worried.

It wasn't hard to guess what had gone wrong. Charlie's own father rarely came around to see him. He had seen his mother beaten by her boyfriends, who then disappeared. He had grown close to his mother, and was sweetly protective of her ("Mom, don't wear that hootchie-mama dress," he told her one day as she went out to a job interview in a too short skirt). But then Pat Whiteman had moved in. Would this latest boyfriend leave, too? Whiteman had befriended Charlie, teaching him guitar, but he was afraid of getting too close. He had been married once before himself, and still had his own child to support. He couldn't be sure yet if his romance with Shari would last. "We don't want to waste a lot of time," says Shari. "We're taking it slow," says Pat.

Shari Pharr had to contemplate the possibility that her boy, just on the verge of puberty, would be lost like so many other men she had known. A few weeks later, Charlie began to shine at school again, to Shari's relief. But she knows how fragile the life of a young black man can be. One of her brothers has been charged on a drug rap and could face prison. For that matter, she still worries--every day--that she will fall back into "that bad life." "You never know what might happen to you," she says. But her eyes light up again as she thinks about going to a getaway near a lake over Memorial Day. In all those years of not working, she has never had a real vacation.

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