Bush's Campaign Centerpiece An Unfinished Work In Texas
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dierdre Wilson, a 28-year-old mother of three, is a Texas welfare success story. Last week she began working full time at a Radio Shack factory in her northside neighborhood.
But, Wilson's recent success comes after months of setbacks. She dropped out of a welfare-to-work program last year and the state eventually cut her $226 welfare check to $130. When she went back to re-enroll in the job search program, she was told her time limit had expired.
Wilson continued to get money from the state to support her children, but she lost her eligibility for subsidized child care.
"It's really hard to get child care now," Wilson said in an interview the week before she found her job at Radio Shack. "You have to be working. I can't get a job without daycare. They won't give me daycare without a job." Wilson's solution? Until she is able to make other arrangements, her family has agreed to look after her kids.
Adults in Texas' welfare-to-work program, Choices, receive first priority for child care subsidies. Of the more the 100,000 families on welfare in Texas, only 25 percent are enrolled in the Choices program -- an enrollment rate that puts Texas in the bottom third of all the states.
Other parents must add their child's name to a waiting list, which in Tarrant County numbers more than 2,000. To get your child on the list, you must have a job.
For a long-term solution to her child-care problem, Wilson has turned to one of the charities that Texas Gov. George W. Bush talks about. Caseworkers at her local United Community Center are trying to help her.
United Community Centers of Tarrant County is a private, social services agency founded by the United Methodist Church. Its four neighborhood centers offer emergency food and clothing, meals for seniors and activities for children and teenagers. With its new welfare grant, UCC expanded its services to include help for women moving from welfare to work.
Under a statewide program called Charitable Choice, the local arm of the state Workforce Commission supports three religious organizations, including UCC, that help single mothers move off welfare and into jobs. It has given each program between $30,000 and $70,000 this year.
Bush launched Charitable Choice in 1997, in a bid to involve more religious organizations in the delivery of social services. As he has campaigned for the presidency, he has said he does not expect these groups to increase their work without government money. But, three years after welfare reform began in Texas, few religious groups have received state or federal welfare money to expand their services for the poor.
Including Tarrant County, only three of the state's 26 local workforce boards have distributed money to local religious groups to provide job preparation and counseling for adults on welfare. In two regions of the state, workforce boards have yet to begin operating. Officials in Austin have given money to another 10 groups.
UCC President Floyd Davis is enthusiastic about his new partnership with the state. "We've got location, location, location. We have a history in the neighborhood and we have credibility. Let us be the place that has the resources and where people can meet," he said.
But Davis also says his organization is "maxed out." He says he is seeing too many women in need who, like Dierdre Wilson, the state cannot or will not help.
"Our philosophy is, we don't turn away anyone," Davis said. To maintain its open-door policy, UCC relies on grants and donations from many sources. The United Way pays 42 percent of its $2.3 million budget, the United Methodist Church contributes 14 percent and government grants cover another 12 percent. The rest comes from donations and program fees.
UCC caseworkers and Catholic Charities in Tarrant County both report rising demand for emergency food and clothing. And there is one grim statistic advocates for the poor here cite over and over; Women and their children now make up 48 percent of the homeless population and, since 1993, that percentage has been growing.
"We have been getting by with everything we can muster," Davis said. "We're not getting enough government money to really make a difference at this point."
In truth, Texas has always been a low-spending state when it comes to welfare. In recent years, it has spent less on welfare per capita than all but eight other states. In 1998, its welfare cash payment combined with food stamps gave a family of three an income of just over $6,000 a year, less than half the federal poverty line.
Texas ranks 5th among the states in the percentage of families in poverty. Between 1997 and 1999, it accumulated a $325 million surplus of unspent federal welfare funds.
In a move that surprised many, Texas lawmakers this year did increase welfare spending. They approved the first hike in cash assistance for welfare families in 16 years. A single mother raising two children in Texas is now eligible for $200 in aid a month, a $12 increase. Still, the new level of assistance is lower than that of every state but Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana.
Lawmakers, at the governor's urging, also boosted child care funding by $80 million over two years. In Tarrant County, this year's allotment will provide child care for about 200 additional children.
The biggest news for the state's private non-profit organizations came in two, much smaller increases. Texas doubled the funding for a Texas Workforce Commission job-training program from $12 million to $24 million. The agency is encouraging religious groups to apply for that money. The legislature also gave the Department of Human Services another $12 million to screen recipients for problems which may prohibit them from working successfully.
But Texas lawmakers left $98 million unspent. And they used $173 million in federal funds to replace state spending.
"I do want to recognize that there were some important improvements," said Patrick Bresette, who follows welfare reform for the Austin advocacy group, the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "But they did not take advantage of the dramatic new flexibility afforded by the federal welfare law."