Rose Fletcher was sure that her new job as a maid at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel would be her first step toward getting off welfare forever.
It might take a few months, she thought, but by the end of 1990 she expected to be self-reliant -- no more monthly welfare checks, no more food stamps, no more Medicaid.
And maybe even a chance to move out of the George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex in West Baltimore.
For a while, all seemed to be going as planned.
The busy summer tourist season at the Sheraton meant that Rose often worked six days a week, earning overtime on top of her $5.80 per hour regular pay. In a few months, her own $234-a-week paychecks replaced her $477 monthly welfare checks. But when winter came, Rose's dream was shattered. Business at the hotel declined. Rose's hours were cut by more than half -- she worked only three days a week -- and so was her income. At the same time, her welfare benefits had been significantly reduced because of the income she had earned during the summer. She no longer got her $477 check and her food stamps had been cut from $250 to $150.
The bills, of course, kept coming. Soon she was desperate -- out of money and nearly out of food for her children.
So, almost six months to the day after she started her new job, Rose returned to the dingy offices of the Mount Clare center of the Department of Social Services to ask for an emergency loan to pay her rent and to buy food.
"It seems like every time I try to get ahead there's someone or something that keeps me down," she said. "I can't believe I'm back here asking these people for money. I don't want to be here either, but it looks like I'm always going to need some kind of assistance because I can't make it on my own."
Rose's determination was crushed. In a society that demands that people on welfare make an effort to better themselves -- to find jobs, get an education, push their children up and out of poverty, take control of their own lives -- Rose played by the rules. She enrolled in the offered programs, took the necessary lessons, got the guaranteed job and worked hard at it.
She fulfilled her obligation to end her dependency on the government: Her welfare check stopped, and she made plans to get off Medicaid and on to private health insurance.
Rose's story is not unusual. In Maryland during fiscal year 1990, more than 13,000 women like Rose turned to the state's Project Independence program for help in finding jobs so they could get off welfare. Only 2,200 found employment and, after working six months, 60 percent of those got off welfare. Social services officials say that many of those who come to Project Independence are single mothers between the ages of 22 and 44 who have dropped out of high school or who have never held a job in their lives. Most cannot be placed in jobs quickly because they need remedial education or job training, and classes are filled beyond capacity. Most are unable to find affordable and accessible day-care centers. Others simply lack motivation, but that was not the case with Rose, a 29-year-old mother of three who has been on public assistance for most of her adult life.
In fact, a gritty determination to get and hold a job was one of the few things she had going for her when she began looking for work at the beginning of last year.
She had no high school diploma, no vocational training, no recent job history or references. Her job resume was written on a sheet of yellow legal paper. "I'm tired of sitting around all day," she said. "I want to do something with my life and earn my money." She began by looking for janitorial jobs at hospitals and hotels in the city. "If there's one thing I know how to do, it's clean," Rose said. "I've been doing that every day since I can remember, especially with three messy children."
Rose had also worked as a cleaner at a restaurant 10 years earlier, so she had some experience. But after a few interviews, no one offered her a job.
"They ask me why I quit school and why I quit my job," she said during her search. "Then they tell me that they're not hiring right now, but I think they're not hiring people like me. Just because I haven't worked in a while doesn't mean I'm lazy. Who will ever know what I can do until they give me a chance?"
At that point Rose nearly gave up her search. She thought for a while of trying to get a high school equivalency diploma, but she was consumed by her desire to earn a living, and she set her sights on Project Independence. Through the program, Rose would get training in the basics of finding and keeping a job. And, if she satisfactorily completed a two-week workshop, she would be guaranteed a housekeeping job.
But first she had to to get into the program. To do so, she had to impress Allen Hicks, coordinator of the housekeeping workshop, several rigorous interviews. Unlike prospective employers, Mr. Hicks didn't care about Rose's incomplete education or her reasons for living on welfare.