Welfare to Work and Back Again?

Guest blog by Suphatra Laviolette

For four generations, Beckie Moralez’s family has been on welfare, but she believed that the cycle, finally, would end with her.

CalWORKs, California’s family assistance program, provided Moralez with cash assistance and subsidized daycare for her two children. The benefits also took Moralez out of homeless shelters, covered her treatment for substance abuse and paid for Moralez to go back to school for training as a drug-and-alcohol counselor. Since August 2008, she has held down a job at Butte County Behavioral Health Department – completely free of public assistance.

“My mother was on welfare, her mother was on welfare. When I had children and we were on welfare, I knew I had to break the cycle,” said Moralez, convinced that CalWORKs was, at least briefly, her ticket out of poverty.

“When my kids see that Mama is doing things, they are happy,” she said. “It gives them permission to be kids. I remember being 4, 5, 6, and worrying about my mother when we didn’t have food, when the manager came banging on our door for the rent. My kids don’t have to worry about that.”

But now, the worries have returned. In mid-May, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to eliminate subsidized child care from the state budget as a way of saving $2.3 billion to help close the state’s budget deficit. If that measure passes, it will force Moralez to leave her job in order to care for her kids, which would put her right back onto the public assistance she worked for years to leave.

But Moralez won’t return to welfare without a fight.

From a podium on the steps of the state capitol, Moralez rallied alongside 500 other parents last month: “We are all here with one thing in common: we are fighting for the hopes and futures of our families!” she shouted. As a member of the statewide advocacy group Parent Voices, she advocates for her children at the annual “Stand for Children” rally that takes place in Sacramento every May.

The organization, Parent Voices, is comprised of working parents from across California. It teaches low-income mothers and fathers to advocate for themselves through community organizing and leadership development. Parents practice simulations of the legislative process, playing each different role – governor, senator, and assembly member – to educate themselves about public policy and improve their public speaking skills.

The rehearsals, however, cannot fix a system riddled with delays and stymied by bureaucracy. Earlier this year, a busload of 45 parents from Fresno traveled more than three hours to speak at a Senate Budget Committee hearing, only to wait almost six hours, so long that their bus driver finally had to head back. The mothers and fathers were able to fill out comment cards that were submitted on their behalf, but they rode home with their stories unspoken. It was a stark reminder that they must constantly fight to make sure they are not forgotten.

Jackie, a mother to three girls in Santa Rosa, also participates in the Parent Voices annual rallies. “Every year, I always cry – it is just so empowering,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with much, and I had very little self esteem. When I started going to ‘Stand for Children,’ it was because I wanted different for my daughter.” That child, now 9, attended her first rally at age four. This year, she took the podium and spoke on the capitol steps.

Jackie’s long term partner Earl, a day laborer, sacrifices work days to attend budget hearings. “Earl is like me – poor background, low self-esteem, never thought he’d ever talk to a legislator,” said Jackie, her voice brightening with pride. “Now he speaks for himself. He tells them about his son.”

At 25, Earl’s son is on welfare and struggling with substance addiction – in part, Jackie believes, because of trauma he endured growing up in a family without money for childcare. “When his son was little, he had to leave him with whoever, wherever he could afford care,” Jackie said. “His son became withdrawn, quiet – it turned out he was being abused.” Jackie and Earl now have two daughters together and every chance he gets, Earl tells lawmakers about the difference quality childcare has made.

“Our girls are thriving,” Jackie said.

Patty Siegel, founder and Executive Director of the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network believes parent testimonials are crucial to policy reform. Despite her decades of advocacy work, she was told in early 2009 by California Congressman George Miller: “We need to hear from people that this would make a difference. And I don’t mean, politely, people like you, Patty.”

The parents involved with Parents Voices are not merely unlike Siegel. They differ significantly. “The families using subsidized care – mainly single mothers – are usually coming from backgrounds of homelessness, domestic violence, and substance abuse,” said Gloria Balch, deputy director at Valley Oak, a program that aids Butte County parents with finding quality child care and utilizing government resources. “The aid lets them take opportunities to grow, to go back to school, to obtain work.”

The fate of child care subsidies has parents and providers on edge – especially as the deadline ticks closer. If the state legislature cannot agree on a budget by July 1, a stalemate could threaten the entire child care system. In past years, such impasses have halted payments to child care centers, leaving providers to choose between refusing care or closing down centers altogether.

“Families would be forced to leave their jobs so they could care for their kids. Staff at the centers – also struggling parents – would lose their jobs,” said Balch, who has worked in child care for 30 years. “The cuts don’t just affect parents on subsidies. Any provider that accepts subsidies will suffer. If they close their doors, then private pay parents lose their care and have fewer options.”

Jackie confirms that she would have to return to welfare. She or Earl would have to quit working to care for their youngest children, ages 1 and 2. For Moralez, a cut would freeze her progress towards a Bachelor’s degree. “I wouldn’t be able to use the education I’ve already earned,” she said incredulously. “It would all stop.”

That is perhaps why Moralez seized her moment at the capitol, calling out from the podium, urging other mothers and fathers to act. “This is your opportunity to stand for your children!” she cried. “Our children learn what they live. We don’t want them to learn defeat. We want them to learn empowerment!”

Like Jackie, Moralez’s kids are the reason she participates in Parent Voices. She says the grass roots organization has given her strength. “I used to be in a place where I thought my kids would be better off without me. And now I know they need me.”

Suphatra Laviolette is a writer for Equal Voice, an online newspaper created by the Marguerite Casey Foundation to address issues of concern to working families. She can be reached at slaviolette@caseygrants.org.

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2 thoughts on “Welfare to Work and Back Again?”

  1. I have seen subsidized child care be a total lifesaver…especially in this economic climate, a lot of parents really can’t get by without it. Childcare is really expensive, and if your whole paycheck is going to childcare, then there’s not really any POINT in working outside the home.

    For the most part, I feel that Arnie has made pretty good decisions in office, but I don’t feel that this is one of those.

  2. It is my personal opinion that if subsidized childcare goes away, this state’s financial situation will deeply plummet. The state is going to find that they are supporting many families who cannot afford to work because of the high costs of daycare. For one child alone, it can cost $700 or more a month for fulltime daycare in California. For an employee who is making only minimum wage, there really is no incentive to work when their whole paycheck is going towards the care of their child. If they really want to turn things around, make subsidized care and financial aid easier to obtain (and more realistic as to what low-income really is) for those who are working (or truly active in their job search), encouraging more people to enter the work force and boost the economy.

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