Iowa's Limited Benefit Plan. B. Family Vignettes

05/01/1997

To enrich the reader's understanding of the findings presented in the preceding chapters, we have prepared vignettes to convey the experiences of the parents we interviewed in 6 of the 12 case-study families--two from each of the three coping categories described above--and her family. Names have been changed to avoid identifying the interviewees. These vignettes give faces to the quantitative findings from the analyses of the administrative and survey data. They remind us that this study is about individuals and families whose lives are affected by welfare policies.

1. Category One: Coping Adequately Without Benefits

The two parents selected from the first coping category voluntarily entered the LBP. Both have stable sources of income, one through full-time employment and the other through her partner's employment. Both have financial support from partners or former partners. Both are pleased to be independent of the welfare system. Even though both of them are past their six-month period of ineligibility for cash assistance, neither has reapplied for FIP benefits.

a. Sarah

Sarah is 32 years old, has never been married, and has three children, ages 15, 9, and 8. She will complete her Associate's degree at the local community college in approximately six months and is "tired of being on public assistance." While Sarah was receiving FIP benefits, she voluntarily entered the LBP because it seemed appropriate for her. She had a full-time job in the accounting department of an express mail firm, with the option of a complete package of fringe benefits after six months of employment. Sarah thought the job was going to be permanent. The company downsized soon after she had signed up for the LBP, and she lost her job. However, Sarah was able to find a full-time, temporary job in the data entry department of another express mail firm. She hopes that she will be retained on that job for more than six months, at which time she would be eligible for fringe benefits.

The greatest impact of the LBP on Sarah's family was a change in residence and a resulting change in household composition. After selecting the LBP, Sarah moved to a smaller apartment with a lower rent in order to reduce her household expenditures. Because this new apartment had fewer bedrooms, Sarah's oldest daughter moved in with her father, who lives in the same town and had been making regular child support payments. Sarah has talked with her daughter about the situation and describes her daughter as an "angel who never complains." This daughter visits on weekends, but Sarah would like for her to permanently rejoin Sarah and her other children. To make this possible, Sarah plans to move into a larger apartment within the next three months.

Sarah does not plan to return to public assistance. She wants to stay in control of her family and her finances. The most pressing issue she now faces is the uncertainty about whether she will be able to retain her current job long enough to secure fringe benefits. However, Sarah has already started looking for another job in case her current job does not work out. She believes that her prospects for finding a good job will be enhanced when she receives her associate's degree in six months.

We have classified Sarah in category one because she has stabilized her employment and housing situations, is meeting the daily needs of her family, and has a positive attitude about her personal goals and her family's future.

b. Karen

Karen is 24 years old, has never been married, and has two children, ages 6 and 2. She is a high school graduate. Karen lives with Steve, the father of her younger child, who financially supports her and both of her children. Because Karen knew that signing an FIA would require her to go to work, she told her PROMISE JOBS caseworker that she wanted the LBP. Karen and Steve had determined that, given her limited employment experience (minimum-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants), she could not earn enough to pay for child care. They decided that it would be better for their family for Karen to stay at home and care for the children. According to Karen, "Why pay someone else to watch my kids when that is what I want to do?" Additionally, Karen was tired of working with PROMISE JOBS and wanted to stop checking in with her caseworker every month.

Since going on the LBP, Karen's life has not changed significantly. Steve continues to pay all of the household bills--rent, electricity, telephone, groceries, cleaning supplies, and clothes--which has been their financial arrangement for the past three years.(2) Steve currently has two jobs, so he is able to support the family. Consequently, the primary effect of the loss of cash benefits on Karen and her family is that there is less money to spend on videos and special treats for the children.

Karen has two long-term plans--to buy a home and to go to college. She is more aggressively pursuing the former goal. She and Steve currently live in an apartment in a high-crime area. They would like to move to a safer neighborhood and own a home with a large yard. They have pursued this goal through recent contacts with real estate agents. After her youngest child is in school, Karen would like to study photography at a community college and eventually work in a photographer's studio.

We have classified Karen in category one because she has a stable housing arrangement, a secure source of income through her partner, and a strong positive outlook for the future. Although the loss of FIP cash benefits increased her dependency on Steve, Karen's attitude is positive because she has continued to meet the needs of her family.

2. Category Two Struggling but Coping

The two parents selected from the second coping category voluntarily entered the LBP. Although they had perceived themselves as ready to become self-sufficient, both are now struggling to meet the basic needs of their families. Familial support has been critical to the limited success that they have achieved.

a. Jean

Jean is 27 years old, has never been married, and has a daughter, age 4. She holds two part-time jobs and has completed one and a half years of college toward an associate's degree in computer hardware repair. While receiving FIP benefits, Jean told her PROMISE JOBS caseworker that she wanted the LBP. She said she was "tired of being broke all of the time on welfare" and thought that she could do better on her own.

Jean attributes her ability to attend college while working to the concrete support provided by her parents. Her mother cares for Jean's daughter when Jean is at work or in class. Her father has hired Jean on an on-call basis in his business. Jean struggles financially from month to month, but she knows that her parents are there for her--providing child care, emotional encouragement, and financial support.

Jean's housing situation is a constant concern. Her parents gave her space on their property to relocate a condemned mobile home that she purchased for $500. The front door is broken, the windows cannot be closed, and the interior has been damaged by water. Nonetheless, she lives in this mobile home and is repairing it herself.

Jean's greatest frustration is the failure of her daughter's father to make child support payments. She has struggled to receive child support ever since the child was born. However, since entering the LBP, Jean has pursued the payments more vigorously in order to reduce the financial strain on her parents. Although she has worked with the DHS Child Support Recovery Unit and the Legal Services Corporation to secure the court-ordered child support, her ex-partner has never made any payments.

Jean is determined to obtain an associate's degree and, if she is able to receive more financial aid, she would like to continue her education and obtain a bachelor's degree. However, she worries that she may not be able secure a better job with those degrees in the small town where she lives. She does not plan to reapply for FIP cash benefits, but it is not clear whether she will be able to maintain that resolve.

We have classified Jean in category two for several reasons. Her housing situation is substandard and, with the loss of FIP cash benefits, her dependence shifted from the state to her parents. Nevertheless, Jean has a positive attitude and is investing in her future by repairing her mobile home and attending college. However, she is currently unable to leave her family support system and she is concerned that her education may not pay off in the form of a good job.

b. Lisa

Lisa is 30 years old and has two children, ages 13 and 11. She is separated from her husband, Dan. Lisa has an associate's degree in nursing. While receiving FIP benefits, Lisa voluntarily entered the LBP because she firmly believed she could find a job. However, she did not find a job right away, so the months without cash benefits were difficult. Lisa currently works 20 hours a week at a nursing home and still struggles to feed her family, often relying on her brother for help in purchasing groceries. Having secured financial aid on her own through a Pell Grant, Lisa is attending college full-time in pursuit of a bachelor's degree in nursing. She expects to graduate in approximately six months.

When Lisa's FIP benefits ended, she was unable to pay her mortgage, so she decided to reunite with Dan in an effort to work things out. They had been separated for 18 months. He was employed in a different community when they decided to reunite but was able to find employment in Lisa's community. However, he lost that job soon after joining Lisa. After three months, they separated again and Dan returned to his former job, but he continues to pay the mortgage and plans to do so until Lisa graduates. Upon graduation, Lisa is guaranteed a job with higher pay and better benefits at the nursing home where she currently works. She does not plan to reapply for FIP cash benefits.

Lisa fits into category two for several reasons. She struggles a great deal to meet the daily needs of her family and is very reliant on financial support from her estranged husband and her brother. Thus, at least for the present, her dependency has shifted from public assistance to her extended family. Despite her current struggles, Lisa maintains a positive attitude and continues to invest in her future.

3. Category Three: In Trouble, Having Great Difficulty

Both of the parents selected from the third coping category had been assigned to the LBP because they had failed to comply with PROMISE JOBS requirements. One of them believed that she was not required to sign an FIA because she was employed; the other signed an FIA but was unable to fulfill it. Both suffered major family disruptions following assignment to the LBP; one sent her children to live with her mother, and the other lived in a shelter for four months.

a. Beth

Beth is 35 years old, divorced, and has three children, ages 14, 13, and 10. She has completed one year of college. Beth is on the LBP because she did not sign an FIA. She thought that she was exempt from signing an FIA because she was employed. Soon after being notified of her LBP assignment, Beth injured her back and lost her job. She said that she tried to contact PROMISE JOBS to work out an understanding after she lost her job, but by the time she did this, it was too late--the reconsideration period for pre-FIA LBPs had passed.

Beth's children have been living with her mother during the LBP's six-month period of ineligibility for FIP cash benefits. The children's grandmother is housing, feeding, and caring for them while Beth looks for work. Despite living in the same town as her mother, it is hard for Beth to visit her children because she relies on public transportation. This separation from her children has caused Beth to suffer from severe depression.

Beth also relies on her friends and community organizations for food and other forms of assistance. In her seventh month on the LBP, Beth was given a bus pass that made it possible for her to look for work and visit her children. She has strong ties to her church and periodically obtains food and household items from its food pantry. She also relies on other food pantries, but they only allow a person to get food once a month.

Beth cannot find permanent work, but she has been able to earn money by cleaning and painting houses. She plans to reapply for FIP cash benefits as soon as she is eligible. At the time of the case-study interview, Beth had already gone to PROMISE JOBS for an initial appointment.

We have classified Beth in category three because she has been unable to care for her children during her period of ineligibility for cash assistance. She has also been depressed. Rather than investing in her future, she is focusing her attention on returning to the welfare system as soon as possible.

b. Terry

Terry is 26 years old, has never been married, and has two children, ages 10 and 6. She has completed one year of college. Terry has an alcohol abuse problem. In an effort to deal with that problem, she entered a residential treatment facility. While in the treatment program, Terry was unable to continue to pursue her FIA goal of finishing her two-year college program. She could have met with her PROMISE JOBS caseworker to renegotiate the terms of her FIA, but chose not to because she was pessimistic about the outcome. After a state-level DHS review of her case, Terry was assigned to the LBP.

During four of the six months without cash benefits, Terry and her children lived in a shelter. This was a very difficult time for her. The shelter did not seem safe, and it provided little privacy. Terry has no family or friends in her community, but she does attend church and has started to connect with other church members. The church helped her leave the shelter by referring her to a housing agency, which assisted her in finding an apartment and paid a portion of the security deposit.

Terry also found it difficult to obtain enough food and clothing during the period without cash benefits. In addition to receiving and using food stamps, Terry frequently went to local food pantries and government commodity distribution sites. She occasionally borrowed food from other residents at the shelter. Terry frequented the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores in an effort to acquire clothes for her two children. Members of her church also gave her family clothes.

Currently, Terry works 35 hours a week in a temporary position at a day care center. She hopes that the position will become full-time so that she can receive health benefits. This is unlikely, however, since the center seeks to minimize its cost of fringe benefits by avoiding full-time positions. Terry enjoys working and being a positive role model for her children. Although proud of her financial independence from the state, she is waiting to see how her job develops before deciding whether to reapply for FIP cash benefits.

We have classified Terry in category three because her family's food, shelter, and clothing situations were very precarious during the period of FIP ineligibility. She was highly dependent on community organizations to meet those basic needs. Although Terry now has a job, her employment situation does not appear to be stable. She has a positive attitude but is very uncertain about her family's future.