MAXWELL:  Program’s success stories tell a tale for welfare reform

6/18/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If members of Congress are serious about overhauling the nation’s welfare system, they should visit this South Florida city of about 48,000 and spend a couple of days with Linda Hanna, Daphne Rojas and Marsha Fields.

They are three of 37 single mothers who are either in the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority’s Family Self Sufficiency Program or using its services designed to help low-income families get off welfare and become financially independent.

Linda Hanna, 25, is one of the program’s first success stories. Three years ago, she was supporting two young children on a monthly check from Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Now her life is radically different. She has a job and is studying at Broward Community College to be a registered nurse. Best of all, she is not on welfare and is saving for a down payment on the American dream _ her first house. Hanna says that her circumstance shows how the program transforms lives.

The program began officially in 1992, under Jack Kemp, then-secretary of Housing and Urban Develop ment. Before the HUD program started, the local agency had already implemented its own self-help effort, called Operation Bootstrap. HUD absorbed that program, says Pam Mike, executive director of the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority.

Mike says the program is effective because it has reachable goals and forces participants to take responsibility. Its centerpiece is an escrow account that is opened for qualified participants who must sign a contract that commits them to getting off welfare and becoming self-supporting in five years.

The key to this project, which makes it unlike others, is that even as residents’ incomes increase, they retain their housing benefits. But 30 percent of the new income is deposited in an escrow account for residents to use for a down payment on a home. This arrangement also gives participants a realistic chance to earn a high school equivalency diploma, attend college or a vocational facility, or work.

Mike says that 10 people have opened escrow accounts, and one has saved nearly $2,000. “The prospect of home ownership is a powerful built-in incentive,” she says. “People are willing to sacrifice to own a home.”

True, but the Family Self Sufficiency Program is not for people unable to commit themselves to five years of monitoring, goal-setting and instruction. Fumiko Jackson, the coordinator, says that joining the program alone is tough. Applicants are interviewed to determine if they have personal, family or legal problems that may prevent them from succeeding in school or at work. Those with such problems are encouraged to solve them or to seek counseling that the agency provides or recommends.

Applicants also must take a battery of tests to determine their career interests, skills and talents. And because of the escrow account and the program’s focus on self-sufficiency, participants are automatically counseled on managing money and resolving conflicts in the workplace and in the family. Besides teaching values and trying to instill a sense of character, Jackson insists that residents remain realistic about how much money they need to earn to become self-supporting. They must write an “action plan” that outlines their short- and long-term goals.

“If, for example, you want to become a nursing assistant, that’s only $5 an hour,” she says. “With two children, that profession isn’t a realistic goal if you want to be become self-sufficient.”

Too often, Jackson says, many participants lack a sense of self-worth and therefore underestimate their capabilities: “. . . We try to turn them on to more. Why not become a registered nurse? We have gotten some of them into non-traditional roles such as welding and auto mechanics that pay more. . . . And once we get them on that campus, they don’t want to leave. They get a sense of self-worth.”

Daphne Rojas’ life changed, and her college experience was enriched after she entered the self-sufficiency program. The 24-year-old is the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son. Before joining the program three years ago, she and her daughter lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a crime-ridden section of Pompano Beach. They survived on a $241-a-month AFDC check.

Today, living in federal housing in a safer neighborhood, she still receives AFDC and is earning a degree in crime-scene investigation. She relies on the project’s federally subsidized child care.

“It’s affordable and lets me attend college without worrying about my children,” Rojas says. “The whole program is great. It’s taught me a lot, and I’ve taken the parenting classes. I don’t intend to have anymore children. I’ve learned that my kids depend on me, so I must learn to become self-sufficient.”

More than anyone else, 33-year-old Marsha Fields, a mother of five, embodies the spirit of the Deerfield Beach program. She is a model of perseverance. When we met, her co-workers at a Publix supermarket in Boca Raton were honoring her for having earned a high school equivalency diploma.

For Fields, getting her GED is everything. During a semester in an adult program at the community college, she took the GED test nine times before passing it on the 10th try.

“Do you know what success has done for Marsha’s self-esteem?” Mike asks. “Her whole life has turned around. Now her kids, from the one in kindergarten to the one in 10th grade, are making better grades because, when she’s going to the college to study, she takes the kids with her. They’re learning study skills from her. All of them are now doing their homework. It’s been a tremendous experience.”

Fields’ achievement shows a courage that some Washington budget cutters may even admire. Having no real family, Fields grew up in foster homes. As a child, men took advantage of her. She started having babies at an early age. As an adult, men beat her and abused her children.

No more, though. Men dare not beat her or abuse the children. Although she uses the self-sufficiency program’s services, she refuses to accept welfare. She has become self-reliant. And most important, she is realistic. She plans to attend community college and then go higher.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, along with others in Washington who want to dismantle welfare, should visit Deerfield Beach. They should hear from the real people. They need to see a program that is working, people who are succeeding.

Postscript: Cities surrounding Deerfield Beach, including Fort Lauderdale, are looking at similar programs. Paradoxically, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, E. Clay Shaw, is chairman of a Ways and Means subcommittee responsible for fixing the welfare system. So far, though, Shaw has proved to be a GOP ideologue. He has ignored a successful program that is in the district he represents, that is fewer than 20 miles from the front door of his headquarters. Shaw has turned down all of Pam Mike’s invitations to visit her Deerfield Beach office. She wants the congressman to meet Linda Hanna, Daphne Rojas and Marsha Fields.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.