Out-of-work Californians wait outside a job-training center in Sacramento. (Photo: Getty Images)

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Unemployment Is a Full-Time Job

Although many have the impression that poor people lead easy lives, just getting the benefits they're entitled to can be a struggle.
Jan 29, 2016· 17 MIN READ
Jessica Pishko has a law degree from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She writes for The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, and others.

Although the long, low-slung house near the walnut groves just outside Fresno, California, is falling apart and impossible to keep clean, it is a home for Karen and her family, thanks to five years of waiting for a voucher through Section 8, the federal subsidized housing program. Two large dogs romp through the beige-carpeted living room until Karen shoos them outside. Her three-year-old son runs barefoot from the house to the front yard to the backyard and back into the house in an endless loop, laughing, chasing the dogs and carrying a worn board-book edition of Dr. Seuss’s ABC. The callused soles of his feet are soot black. The television is always on when Karen and her husband, Josh, can afford to pay the electric bill, so its sounds reverberate off the mostly bare walls.

Karen, 28, knows that to keep this little house, she will have to devote some time soon to cleaning the dirt from the carpet and the smudges from the walls. She bleaches them once a week, rubbing them down with a special sponge. Three boys—eight-year-old twins and the toddler—wreak havoc on the place; now the three-year-old is opening and closing the front window over and over, slamming it shut every time with a satisfying thud.

Nothing in the house is new. The furniture is scratched. The couch is from Karen’s mother-in-law. The boys’ bicycles and scooters out front are also hand-me-downs, other people’s trash. They nestle in the sparse brown grass, which Karen can’t afford to water because of penalties imposed under drought restrictions, alongside a picnic table, a few flowerpots half-filled with dirt, and saucers overflowing with cat food for the strays that wander by. Karen (not her real name; the family wished not to be identified for fear of being discriminated against in job searches or penalized by the state welfare agency) empathizes with them because she feels they have nowhere else to go. A black cat with one white paw lolls in the front yard as if to prove the point.

The single-story moss-green box-shaped house must pass inspection each year for the family to qualify for renewal of their Section 8 voucher, which expires after six years. The house didn't pass the first two times the inspector came, and Karen has three chances to get things right, or the voucher will be revoked. The next inspection will be the third.

Everything has to be perfect. The first time, the inspector said the carpet was too dirty—even though Karen had spent $100 to have it professionally cleaned. She had also paid to repair the doorjamb that her twin boys cracked by slamming the closet door too hard. She patched and painted the wall herself, carefully matching the original, and replaced the latch (another $30). The second time, she forgot to clean the oven. She remembers how embarrassed she was when the inspector opened the oven and frowned, and she thought, “Of course.”

Karen doesn’t want to risk losing the house she and her husband worked so hard to get. Between caring for her kids and studying to become a paralegal, Karen does odd jobs when she can find them, and her husband usually manages to get about 40 hours of work per week at an auto detailer. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to cook and clean and shuttle the kids from school to their doctor’s appointments and after-school programs and manage the reams of paperwork generated by the government programs, like Section 8, welfare, and food stamps, that the family depends on to get by.

Despite nearly two decades since welfare reform required those on government assistance to invest a substantial amount of time training or looking for work, the refrain from American politicians and much of the public is that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough or are otherwise somehow to blame for their condition. A Pew poll from 2014 found that just over half of Republicans believe that poor people are “lazy.” A majority of wealthy Americans are under the impression that poor people’s lives are easy because they work less. In a January forum on poverty, the GOP presidential candidates all extolled the virtues of government programs that give states control over distributing entitlements while criticizing the people who receive such “handouts.”

I get so upset when people talk about people on welfare mooching off of the system. If they would just understand how hard it is to survive on welfare they would realize that no one enjoys it. My husband works very hard, as do I. I have never turned down a job.

Karen, 28, mother, student, welfare recipient

But the day-to-day life of Karen’s family, observed over several days in September and October of 2015 and later described by her and verified by advocates in the field, paints a different picture. Finding and keeping work when such basics as nutrition, health care, and transportation are hard to come by is a challenge, and the hoops Karen must jump through to receive public assistance (thanks largely to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, commonly known as the welfare reform bill) take up a considerable amount of her time. In a county where unemployment during the Great Recession peaked at 18.4 percent and now stands at 9.9 percent, almost double the national rate, Karen tries to pick up work here and there, usually seasonal farm labor, even while being a full-time mom and a part-time student and continually doing battle with the state agencies through which her family receives its entitlements. Being poor in America, it turns out, is very hard work.

When Karen completes her coursework at the local community college and receives her associate of arts degree and certificate in paralegal studies—after seven years of intermittently taking classes, she only needs to complete a math class and finish a 60-hour unpaid internship—she hopes to get a full-time job. Then her family won't need to rely on the cash benefits of CalWORKs, California’s version of the federal program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, colloquially known as “welfare.”

Karen isn’t alone—3.3 percent of Californians receive CalWORKs benefits, and more than 7 percent of families in her county do. In an email, she captures the predicament of the working poor: “I get so upset when people talk about people on welfare, mooching off of the system, but if they would just understand how hard it is to survive on welfare they would realize that no one enjoys being on public assistance. And they assume we are fat, lazy and unemployed. This is just not the case. My husband works very hard, as do I. I have never turned down a job. I am active in my community and lead my life with the same, if not better, honesty and integrity as someone with a little more cash in their pocket.”

Karen (a pseudonym) watches her son play in their front yard outside Fresno, California. She didn't want to be identified as speaking ill of the welfare office because of ongoing disputes over payments. (Photo: Michael Short)

Karen calls to her husband that she is leaving; it’s almost time to pick up their sons from school. She steps outside and gives their old truck a brief inspection—the side door and window are held together with duct tape. Karen maneuvered to get her kids into a better public school in a more middle-class neighborhood and feels embarrassed when she drives up in a vehicle that is so clearly falling apart.

When she gets home and checks the mail, there’s a letter from the CalWORKs office: The family’s cash benefits have been terminated again. The rent of $430 is due in less than a week. Karen reviews the calculations detailed in the letter over and over and quickly makes a list of people she can call for a little help.

Karen’s family gets by on a combination of her husband’s fluctuating income, cash benefits from CalWORKs, and food stamps. But according to CalWORKs, the family consists of three people, not five. Karen says her husband lost his cash benefits when he failed to meet the CalWORKs work requirement because he was taking care of the twins, who have special needs, while Karen was going to school. He may be eligible for an exception under the circumstances, but Karen said he hasn't been able to obtain his file to find out. (The cost of qualified child care in a majority of states is more expensive than tuition at a public university. In California it’s over $12,000 per year for an infant.) And under the Maximum Family Grant rule, which denies benefits to a child born while a parent is receiving any form of benefits from the state for as long as the child lives with his or her parents, Karen’s youngest son is also ineligible for CalWORKs.

Karen is paid in cash for seasonal farmwork (here picking walnuts) and housecleaning. The earnings supplement the sub-poverty-level benefits in cash and food stamps she receives from the state. If a household earns more than a certain amount, its benefits are reduced, so many on welfare don't report some of their earnings. (Photo: Michael Short)

Until last spring, Karen’s family received $639 in cash benefits and $771 in food stamps each month. In May, the benefits were recalculated down to $116 in cash and $552 in food as a result of her husband working more hours that month, and additional penalties. The family's Income Reporting Threshold—the amount of income at which benefits are decreased—was reset at $1,566, meaning that once it earns more than that amount, the cash benefits will diminish proportionately until they are eliminated. (The amount the Economic Policy Institute considers to be livable for a family of four is $5,454 per month.)

Karen insists the welfare office is miscalculating Josh’s income. His work is inconsistent; he is often sent home early and not paid for a full day. He gets overtime—150 percent of his $10.50-per-hour wage—if he works more than eight hours in a day, but this counts against him: The welfare office calculates his monthly income by multiplying the highest amount Josh (like Karen, a pseudonym) earned in a week by 4.33, and, while there are rules on calculating fluctuating income, Karen says the social services agency generally gets the math wrong, coming up with an IRT that is always greater than what Josh actually brings home. CalWORKs’ redetermination of Karen’s benefits last spring initially set her cash benefits at zero, because of a county error that took several phone calls to correct.

Most of the food in the house is purchased with food stamps she receives on the first of the month through CalFresh, part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which the government cut across the board in 2013). Then she goes and buys some of the things her kids and husband like to have—milk and eggs and cereal and orange juice. She knows that people look at her with scorn and think, “Look at all those grocery bags,” when she pulls out her Electronic Benefit Transfer card at the register. “As if we are scum sucking off the rest of the people,” she says.

(Photo: Michael Short)

But her main concern is that her family eats well, and while she’d rather raise her own chickens and grow fruits and vegetables, she doesn't want to deny her kids. She wants them to eat more fruits and vegetables, so she goes to the weekend farmers market, where people using EBT cards are given two-for-one deals. Karen also likes supporting the local growers, who she knows are working hard just like her.

CalFresh doesn’t cover all the family’s nutritional needs, as Josh doesn’t qualify for food stamps. The cash benefits are used to pay rent and utilities—failure to pay utilities constitutes a violation of Section 8 and is grounds for losing the voucher. The rest comes from Josh’s work and a hodgepodge of loans, gifts, and money Karen makes, off the books, cleaning houses or picking walnuts on the weekend.

The system, Karen says, doesn’t account for anything other than the bare minimum. Once, the twins’ school was selling “spirit day” T-shirts for $20. The boys already feel they stand out. She used the walnut money to buy the T-shirts. Would she want them to be the only kids at school without the right shirt?

While families like Karen’s struggle to get their benefits as they strive to get off welfare, others—even many with middle-class jobs—can be thrown into financial instability by illness and old age.

Judy Jackson was able to support herself until she began to get sick. She worked as a special education teacher in American Samoa and California for most of her adult life—more than 20 years. She survived two bouts of cancer in her 30s, but it wasn’t until bronchial asthma and diabetes gave her trouble walking that her health consistently compromised her ability to work. She could do a few months between stints of being bedbound, but it wasn’t enough to pay her expenses in the costly San Francisco Bay Area, where she has lived for well over a decade. Eight years ago, at 57, Jackson became homeless.

Judy Jackson at home in Berkeley. After more than 20 years as a teacher, she lost her job when she became sick and was soon homeless. (Photo: Michael Short)

Harrison House, a homeless shelter in Berkeley, had empty beds, but to qualify for one of them she was required to apply for General Assistance, a state aid fund for people who are in the process of applying for disability benefits. The money is intended to tide people over while their application is reviewed, which in Jackson’s case took more than two years. (G.A. times out in some counties after 90 days; Jackson was able to receive benefits past the deadline because she qualified as disabled.)

Jackson recalls the application bureaucracy at the Alameda County Social Services Agency in Oakland with disgust. “I was fingerprinted and photographed like a criminal,” she says, frowning. After filling out the paperwork, she was told she needed to return in two weeks. She had spent her last dime to get to the office. The woman at the counter gave her two bus tickets—one to get back to the shelter and the other to return in two weeks.

She arrived back at the shelter before it reopened at 4 p.m., so she sat on a bench in Jack London Square, waiting and wondering how she had fallen so far. Her siblings were going through financial difficulties themselves and unable to help, and she had no savings, not even a pension. She didn’t know if she would be able to eat because the shelter’s meal service, funded by CalWORKs, was only provided to CalWORKs recipients. She heard about a local church that provided lunch for the homeless.

Many low-income people can’t read at a third-grade level. How can they get help?

Judy Jackson, 57, former teacher, welfare recipient

Over the next several weeks Jackson spent hours on city buses, going from one social services office to another, to the doctor’s office, and to the shelter in a frustrating loop that was difficult for her to manage physically. CalWORKs provided her with 10 bus tickets to hunt for work, but she says the listed jobs were all for minimum-wage manual labor, which she was physically unable to do. The homeless shelter required her to look for employment as a condition of her residency, but she knew that the odds of finding stable work were much smaller than if she were 10 years younger. Someone in the CalWORKs office suggested that Jackson apply for disability benefits based on her illnesses.

Like nearly two-thirds of people who apply, Jackson was denied the first time she applied for disability benefits on the basis of her diabetes, even though she had qualified as disabled under G.A. Applying for disability benefits can be a significant hurdle for people who lack access to a physician or the resources or facilities to manage the paperwork, according to Steven Weiss, an attorney and the regional Social Security and Supplemental Security Income advocacy coordinator at Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland. Jackson received help through the Homeless Action Center, a local nonprofit.

Even with her medical history, it wasn’t easy to meet the onerous standard. The second time she applied, based on her asthma, her application was summarily denied, and she requested a hearing before an administrative judge. (Sixty percent of applicants who receive a hearing are approved.) Not until after she had been homeless for more than two years and was diagnosed with clinical depression were her benefits granted. According to Weiss, the long wait to receive benefits can exacerbate applicants’ physical and mental health, particularly if they are homeless. SSI is meant to provide for basic needs such as food and housing for people who are unable to work because of a disability, he says, though the perception of rampant fraud by recipients persists. Last summer, officials in Kentucky, alarmed by isolated and anecdotal allegations of disability fraud, suspended all SSI payments pending review. A lawsuit brought in response alleged that three people committed suicide when they heard their payments had been halted.

Jackson told the judge that she sat on the bus all day crying; she was granted Supplemental Security Income. Nearly three years had passed since she first applied.

Now retired, Jackson lives off her disability benefits. Like Karen, she qualified for Section 8 housing. As a senior citizen, she was given priority. Her apartment in Berkeley is quiet and still. A Victorian stuffiness pervades, interrupted by the occasional shriek of her handsome gray parrot, Sweetie. She keeps the blinds drawn—the view is of the neighboring building’s wall, anyway.

(Photo: Michael Short)

Disability benefits pay for a care worker to come for an hour or so every afternoon to do light housekeeping, and to prepare some meals. Jackson asks her to bring small things from the store, such as sugar-free chocolate popsicles, a rare treat afforded by her limited income.

Jackson now spends her time advocating for seniors, especially those who are disabled and alone. She travels to Sacramento every year to testify before the state assembly in favor of laws raising SSI benefits to the federal poverty level and visits other seniors through a nonprofit program designed to connect people with resources. She believes people need to have something to live for to avoid severe depression. “I’m going to fight no matter what,” she says. “I’m not going to let them win.”

Jackson knows that while things are stable now, her security may not last. The state can recalculate her disability benefits, though she doesn’t know when that might happen or what she will do if it does.

Every other week or so, she uses a walker to trek over to the nearby BART station and takes the train to St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, which allows the homeless to spend time there during the day, to encourage the seniors among them “not to give in.” She also goes to the library, another haven for the homeless, even though many of them have limited literacy skills. As a teacher, this burns her up—she doesn’t understand how anyone can be expected to access employment and entitlement resources without knowing how to read. “Many low-income people can’t read at a third-grade level,” she says. “How can they get help?”

Unemployment compensation and AFDC were among the early forms of welfare created in the wake of the Great Depression. Many of these programs involved putting people to work on public projects and were overseen by federal agencies. A narrative of “welfare queens” and “welfare mothers,” popularized by Pres. Ronald Reagan in his 1976 campaign and transformed by conservatives into the myth of the “crack mother,” led to the 1996 overhaul of welfare that set up TANF. Now states receive block grants they can more or less distribute as they wish as long as they adhere to baseline federal rules.

The idea was that the new system would be more efficient and disincentivize unemployment while allowing people to receive needed benefits like job training. But the complexity it sows creates confusion among recipients about whether they qualify for benefits and what they are entitled to. It also enables counties to determine how to conduct the Welfare-to-Work programs, subjecting the poor in those communities to the whims of a few local officials.

Even though CalWORKs was expanded in response to the recession, welfare accounts for only about 3 percent of California’s budget. The California Budget Project calculated in 2012 that about 15 percent of Californians qualify for CalWORKs, but less than a third of those who do receive it. Most of the families are headed by women, who receive 78.6 percent of the earnings of men for similar work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Three-quarters of people on CalWORKs are dependent children.

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Benefits are calculated according to the size of the family and its reported earned income. Failure to report income above the IRT can be cause for sanction or termination of benefits (and constitutes fraud punishable by law when intent can be proven). Partly because the benefit amounts have not kept up with inflation, people on CalWORKs are consistently getting by on less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line. According to Bay Area Legal Aid, the average CalWORKs grant for 2014–15 was $452, or 34 percent of the poverty level for a family of two. In the Bay Area, the nonexempt maximum aid payment for a family of two is $569. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, San Jose, or San Francisco is more than $2,000, according to data from Zumper, a real estate website.

Karen says that “100 percent” of people on welfare earn unreported income to get by. She relies on under-the-table jobs to pay for things like air conditioning in the 100-degree summers, birthday cakes for the kids, and Christmas gifts. (This past summer saw record high temperatures in the Central Valley, and Karen’s electric bill jumped from $50 to $300 a month. “Welfare office doesn’t care if you sweat,” she says ruefully.)

Bill Clinton promised the 1996 bill would “end welfare as we know it.” The Welfare-to-Work requirements it instituted required Karen’s participation in a minimum of 30 hours of approved work-related activities every week to receive cash benefits, but the policy of subtracting additional earnings creates a disincentive to find employment or better-paying employment. Karen’s work-related activities include job training, classes in job-search skills like résumé writing, and clocking time surfing the Internet for jobs at a job-search agency (there’s one near her sons’ school). Failure to participate in approved work-related activities can result in suspension or a reduction of benefits, as it did for her husband. CalWORKs entitles female recipients to two pairs of pants, two work shirts, work shoes, two pairs of underwear, and two bras so they can look presentable at job interviews. CalWORKs recipients are supposed to meet with a counselor and come up with a path to employment, though Karen doesn’t recall any such meetings or plan.

Karen receives some credit against the Welfare-to-Work requirement for her schooling—all the hours for classroom instruction plus two hours per week for homework—but none of the time she spends at the internship that she must complete for her paralegal degree is credited. The roughly 85 hours per week Karen spends taking care of her youngest, who is still at home (caring for one’s children does not count as an approved work activity); the two to three hours she estimates she spends on average each month meeting CalWORKs’ constant demands for updated information; and scrambling for loans and gifts to make up the difference between what the benefits provide and what it costs to survive doesn’t leave a lot of time for Karen to earn enough money to get off CalWORKs, which was supposed to be the whole idea behind TANF. Then there are the expenses associated with transportation, computer access, and other things necessary to the search for work. She argues that the system “is supposed to help people, but now that we are trying to become self-sufficient they make us suffer.”

Women who are pregnant or caring for infants under 12 weeks old are exempt from the Welfare-to-Work program. Karen says that when her youngest was born, she requested an extension, which the state grants sometimes for women who choose to breastfeed. She says a case worker told her she was making “ ‘a bad decision.’ She said I should stop breast-feeding and get a job—that it’s just a hard choice parents have to make sometimes.” (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for an infant’s first six months.) Karen sees this as an example of how the program doesn’t respect individual choice. She says she was not informed that an infant exemption could be extended for nursing and only learned of it through her own research. She tries to distract herself from her struggle by working harder. “I like the feeling of the harder I work, the more I make,” she says.

Until Karen earns enough to get off welfare, the processes required to maintain benefits are slow, ungainly, humbling, and never-ending. She tried to get a copy of her CalWORKs file to check for errors but was told it would cost 10 cents per page, totaling around $200, money she doesn’t have. Her request to review the documents in the office was denied without explanation. She feels as though she is at war for her survival against the people whose job is to help her; she doesn’t understand why the welfare office is always screwing up the recalculations and causing delays with incorrect contact information and old addresses. She estimates she spends two or three hours every month just ferrying documents to the welfare office, never mind the lost sleep and constant worry. She had her first panic attack in September, she says, from the stress of just trying to get everything done right. “I felt paralyzed,” she says, pacing anxiously and fidgeting with the hem of her T-shirt. The penalties for failure to comply are harsh—the state can penalize families up to 25 percent of their benefits if, for example, documents are not submitted on time. But if the welfare office makes a mistake and underpays, the correct amount is paid out at 5 percent at a time—it can take almost half a year, in such instances, to get what recipients are entitled to.

Karen calls everyone she knows to borrow the money for rent. Some family members come through, so they are safe for now.

Little momentum to reform welfare (again) or improve its functionality exists because the unemployed are not a powerful constituency in Washington or the state capitals: Three-quarters of the people on CalWORKs are dependent children and can’t vote, and the poor have little to contribute in the way of campaign donations. Last year, in California, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-L.A., proposed A.B. 271 as a way to eliminate the MFG exception. The bill died.

Meanwhile, 16.4 percent of people in California and 14.5 percent in the U.S. are living below the official poverty line, which is $28,410 for a family of five. Karen figures her family is living on less than $18,000 a year.

Karen has her own ideas for reform. She thinks there should be an advocate who helps each family navigate the maze of public assistance and ensures it receives the benefits it is entitled to. Karen understands that people are skeptical of those on welfare, and she doesn’t blame them. She sympathizes with people who don’t want “handouts” but doesn’t know how they survive: “We have made it through handouts. Other people will live homeless before they accept handouts.” At the same time, she feels that the welfare office’s suspicions about her—the sense she gets that it feels she is stealing something from hardworking people—is unwarranted. “Sit down and talk to me as if I were your sister,” she says. “Someone that you want to have success in their life.”

Although Karen has appealed the latest elimination of her cash benefits, a growing part of her doesn’t want to fight anymore. “It’s not worth it to keep going back and forth with the welfare office. I don’t want them involved in our lives anymore,” she writes in her email. She holds out hope that she will soon get the paralegal degree she has been working toward for seven years so she can support her family by advocating for others. For now, “my job is to be an advocate for my family. Maybe that’s my purpose, to make little changes. There’s something in me that’s going to make big things happen.”

In December, Karen received an offer for a full-time job as a paralegal and passed the Section 8 housing inspection.

Editor's Note: A previously published version of this article, while noting Karen's family's wish to remain anonymous by using only first names, failed to note that the names are pseudonyms.