THE WELFARE REFORM TRAP

When Cathy England smiles--and life does amuse her--you see a black hole, a gap where her right incisor and the tooth next to it are missing.

In fact, her mouth harbors two crescents of cracked, rotten teeth, enamel relics of a tough life and a trio of bitter men who believed a crisp backhand to Cathy's jaw would fix whatever it was that ailed her.

Cathy is 36 years old and survives on welfare and food stamps. She was told by a social worker that the government could pull her bad teeth, but there was no money for dentures, bridges or partials.

Cathy has refused all dental work until she can have it done properly, and that means new porcelain. "One social worker told me to go ahead and have the rest of the bad teeth yanked," says Cathy. "It was her opinion I didn't need most of them for chewing anyhow."

Cathy has her own ideas.
Cathy England is a stubborn woman who has decided, at long last, to get off welfare. She wants to make something of herself. And somewhere down the road, when she's got a real job--not day labor at a nursing home or baby-sitting, both of which she's done--she will visit an oral surgeon and get the bridgework.

Her first step, one that unnerved her no end by its shocking outcome, was to enroll in college. This mother of two children wants to be a physical therapist.

Cathy can shower, put on clean jeans with a laundered shirt and look like everyone else on campus; that is, until she smiles, and then she is still a poor person, a person apart.

Nothing says public housing like a mouthful of bad teeth. Cathy England does not care, or, more accurately, she does not care enough to let appearances interfere with her goal of getting off the dole. She went to college every day of the school year, for two semesters, and did not worry whether her smile was bright enough to elicit a bid to pledge a sorority. Instead, she buried herself in books.

On Sunday afternoons, Cathy would meet with other welfare mothers from her college and even a Vietnam vet on disability. All of them would spend the Lord's Day watching one another's children and cramming for tests.

"After I get the kids down, I'll study until three or four in the morning. We all get educated at some time. This is my time." At the end of her freshman year, Cathy England had a perfect 4.0 grade average--straight A's--and a startling new sense of herself.

Now, in the name of welfare reform, Arizona wants to boot her out of college.
While Congress brawled to a standstill over the details of welfare reform, more than half the states quietly got approval from the federal government to launch massive changes in the public dole.

It's about time. There hasn't been a single greater failure in government policy than welfare and its generations of families locked in poverty, nursing off the federal teat.

Arizona's new plan was approved by the feds in May. Rather archly titled EMPOWER, our state program limits benefits to 24 months in any five-year period.

A welfare mother like Cathy can study toward an associate of arts degree at junior college or a trade school certificate and be supported for two years. Even day care is covered. A bachelor's degree at a four-year college, however, is out of the question.

Specifically, Arizona wants Cathy to quit Paradise Valley Community College and forget about her dream of becoming a physical therapist, a career that demands five more years of schooling.

If Cathy doesn't drop out of college and enroll in a trade institute, her welfare check will be slashed during the 24 months of remaining benefits--from $347 a month to $267.

She will also lose her entire monthly ration of $300 in food stamps. The state will squeeze Cathy England until she bleeds from the eyes.

The news isn't all terrible.
The state does have a trade school all picked out for Cathy. Instead of becoming a physical therapist, Cathy would be trained as a physical therapist assistant. In one year, Cathy would have the training necessary to hand the Ace bandages to the real physical therapist.

The argument for individualized state plans like Arizona's is that the federal welfare approach, from the top down, is hopelessly bureaucratic. A pencil jockey in Washington, D.C., goes the argument, will never understand Arizona's unique problems.

But what's the point of local control unless the local plan is flexible enough to deal with people like Cathy England? We ought to encourage people who get straight A's in college, instead of telling them they can only dream of cleaning up after the rest of us.

Why not tie Cathy's continued welfare check to her progress in college? Or make the check a loan payable upon graduation?

The point is this: As a licensed physical therapist, Cathy England will pay substantial taxes. As a mere assistant, she will remain on the cusp of poverty. I called the Department of Economic Security's spokesman, Bill Kircos, to tell him about Cathy England's dilemma. He was very helpful.

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