Welfare mothers look for hope, jobs Response to event is 'overwhelming'

June 11, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer Staff writer Deidre Nerreau McCabe contributed to this article.

Hundreds of women, many of them tired of being stigmatized as freeloaders, turned out at the state's first-ever conference for welfare mothers, hungry for tips on how to get off the dole.

But they had to settle for seminars on everything from money management to family planning.

The organizers of "New Choices Day," as the event was billed, were careful not to advertise it as a job fair. Nevertheless, it attracted scores of women who clearly hoped to learn how to find work.

The state, which had expected perhaps 300 inquiries, received more than 1,500. In anticipation of a high no-show rate, registration was capped at 1,000, and nearly 700 women made it to Baltimore's convention center.

"It was overwhelming," Carolyn W. Colvin, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said of the response. "People do want information. And they want to work."

They also wanted to complain, judging by the lively seminars, in which women talked about Baltimore's public housing crisis, criticized Maryland's job-training program and tried to make sense of the intricate rules governing the welfare system.

State officials have always maintained that there are few chronic welfare recipients among the approximately 80,000 households that receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children each month.

The average welfare mother in Maryland has two children and stays on welfare less than two years, drawing a monthly check of $359.

But women at yesterday's conference said they had bounced back and forth from welfare to low-paying jobs for up to 10 years. Because the jobs seldom have benefits, they end up on welfare again, then become frustrated and try working again.

'Chance to start over'

"What's a mother going to do?" asked Shawn Dickens, whose son has lead poisoning and whose daughter suffers from asthma. "I've got to have medical insurance. I came here today to see if they had something to help me, something to give me a chance to start over again and get my dreams."

Michelle McCoy, 33 and a mother of four, has held clerical and accounting positions but could never earn enough to cover the cost of a baby-sitter. So she went on public assistance and started studying physical therapy.

She's so eager for her degree, she used part of her benefit check to pay for a summer school class. That's perfectly legal, but most of the women can barely manage to keep their family fed, clothed and sheltered.

Still, she said, she knows people think she's a parasite, eating potato chips and watching television while waiting for her monthly check.

"When you hear that, you know, it's 'Damn, there they go again,'," said Ms. McCoy. "Believe me, nine out of 10 people on welfare did not want to go that route. You're condemned by the public. It's an achy-breaky feeling in your heart."

She came to the conference "because I'm always looking for something. I look for every little tidbit I can."

Vonita Jenkins has been on and off welfare for six years. She knows the cycle can be broken -- her mother got off welfare by becoming a social worker. But she's disgusted by her experience in the state's welfare-to-work program, in which she says her worker helps her find a job by giving her the classified section of the newspaper.

MA "I know how to read a newspaper," Ms. Jenkins said. "You need

training to get a job now. And even when you get training, there doesn't seem to be any jobs."

At least two lucky women received job offers at yesterday's conference.

Mildred Howard landed a job with Prudential Insurance.

"That's the last thing I thought would happen," said the 35-year-old mother of three, who has been on and off welfare for six years. "I was talking to someone from Prudential . . . and suddenly, she says, 'Do you want a job?' "

More in store

And Carolyn Kess, a 40-year-old mother of four who went on public assistance while waiting for unemployment benefits, got a job offer by chatting up a regional manager from the Maryland Food Bank.

"They should definitely have more of these," she said.

State officials said they intend to do just that.

"Six hours may not seem like a lot," said Susan Fernandez, director of Women's Services for Human Resources.

"But when you consider that most of these women see a worker for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes every six months, it becomes significant."

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