JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
It's been almost 10 years since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark Welfare Reform Bill of 1996. The law killed the 60-year-old welfare program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC. The new law gave grants to states to run their own anti-poverty programs, and required them to move many welfare recipients into the workforce.
Wyoming, more than any other state, ended welfare after 1996, cutting its cash assistance roles by more than 90 percent. But Wyoming's leaders are now having a different debate, how to better support poor people who've gone to work.
John Biewen of American RadioWorks has the story.
JOHN BIEWEN reporting:
Charles Scott is a lanky, six and a half foot tall rancher, and a senior Republican in the Wyoming state senate.
Mr. CHARLES SCOTT (Wyoming State Senator): I was chair of the committee when we did our welfare reform. I, as much as much any single individual, I wrote it and got it to the senate.
BIEWEN: And you're proud of it?
Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, yeah.
BIEWEN: Scott and his fellow lawmakers in Wyoming welcomed the new message sent by the 1996 welfare reform law, that welfare was no longer a way of life, it was now a vehicle for moving people into jobs.
MR. SCOTT: And if you reach that sheet of paper there...
BIEWEN: Scott uses charts with numbers to show his strategy: make welfare hopelessly unappealing and make work more attractive. Under the Wyoming system that replaced AFDC, anyone receiving cash assistance must spend 40 hours a week looking for work. So a mother with two children has to stay busy full-time to earn a monthly welfare check of $320. That's $2 an hour. Even a minimum wage job pays more than twice as much.
At the same time, a single parent who takes a low-paying job gets more non-cash assistance than she did before welfare reform. Things like childcare, food stamps and health coverage.
Mr. SCOTT: The basics of it was that you, when we redid the incentives, you were better off working than you were with our cash grant welfare.
BIEWEN: Clearly Wyoming's single mothers did the math.
Mr. SCOTT: In this state, the success is very close to 100 percent. We have moved almost everybody off of the cash grant welfare system.
BIEWEN: In 1996, before welfare reform, 5,000 Wyoming families received a welfare check. A decade later, just over 300 households in the entire state get a monthly check under the state program that replaced AFDC. It's not clear how many of the women left welfare also left Wyoming.
Mickey Jaramillo(ph) is one who stayed.
Ms. MICKEY JARAMILLO (Wyoming Resident): Oh I think it feels great. To break that cycle, to break the cycle of being on welfare, to break the cycle of being low income.
BIEWEN: Mickey is a short, compact woman with dark hair that flows to her waist. She grew up in Cheyenne, the oldest child of a single mother on welfare. When Mickey was a teenager in the last 1980s, her mother went to jail on drug charges. Mickey got custody of her three younger brothers and sisters.
Ms. JARAMILLO: I got the check. I got the food stamps. Coincidentally, I got pregnant. I had my daughter when I was 18. So then I got an AFDC check for her. You know, that's what I was shown for the past 18 years, and so I picked that up and that's how I started living, basically living my life.
BIEWEN: Mickey eventually had three children of her own. She never married, though she sometimes lived with boyfriends without telling the welfare people. Mickey followed her mother into the drug trade and served two prison terms. She came out of prison the second time into a changed world, post-welfare reform in 1998.
Ms. JARAMILLO: And I had tried to not go back on welfare. I was working at Lion Jay(ph) Restaurant for 5.25 an hour and being a productive member of society. And it got the point where it was just too hard and I just didn't have money.
BIEWEN: Mickey and her kids landed in a homeless shelter. She swallowed her pride and went back to the welfare office. She was told she could get food stamps and medical coverage. When she lost her job she asked her caseworker if she could get a check under the new state program called POWER.
Ms. JARAMILLO: You know, I said, what's this about this money, about this program that I can go to your classes and have some income, you know, until I find a job? And she said I wouldn't qualify.
BIEWEN: Drug offenders like Mickey were banned from receiving a check under the federal welfare reform law. She struggled for a couple of years working low wage jobs until the homeless shelter hired her in 2000. Now she makes $19,000 a year and has a solid partner. Her fiancé works in the oil industry.
Mickey still can't afford health insurance for herself, but she and her boyfriend and her two teenage kids recently moved from a doublewide trailer into a four-bedroom house.
Ms. JARAMILLO: There is just a lot of pride there. You know, welfare honestly made people lazy. It enabled them. And to know that my kids, you know, are - they see us working hard and that we work hard for what we have. Life is not easy, stuff's not handed to you, and I think my kids see that now.
BIEWEN: After the 1996 reforms, poor single mothers and their children left welfare at a dramatic rate. Nationwide, the roles fell from five million households to two million. Here's the good news: overall low-income single parents and their children appear to be doing better. They're more likely to be working and, like Mickey Jaramillo, they have more income than they did on welfare.
But Mickey's done better than most. In Wyoming, as in the rest of the country, former welfare moms often fail to leave poverty behind.
(Soundbite of shelter)
Ms. CARRINE PONTICELLO: I'm Carrine Ponticello. This is my daughter Elena, and we're here at the Camea(ph) Shelter. It's a mission for homeless people. They put you up for 30 days and stuff like that...
BIEWEN: Carrine is 20. She looks younger with her round face and bobbed blonde hair. When she got pregnant she was working at a hospital in Wheatland, Wyoming and studying to be a certified nurse's assistant. But she got sick with pre-eclampsia and had to quit work and school to go on bedrest.
When her money ran out in Wheatland, Carrine moved to Cheyenne, thinking she'd find more help in a bigger town. But with her baby not yet born, she didn't qualify for state assistance.
Ms. PONTICELLO: So I stayed with a friend here. And, well, that went to kaput, because she has a daughter and her husband didn't want me living there. So I went into labor with Elena, and when I got out we had no place to go.
BIEWEN: When we first meet Carrine and her tiny, 7-week-old daughter, Carrine's feeling good. She's about to become one of those rare single moms to get a check through POWER, the Wyoming welfare program.
The next morning she gets a ride from a friend to the Department of Family Services' office.
(Soundbite of office)
BIEWEN: Carrine's POWER check is for $205 a month.
Ms. PONTICELLO: I'm very thankful. I'm very thankful. I know a lot of people are like, it's only $205 a month, what can you do with $205 a month? Well, when you only have 50 cents a month in your pocket that you find on the side of the street, you can stretch $205 extremely far.
BIEWEN: Combined with food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, the check will allow Carrine to get an apartment and live on her own.
(Soundbite of office)
BIEWEN: Carrine's life as a welfare mom will be short. A single mother can get a POWER check for the first three months of her child's life, then she has to go to work or spend 40 hours a week looking for a job in order to get the grant.
When we check back with Carrine seven weeks later, she's in her apartment in a well-worn, low-income complex on the flat outskirts of Cheyenne. And she's in trouble.
Ms. PONTICELLO: My POWER is - I'm no longer getting it right now, because my caseworker did not let me know that I was supposed to come in two weeks before the baby turned three months. So I did not do so and this - they cancelled my POWER because of that.
BIEWEN: Carrine may have forgotten it, but in an interview weeks before, she had said she would have to sign up for a work program. In the new Wyoming welfare system, it's one strike and you're out.
So here it is, the first of the month.
Ms. PONTICELLO: No money. You got to do what you got to do, though. I mean, my daughter is the most important thing to me. I'm going to get her what she needs. I see a lot of moms out there that get their kids expensive motorized vehicles and stuff like that. My daughter doesn't have that. My daughter won't have that because I'm a single mom and I struggle from day to day to provide for what she needs. No one said it would be easy to be a single mom.
(Soundbite of baby crying)
Ms. PONTICELLO: Hey, (unintelligible), don't cry.
BIEWEN: Carrine says she'd be happy to get a job, but she can't find a child care provider with an open spot for her infant daughter. We tried to check back with Carrine a couple of weeks later, but couldn't find her. Her cell phone was out of service. We don't know what's become of her.
Ten years after Wyoming created one of the nation's toughest welfare laws, the state's leaders say they recognize that thousands of families are hurting.
Governor DAVE FREUDENTHAL (Wyoming): Okay. Good afternoon. We are here to discuss the release of the children and families report...
BIEWEN: At a press conference in the fall of 2005, Governor Dave Freudenthal announced a package of proposals meant to give a boost to the children of people like Carrine. His main idea, an ambitious subsidy to provide high-quality, affordable child care for everyone.
Freudenthal delivered a report he'd ordered called the Wyoming Family Portrait. Among other things, it found that almost two-thirds of single parents in Wyoming don't earn enough to support their families.
Governor FREUDENTHAL: It was not the hoped for picture of Wyoming, although I suspect that most of us had some suspicions that things were not all as good as they could be here in Camelot.
BIEWEN: Freudenthal is a conservative Democrat. He was elected in 2002. He says Congress was right to do away with AFDC, but state governments need to do more for families who've left welfare.
The man who built Wyoming's welfare law agrees. Remember Charlie Scott. He's the Republican state senator and cattle rancher.
Mr. SCOTT: We essentially did away with the cash grant welfare system, but you can't do away with - food stamps is probably the big one. Medicaid is the next one, and then there's a whole number of other things. You need those supports because on the jobs that people can get in a free enterprise system, they can't support a family yet. They may, and very likely with experience work their way up and off that, but initially they can't. So you have to have those other supports in place.
BIEWEN: There's bipartisan momentum gathering in Wyoming to fix the problem. Earlier this year, Charlie Scott threw his support behind the governor's child care subsidy plan and steered it through the state senate.
Ten years after Congress ended the old welfare system, the political left and right seem to be finding more opportunities to link up in the fight against poverty. Policy makers seem more inclined to help working families who've left welfare to get by.
For NPR News and American RadioWorks, I'm John Biewen.
YDSTIE: American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media. To find out how your state has handled the welfare-to-work initiative, visit NPR.org for a link an interactive map.