Welfare to work isn't an easy step

"A report released last month details the five greatest obstacles preventing local families from moving off state welfare and into sufficient employment.The report, titled Faces of Poverty: In-depth Interviews with Families in Rural and Urban Washington State, is based on responses from 64 families in Kitsap and Pierce counties who currently or used to participate in WorkFirst, Washington's welfare program.The report was conducted by the Washington Welfare Reform Coalition, a non-profit, statewide alliance of community members and organizations. It identifies difficulties and errors with the Department of Social and Health Services as the most common problem for Welfare families in Kitsap. Also problematic were transportation, child care, education and training, and housing.The WorkFirst program, signed into law April 17, 1997 by Gov. Gary Locke, requires participants to search for and accept jobs, or else face financial penalties or termination of financial services. Based on family income, the state provides assistance for child care as long as parents are searching for jobs, working or undergoing training.Dawn Geyer, a Bremerton mother of three, previously participated in the WorkFirst program along with her then-husband. Her husband worked the night shift, returning home at 5 a.m. Because she had to leave for work at 8 a.m., her husband - who was also taking sedative medication - was responsible for tending to their young children at the same time he was trying to sleep.So I'm leaving the house with someone who was sleeping, who was supposed to be taking care of the kids, she said. It put them in a very dangerous situation.After coming home one day to her 1-year-old child wandering around naked while her husband slept, Geyer said she asked DSHS to provide child care. But her request was refused, she said, because administrators told her the father was at home and was responsible for supervising the children. The only alternative, Geyer said, was to leave the children unsupervised.That doesn't work, she said.To obtain child care, Geyer said her husband began sleeping at a friend's house, unbeknownst to the DSHS, which then provided financial assistance. But because her two sons both have speech and hearing impairments, she said her options for child care were severely limited.Most of the special-needs day cares are going toward Silverdale or on the east side of Bremerton, said Geyer, who lives in low-income housing alongside State Route 3.Transportation also became a barrier to getting off the program, Geyer said, because the one car the family owned contained mildew. One of the two sons had a strong history of asthma, preventing him from traveling in the vehicle.So our son couldn't even get in the car, she said. With public transportation the only viable option, Geyer said she would transport her children to different locations, which would take until about 11 a.m. By that time, she said, most daytime jobs have begun, which made lasting employment impossible for her.Soon separated from her husband, Geyer said the difficulties with WorkFirst were not directly responsible for the marital strife.But it did add to some of our problems, she said. They need to work it out better for the married couples.With only her ex-husband's monthly child support payments and Veteran's Affairs medical benefits for her children, Geyer began babysitting to raise extra income, but was soon told by her caseworker that she was earning too much money to receive state assistanceShe was constantly telling us to do this, Geyer said, but then turned right around and said we couldn't. She couldn't see the picture - she wouldn't see the picture.A year and a half ago, Geyer left the program. She now stays at home with her two sons, relying on her ex-husband's monthly payments.I finally decided what I was being told to do wasn't in the best interests of my children, she said. Now I don't have to worry about who's going to be with my kids.As the mother of an 8-year-old girl, Liana Fraley said her experience with WorkFirst has also been a difficult one of balancing parenting responsibilities and program requirements.Finding a job in the first place can be a monumental task, even through employers can receive tax credits for hiring WorkFirst participants, Fraley said.Employers aren't even interested, she said. I don't know if they don't know about it, or just aren't interested.Fraley said she used to work 40 hours per week at the Port Orchard Wal-Mart, but has had to scale back to about 20 hours per week for her daughter. Finding a babysitter for unusual hours can be next to impossible, she said.Nobody wants to watch your kid five to six night a week or on weekends, she said. Despite having attended college for two years, Fraley said she has struggled to get off the program. She once left WorkFirst for four months, but then had to go back on.My food cupboards have never been so bare during my time off the program, she said. It's just a trap. You get on, and it's hard to get off.After earning only $6,000 last year between her income and WorkFirst payments, Fraley said she might make more than $10,000 this year.But even that is below poverty, she said.In addition to her personal struggle, Fraley said she worries about her daughter becoming involved in the program.You don't want your kids to think this is a way of life, she said. Nothing's free."

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