Legislator Offers First-Person View of Welfare

Ten years ago, President Clinton signed landmark legislation to overhaul welfare. But has it worked? At one time, Montana state legislator Mary Caferro was a single mother on welfare. She tells her own story.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. Ten years ago today, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. In other words, welfare reform. Crafted by a Republican Congress, the bill sought to stem a decade of growth in the welfare roles. It created stiff work requirements and capped how long a person could receive assistance.

In a few moments we'll ask whether or not the landmark bill has made a positive difference or any difference at all. But first, a look at the largest group of welfare recipients: single mothers.

Many find themselves in abusive relationships. For those that leave, they often do so without job skills, without a college education. They risk poverty for safety. That's the story of Mary Caferro, who went from a middle-class Mid-western marriage with four kids to welfare mother overnight. Today, she's director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a welfare advocacy group. She's also a Montana state legislator. Here's Mary Caferro in her own words.

Ms. MARY CAFERRO (Director, Working for Equality and Economic Liberation): I looked over and saw my daughter sitting there with her hands over her ears, and the two youngest ones were yelling at their dad to stop. And I said to myself, after today, this is it. My kids are never going to have to wake up again feeling that anxiety or that fear in their stomachs. I'm done. We're leaving. And that was ten years ago and I've never looked back.

When I was married I had an in-home childcare center, so that's where my experience was. When I left my ex-husband that wasn't enough money to support us, so I went out and got a second job. I went to work waitressing at night. So my children were with me during the day, but my school-age children were away from me during the day, they would come home, we'd eat dinner and then I'd take them to daycare. And this went on for a number of years. It was pretty interesting because I dropped them off at the daycare and after I finished waitressing, which was late, you know, sometimes as late as one in the morning, I would go pick them up from the daycare, take them all four out one at a time - because they'd be sleeping of course - put them in the car, drive home, one at a time take them, put them in their beds, kiss them good night and get up in the morning and start over.

Many people would come in and hold meetings over lunch. As a matter of fact, a lot of legislators came in and had lunch and they had meetings, educators, professional people, so I was constantly waiting on people who would throw all their books out on the table and start talking in this really academic language and I just hungered for a job where I used my brains, I used my soul, I used my spirit, my passion.

And I knew that there was absolutely no way that I was going to get anywhere working all of these hours, because I made minimum wage as a waitress. I'm very grateful it was there, don't get me wrong. But I did not like going on welfare. Number one, I'd worked my whole life. I mean I got a job when I was 12 years old. I'd always been able to do it without help. It was humiliating to go apply for welfare. However, I have to emphasize that I'm very grateful that it was there, I'm grateful that we had a good program in Montana that allowed me to go to school, but I hope I never have to do that again.

I am a reflection, a representative of probably millions of people who live in poverty who, if given the chance, they will be successful. I want people to have hope, and I hope that by me running for office - and I didn't know if I'd win. I actually thought I wouldn't win. But my me at least trying to run for office that it would give folks the incentive to also get involved. To say if she can do it, I can do it.

GORDON: Just one of the thousands of stories out there. That was Mary Caferro, director of a Welfare Advocacy group in Helena, Montana. She also represents District 80 in the Montana State Legislature.

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