A life interrupted

Editorial notebook

September 16, 2006

CONNIE TOLBERT?S "AH-HA!" Moment occurred one day 16 years ago. Like many of her neighbors then, she was an unemployed single mother on welfare. It was the first of the month and welfare checks would be arriving that day. Ms. Tolbert was outside watching her four children play when her youngest, a 4-year-old daughter, spotted the mailman approaching.

"She was so happy," Ms. Tolbert recalled. "She was telling her friends, ?We?re going to get new tennis shoes. We?re going to get this and that.We?re going to get our lights turned back on.? I was so ashamed."

Until then, Ms. Tolbert had watched her neighbors gather around their mailboxes every month in anticipation of the mailman and had never asked herself, "What's wrong with this picture?"

"I saw something in my daughter's eyes that day that really sparked me," she said. "I told myself this is noway to raise children."

Soon after, she was earning $7 a day in a Baltimore job training program called Project Independence, a precursor to thewelfare reform policies adopted by Congress 10 years ago.

Two years after the training program, she had a real job with the city earning $19,000 a year.

"I thought I was a millionaire," she said, laughing. "It was liberating. It's a hell of a feeling to be able to give your children things you weren?t able to before. They were so proud of me. They would mark off my paydays on the calendar."

Her next job paid $22,000, and the one after that $38,000. Today, Ms. Tolbert, 45, is a public affairs officer for theMaryland Department of Human Resources. Her children, ages 20 through 26, are on their own and also working.

Ms. Tolbert believes anyone can do what she did with will and government support. And that's what she tells welfare mothers at "empowerment training" sessions.

"I say, 'Darling, there's nothing that I'm doing that you can't do for yourself. Know that you're going to stagger but that you can do it. That's what's expected of everyone, to stand up on your own.' "

Millions of poor women have entered the work force since Congress overhauled the welfare system to induce poor families to dowhat Ms. Tolbert essentially did on her own. For the most part, the policy changes have been successful, allowing many former welfare recipients to reclaim their lives and rewrite their futures.

Now new regulations will require states to pare their welfare rolls even more and target those who might otherwise stay on public assistance for a lifetime.

Ms. Tolbert was almost one of them. In college, she fell for a handsome upperclassman, got pregnant in her sophomore year and dropped out. They married and had three more children. Then he became ensnared in the crack epidemic of the 1990s and she left him.

Ms. Tolbert cycled on and off welfare for 11 years, holding down minimum-wage jobs ? as a meat-cutter, a bookstore clerk, a plasterer ?that could not support her family.

By 1991, she was off welfare for good. The following year, she served on the newly formed ?Governor?s Commission for Welfare Policy? and pushed for insurance benefits for women transitioning to work.

"When Iwas on welfare, no one askedwhat I wanted to do with my life," she said. "No one asked about my work experience. Under the old system, they just approved your welfare application and told you to come back in six months."

Today, welfare recipients are required to work or get job training. When they leave the rolls, they are eligible for a year of subsidized health insurance and child care based on their incomes. Though many remain poor, studies indicate their earnings will likely increase over time.

Ms. Tolbert believes most welfare recipients want to be self-sufficient, and she is committed to showing them the way.

"I tell them, If you are able to get up every day and go to work or look forwork,welfare is not designed for you. You can certainly take care of yourself. Use the system for what it was designed to do, to help you out until you can do for yourself.' " ?Marjorie Valbrun

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