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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Final checks in the mail as welfare reforms begin

 •  Welfare cuts will hurt children, too

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

For the first time, hundreds of Hawai'i families who have relied on government welfare assistance are collecting their final benefit checks this month, and each passing month will mean that hundreds more will be trimmed from government rolls.

"Easy come, easy go," says Wayne Rodrigues, a 39-year-old father of five who will see his last welfare check in December. He has managed to help the family by working in temporary, informal jobs.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Most families have known since the 1996 passage of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that they had five years to get off welfare, allowing them to bank their unused benefits for hard times ahead. Others have taken steps to find work and are working while still receiving assistance.

And there's the minority who didn't believe their financial assistance would end.

Debbie Jardine, community services manager for Honolulu Community Action Program Leahi, which helps welfare recipients with job training, said some welfare clients waved off case workers' warnings years ago.

"They told us, 'Ah, they've been telling us that for years and they still help us. They'll be changing the laws, and we'll still have welfare,' " Jardine said. "So we were telling them that this is not a state law, it's a federal law. The chances of it being changed are slim to none. But they believed that it would change."

For the most part, however, welfare reform has prompted mostly positive changes, according to statistics from the state Department of Human Services.

The welfare caseload has dropped from 22,785 families in December 1996 to 17,989 families now on the rolls.

Of those remaining, 6,579 families are temporarily or indefinitely exempt from the five-year limit for various reasons. They include people with disabilities or those suffering from substance abuse and domestic violence. Those caring for a household member or a child under 6 months also are exempt from the time limit.

For help on how to prepare
O'ahu: Call the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii at 536-4302.
Hilo: Meeting Dec. 5, 10 a.m. to noon at the Clem Akina Community Center. For more information, call Janis Betts of Legal Aid at 961-2851, ext. 104.
Kaua'i: Meeting today, 10 a.m. to noon at the Lihu'e Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center at 4530 Kali Road. For more details, call Christiane Nakea of Legal Aid at 245-4728.
 •  Kaua'i: Meeting Dec. 5, 10 a.m. to noon at the Green Garden Restaurant in Hanapepe. For more information, call Christiane Nakea at 245-4728.
Before the welfare reform law was enacted, about 17 percent of those receiving benefits held a job. Today, 56 percent work while on welfare. Welfare recipients now stay on assistance for an average of 15 months, half the pre-welfare reform average of 30 months.

For Evelyn Willacker, the prospect of finding a job for the first time in 10 years makes her nervous but determined.

The 35-year-old single mother of two has depended on welfare since 1988, when she gave birth to her son. But that's about to end forever.

"I'm so afraid," she said with a small laugh. "When you turn in an application they'll say, 'OK, don't call us, we'll call you.' That's what I'm afraid of."

"I'm scared, but I know that I can do it. I have to. I have no choice."

When welfare case workers talk to their clients about finding jobs, they hear from those who agree that it's high time they earned money to support their families. Others say they would not have looked for a job had there been no deadline to do so.

One Windward O'ahu case worker talked about a man whose family had been on welfare for generations but has recently found himself to be quite successful in labor work.

But there remain those who lack the education and skills to make a decent living and still need government help for health care and food.

Sept. 11's damage

Complicating the welfare reform issue are the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which pushed the state's economy into an alarming downturn. Thousands of people have been laid off, including those who have managed to or are trying to get off of welfare.

"We were hoping that because of what happened maybe (the federal government) would postpone (welfare reform) just a little while, maybe three months, six months at the longest," said Carl Sherry, president of the Kalihi-Palama Community Council. "Who is going to be hired? Somebody who was working for 10 or 15 years versus someone coming off of welfare? It doesn't look good for our clients."

It's not that those on welfare haven't had ample warning that the five-year deadline was fast approaching.

"For the last six months we've been badgering these people," said Susan Chandler, the director of the state Department of Human Services. "We have been pushing people very hard over the last five years, so I guess what we're saying is people have had five years to build their education and training, and we have been advising them to use that time wisely."

How families will handle losing their cash assistance is uncertain. The government is providing some level of a safety net for those being cut off, including a $200 monthly supplement and free no-fault car insurance to those working at least 32 hours a week. Self-employment also counts as working. The Department of Human Services plans to reduce that weekly work requirement to 20 hours until June 30, particularly in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

State housing officials also have the authority to reduce rent for residents of public housing, said Robert Hall, executive assistant for the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai'i. Hall said officials also plan to — probably within a month — offer "hardship waivers" that would enable eligible residents to live rent-free. He said housing officials will work with the Department of Human Services in determining who is eligible for the waivers.

Wayne Rodrigues, a 39-year-old father of five, will see his last welfare check in December, but he doesn't seem worried.

His welfare checks are sometimes not even $100 because DHS takes into account his wife's income as a teacher's aide. While he has had a hard time finding work — he has been laid off from labor jobs and he never graduated from high school — he has managed to help the family by doing various temporary, informal jobs.

Rodrigues, whose children's ages range from 13 to 24, keeps a practical, almost detached view about the five-year limit.

"It's over, it's over, right," he said. "I can't do anything about it."

He said welfare reform has good and bad points.

"What's the good part? That way people can get off their ass and get a job," he said. "And the bad thing is, eh, you'll have a whole lot of homeless people. It's hard for the children too, but life goes on. Easy come, easy go, your time is up."

Last $452 check

The idea of welfare reform upsets Evelyn Willacker. Her family will receive its last $452 monthly check next month, although she will likely continue receiving $300 in food stamps and free medical insurance. Her public housing rent is less than $200 a month.

Like many others, Willacker wonders what's going to happen to the children in welfare families.

"It makes me angry," she said. "It's not fair. I think about the kids. What's going to happen to them? I don't want (Child Protective Services) to take everybody's kids because they cannot afford to pay the rent and they have to live on the beach. I want them to feel safe in their home with their parents where they belong."

But Willacker says the end of welfare has motivated her to find work.

She completed a job readiness training program two years ago and volunteers 32 hours a week at a community center. Aside from filling out a couple of applications, however, she said she hasn't recently gone out to find a job.

But she is quick to talk about her intentions to do so.

"I just want to put my feet in that door because I know I can do it," she said. "And not look back."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.