Rosalind Hall is a welfare mother. Two months ago, she got a job. It's nearly caused her to lose everything. She doesn't make enough to stand on her own, and because she's employed, she's lost the assistance that would help to change that. Hall is stuck in "the system."
A decade ago, Hall was a private nurse in Cleveland, making as much as $90 a day. After her second and third children--twin sons--were born, her relationship with their father ended and she came to Arizona to live with her parents.
Her parents helped out for a few years, but a family setback forced Hall and her three children out of her mother's house. She has received welfare from the state for three years.
Hall and her three children--the 9-year-old twins and a daughter who is 18 and pregnant--lived in shelters and run-down apartment complexes for nearly two years while she waited for a space in a city housing project downtown. She moved there in August.
Things were looking up. She had been volunteering at her sons' school, and she was offered a paying job there.
In February, Hall took a part-time job organizing the donated clothing at the Thomas J. Pappas School, which is run by Maricopa County and serves primarily homeless and transient children. The job is funded by a grant the school received.
Hall works four to five hours a day for $6 an hour while her children are in school. She takes home $221 every two weeks--a far cry from the $450 a week she made as a nurse during better times. She takes the bus each way because she doesn't have a car. And she does a good job.
"She's excellent," says Nancy Haas, an associate professor on leave from ASU to help restructure the Pappas school. "Everyone raves about how organized that donation area is now."
Haas adds, "It was a real high priority for us to bring on board somebody from our population." But the job hasn't helped Hall nearly as much as she has helped the school.
When Hall was hired, she notified the state Department of Economic Security and the city Housing Department. Because she was working, her state assistance first dropped from $347 to $80 a month. Her city rent jumped from $80 to $147. Those actions boosted her monthly expenses by $334. Fortunately, the state left her food-stamp allotment alone.
Then, in early April, Hall was notified by DES that she was not in compliance with its regulations because she didn't participate in DES' work program.
The program pays $4.25 an hour, training participants for primarily low-wage jobs working a minimum of 30 hours a week. But Hall already works 25 hours a week, at $6 an hour--she can make more money at the job she got on her own.
She would have had to quit her job at the Pappas school to participate in the DES work program, so she told DES she couldn't be there. Hall says that a caseworker told her it was okay because she was already working.
"I saw no reason for me to miss work to go to an orientation and training when I've already got a job. This is ridiculous," Hall says. DES obviously doesn't think so. For refusing to comply, Hall's assistance has now dwindled to $11 a month. And her food stamps--$247 a month--have been taken away.
Before Hall got the job at the school, she was getting $594 a month in assistance and food stamps; her rent was $80 a month. Since getting the job, her income during a good month is $453; her rent has jumped to $147 per month.
In an April 4 letter to Hall, DES stated that her household was not eligible for food stamps unless Hall, a single parent, leaves the home, can prove that she is no longer required to participate in the training program or agrees to quit her job and enter the program.
"I called the phone number they gave me and they gave me a caseworker. They have everything on computer. I have given them everything," Hall says. "The problem is that their requirement to meet the basic job program is 30 hours a week."
Basically, Hall doesn't work enough hours to be waived from the job program, and makes too much money for a break on other assistance.
If you figured Hall's annual salary the way the government does, she would make $6,240 a year, or $520 a month. But that's not what she really makes.
There are about 183 days of school each year. And Hall works only when school is in session. Not on holidays, not on spring break, not on summer vacation. Her salary comes out to $4,392 a year, before taxes.
Before the job-training fiasco, Hall tried to get the state to cancel her welfare assistance altogether, so that her city rent wouldn't jump when Phoenix refigured her income.
"I had requested that they just let me off, period," Hall says. "For $80, they could have kept it and I would be out of the hassle."
No dice. State caseworkers said she needed that money, according to their formula, to support her family. And breaking from the government would mean losing food stamps and medical coverage for the kids. It's a package deal.
They never said she would lose the rest of her assistance two months later.
Department of Economic Security officials refused to comment specifically on Hall's situation. However, they were able to explain how things work.
"We don't figure it," says Stella Martinez, referring to income and benefits.
"We just input the information into the computer and the system figures out how much they get," adds Martinez, who manages a local office of DES.
That's fairly obvious in correspondence to Hall, in which the department explains its actions this way: "This action is based on manual section DES 70-206" and includes a phone number for free legal advice.
The only interaction between DES and other agencies serving the same client is to verify income and expenses.
"Our agency only deals with our programs," Martinez says. "We're all funded differently. We all have different rules."
That doesn't help Hall, or thousands of women like her. "I want off," she says. "I want my life back. If I can get more hours of work and a little more help, I'm sure I can manage it."
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But that's easier said than done.
Working a second job would require child care, which Hall can't afford. It would also mean higher rent. The Pappas school has applied for another grant to keep Hall employed during summer school, but won't know if the money is coming in until next month.
Without it, Hall is back to the beginning and on assistance full-time, which would, frankly, be easier.
Talking about her neighbors in the housing project, Hall says, "There's a group of us who are starting back into the work field, and it's absolutely nerve-racking. I could have made more and stayed home.
"Can you imagine going to work and having to ask for a food box? That's the predicament they are putting me in.