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.
"Geez, a 4.0 . . . is that right?" marveled Kircos, who acknowledged his own grades in college were somewhat less stellar. But rules are rules, he said.
Which is what everyone at DES said.
"These are laws passed by the Legislature," said an unperturbable Robert De La Garza, program and projects specialist. "They want them run the way they feel they should be run."
What does that mean?
"It has to be something that can be completed in two years," says Gretchen Evans, administrator of the JOBS program that oversees Cathy's file.
"There is no flexibility," says Evans. None.
So, no, DES will not make an exception for Cathy.
And Cathy refuses to go to the state's trade school. She does not want to be a mere assistant.
"When I worked in a nursing home, I met physical therapists who came in to treat the patients. They worked with stroke victims, teaching them to relearn the basics, like walking. They were very caring people, and it's what I want to do with my life." She has told the state to go to hell.
For 12 years, off and on, welfare has been a constant in this woman's life. But something basic and fundamental has changed in Cathy.
It's not the teeth; good teeth are only a reward, a goal. The motivation to turn her life around came from a man, which is kind of funny because Cathy has only known bums and criminals. And yet, one of these men, her dad, a person she refused to speak with for 11 years, gave her the idea that she could stand on her own two feet.
It was a hard lesson for her to learn. Cathy was so implacable in her rage that her father had to drop dead, literally, before he could get through to his daughter.
When she was younger, she listened to no one.
After a miserable time in her Michigan high school, where she was picked on by the other kids because she was a runt and pretty much a flop in the classroom, Cathy went to work in an automotive plant. She worked on mold presses, drill presses and even did a little spot welding. The year was 1976, and she was pulling down $1.89 an hour and seeing a fellow who "was a tool and die guy."
Cathy looks back and says she should have guessed how it would turn out when she discovered her boyfriend siphoning gas out of her mother's car.
"I was young and stupid," says Cathy. "Even though he abused me, I went for him. He thought I should stay home, cook and clean while he drank and did drugs. On the day we got married, he left at midnight to go to a cathouse in Detroit with a friend. He said he needed 'variety.'"
Cathy's dad liked the new husband. He liked him so much that both of them decided to hit the road together. The two traveled first to Arkansas and then to Oklahoma.
Cathy followed them to Oklahoma because they were the two most important men in her life. Once there, her husband beat her so often--three to four times a week--that Cathy actually learned to fight back in self-defense.
"He would go out to bars after work and come in whenever. If dinner wasn't on the table when he showed up, he'd knock me down and kick me.
"Towards the end there, he came home about 10 p.m. I'd left his dinner in the oven, but I turned the heat down so it wouldn't dry out. He beat me because it was cold when he came through the door.
"I got off the floor and made his supper. When he sat down to eat, I picked up the rolling pin I'd used to make his dinner rolls. I swung it like a baseball bat and hit him in the back of his skull while he was chewing his food. His head just pitched forward into his plate, and he did not move.
"I went into the living room, turned on the television and picked up a deck of cards. I was numb.
"I played solitaire until it was time for bed. He still hadn't moved."
Cathy's husband returned to Michigan after two years.
"He missed his mother, who was used to bailing him out of jail. He told me that since he had paid for the marriage, I had to pay for the divorce."
Before the paperwork was finished on the divorce, she met the man who would father her first child.
"He was nice-looking, but not very bright. When I met him, he was in construction. He didn't do it very often, but that's what he did. Both of his parents were ordained ministers."
The handsome man wooed Cathy, and the next thing she knew, she was pregnant with her son. But it was not a happy time.
Cathy's mom took a bad fall in Oklahoma and broke her knee in five places. The running joke among the doctors was that it looked like she'd been dropped from a helicopter. When her mom went into the hospital, Cathy's dad cleared out the family bank account, abandoned his wife and kids and fled the state. Cathy was four and one-half months pregnant. She was living in a trailer in north Tulsa with the common-law husband who, before their three-year relationship ended, lost his mind.
"I came out of the bathtub one day around sunset and saw him with a broom in his hand just sweeping away. The front door of the trailer was wide open, and I asked him what he was doing. He said, 'Don't you see them?'
"He said demons were running around everywhere.
"He was sweeping demons out of the front door of the trailer.
"He threw a Bible into a plate of my food and began speaking in tongues. He became very abusive and tried to strangle me."
Cathy remembers that this father of her child could not stand to hear the baby cry or scream. The week before Easter, she discovered an ugly, purple bruise in the shape of a hand on her infant's buttocks after leaving her son in his father's care. When she caught him trying to choke their 6-month-old baby, Cathy took off and never looked back.
"Child abuse was something I thought happened to other people," says Cathy.
She says this as if her life, or the men in it, had been "normal" and the child abuse incidents were an unusual blip on an otherwise tranquil radar screen. Only her mothering instincts finally suggested a path to normalcy; you could pummel Cathy like a rag doll, but, by God, you'd better keep your hands off her baby. In 1984, Cathy and her newborn, her mom and her two sisters all moved to Arizona.
Three years later, she was pregnant with her second child. At least the new man in her life--a chef in some of the Valley's better-known restaurants--worked steadily. But like every man she'd ever known, when he drank, he got mean, and then he beat her.
In 1992, he was arrested and slapped with an order of protection for attacking Cathy. Four days after he got out of jail, he was carted off again, charged with kidnaping, armed burglary and aggravated assault.
He had wandered, drunk, into an open apartment, pulled a knife on a terrified woman and forced her into her bedroom. He was too loaded to notice the woman's roommate and her boyfriend, who quickly called the cops. Cathy's man was sentenced to ten years.
Last week he sent Cathy a letter from prison.
"He wrote me that he was doing so much time because I wouldn't stand up with him in front of the judge. He said he had no family support.
"He blames me for his sentence. Can you believe it?
"He said when he got out, we'd have to learn to tolerate each other because of the child.
"I don't have to tolerate him, and I won't." It's been a ferocious ride for Cathy England, but welfare recipients, like prisoners in lockup, all have a story. The real question is this: How did she break the cycle?
I wanted Cathy to tell me how she went from living with one loser after another, always on the dole, to getting straight A's in college. How does Cathy fit into the new welfare Zeitgeist in America?
The turning point for Cathy, it turns out, was an event that underscores the futility of enacting welfare reform that doesn't factor in human nature. Social workers must have the authority to exercise their good common sense, to give the green light and the greenbacks to someone like Cathy. It is not a welfare revolution if we simply adopt a new set of guidelines as rigid as rebar, in place of the tar bath that existed before.
Cathy has confounded the new welfare system because her life is not a square peg in a square hole. Her journey has been highly personal.
Cathy claims, oddly enough, that it was her dad who opened her eyes.
In February of 1994, her father passed away. Although she had refused to ever again speak to the man who'd deserted his family in 1983, she decided to travel to Michigan for his funeral. Cathy drove out to the place where her father had lived.
"He was living in a garage and slept on a cot. There were beer bottles everywhere, trash, plates of medication. To the right, there were stacks of cut wood. All you could smell was the stench of burnt wood. There wasn't much ventilation for the stove. No one had cleaned up, garbage was strewn everywhere. There was still food on the electric range. There were shelves filled with old paint cans, some tools. This is how he died, a 59-year-old alcoholic.
"I didn't speak to him for 11 years because of the resentment and hate. But he used to tell me about the things he wanted to do. He never reached any of those goals, not a one. He was offered a job at a hospital as the head of maintenance, but he never took it. His father had been an alcoholic, and he'd said he'd never put his kids through what he went through. And look what happened."
Cathy England returned to Arizona shaken, yet determined not to end up living on a cot like her old man. And so she enrolled in college. No longer a kid, she was a middle-aged woman who'd about run out of chances.
After her first semester, Cathy frantically called her school.
"I told them there must be some mistake. These couldn't be my grades."
But there was no error. Cathy England, the straight-A student, would just have to think of herself in a new light.
"The fact that I can learn, it amazes me," she admits.
Less impressed is the state of Arizona. Welfare caseworkers insist that Cathy must go into a quickie program at a technical school like Long Medical Institute, where she can train as a physical therapist assistant.
When I called Long Medical, an admissions representative told me a physical therapist assistant might well start out at $7 an hour--$14,000 a year. In contrast, a spokesman at the Lincoln Institute for Sports Medicine, Jeff Lace, said a physical therapist could expect to start out at $40,000 a year and, with a little experience, quickly move to $50,000.
On the other hand, physical therapist assistants are not even licensed in Arizona, and therefore, are not much in demand.
"If I did what the state wants, I'd still need assistance," says Cathy. "My kids' lives would never improve, and I'd never get these teeth fixed. I'd lose them all, one by one."
No thanks, said Cathy.
Instead, Cathy and her kids will see her welfare check and food stamps razored from $647 a month to $267. And even that will stop after two years.
Frankly, Cathy does not know how she will cope. She will have to give up the apartment she shares with another single parent. Cathy has already filled out the paperwork for public housing.
Of course, all rules can be subverted. There is a way for Cathy and her kids to get all of her welfare check and all of her food stamps for the next two years. She can get pregnant. That's the way the system works.
Cathy can't help herself. She breaks into a big, gap-toothed smile thinking of the foolishness of it all.
In order to play that game, however, Cathy would have to pick another man out of the crowd. She hasn't got the knack of that yet, and it's not something they teach in college. No one, least of all Cathy, wants her pregnant.
Frankly, she's a little off guys.
"All these men, all three of them, told me I was ignorant, that I'd never amount to anything," says Cathy. "But the lady who is my English teacher tells me I am intelligent.
"I love going to school.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.