Song in her heart, hope in her resume Up from welfare: Obstacles abound

December 29, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

As Bonnie Johnson's soaring soprano scorched the rafters of the lodge at Oregon Ridge, the song resonated with meaning few in the audience could appreciate.

Ms. Johnson was singing "Wind Beneath My Wings."

The audience attending the annual meeting of Baltimore County's Department of Social Services included those currently helping the single mother of four fly off public assistance into the world of financial stability and personal pride.

But certainly among the 300 or so people attending were some of the bureaucrats who, by Ms. Johnson's account, once took a bit of the wind out of her sails, treated her as just another number, slapping down the checks and documents and food stamps and sending her on her way, barely acknowledging her humanity.

Whoever they were, members of the county's social services department -- already feeling the recessionary squeeze brought on by increasing caseloads and decreasing funding -- seemed inspired beyond words by Ms. Johnson's stunning voice dancing through the octaves.

Few knew that the singer's personal story illustrates the welfare system's strengths and weaknesses.

"People were always nice to me on the ninth floor," Ms. Johnson said of those in the administrative offices at the department's Towson headquar

ters, where she currently works under Project Independence, the state's 3-year-old welfare-to-work program.

"But they've been triple-nice since I sang. When I came home that night, my phone was jammed with messages. I get on the elevator, everybody talks to me now."

The odyssey that brought Ms. Johnson to the stage began seven years ago when she separated from her husband and went on welfare. And it's not over yet.

"I feel like finally some doors are starting to open for me," she said a few days after her performance. "It's been a long, long struggle, but I have this inner feeling that good things are going to happen."

Twenty years ago, good things were happening for Ms. Johnson, 39. Her family moved from North Carolina to Baltimore. She married in 1975. A year later, her first son was born; another boy was born in 1978, and twin girls in 1979.

"I went into it for a lifetime," she said of her marriage. "But it didn't work out that way. We were together for six years.

"I was a good girl, did everything like I was supposed to. I waited until I was married to have my kids. But sometimes things happen that you just don't anticipate."

Ms. Johnson started getting food stamps and the basic welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. She and her then-young children lived with her mother for four months before she found the basement apartment she still occupies in Owings Mills.

A high-school graduate with some college credits from North Carolina, she also studied at Catonsville Community College on another government program, the Pell Grant, and earned a certificate in word processing.

While on assistance, she has worked in several secretarial jobs, but a variety of factors have driven her back to public support.

"What happens when you go to work is that your check gets cut and your food stamps get cut so you don't end up getting ahead by working, you end up in the same situation," she said.

"The only difference is that you are earning a portion of your money. It did make me feel good to be making money, not to be totally dependent on the system. It does give you a sense of self-worth, but the fact that it took the same amount of money away from me means it gave me no chance to get on my feet."

Without the boost the extra income might have brought, Ms. Johnson remained dependent on welfare payments.

Yet, the system brought her more than food and money. It brought medical benefits for her four children, each of whom have asthma problems. Those benefits would be lost if she left welfare for a job that didn't provide medical benefits.

"I never got fired from any jobs," she said. "I always worked hard, and my bosses never really complained. But different circumstances came up where I had to stop those jobs."

She hopes Project Independence will help her overcome the circumstances. The program provides basic education, job training, work experience and counseling. Participating in the program can be a requirement for continued assistance. Ms. Johnson volunteered.

Last August, she began working six hours a day, Monday through Thursday, as a clerk-typist. On Fridays, she attends a group-counseling session that evolves into a job search. In return, she gets a small stipend -- recently cut from $10 to $8 a day -- but no real salary. If she finds a job, she is still eligible for medical assistance for one year.

In the last fiscal year, Department of Social Services statistics show, 1,015 people went through Project Independence in Baltimore County. Of those, 241 got jobs. Since the program began in 1989, 503 people have been placed in jobs paying an average of $5.91 an hour with 45 percent eligible for medical benefits.

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