Women on Welfare

By Diana Hernandez—

If you think the DMV was the gate way to hell you were wrong. Try sitting in a crowded, hot like a sauna, loud room where some children are running around and others are crying. There are never enough seats for everyone and you can bet there is always someone there who ends up cursing out a social worker. That was how the old welfare office used to be in Jersey City. The new office has improved with just enough seats for everyone, the room is bigger and flat screens TVs have been added. There is even a small room where strollers are held and everything seems to be more organized. The entrance has two metal detectors that everyone must walk through and three security officers as well. A few feet away there is a desk with a police officer around the clock. Is it still crowded, loud and are children still all over the place? You bet. And is that social worker still being sent to hell? I guess that is what all that security is for.

Still, it is nothing to be proud of and in most cases nothing to be ashamed of if you are doing it for the right reason, but no matter what people still judge others for being on welfare. Especially young women with children because you will always hear comments like, “she ended up just like her momma” or “poor girl I guess her baby daddy left her.” DJ Alex Kasanova from New Jersey makes it clear to everyone on Instagram how he feels about people on welfare, “To all welfare recipients non-working muthafuckas…If you see a suspicious package… don’t be alarmed…its probably a job application…open it up…fill it out…You’re welcome.” Ouch. That was harsh. What people do not realize is that every girl has her own unique story and not everyone is fortunate to have life go as planned. Thankfully, welfare has changed tremendously to help these young women eventually get off the system.

Years ago one would walk into the old welfare office in Jersey City with the right documents and with no questions asked, would walk out with Medicaid for you and your children, food stamps, Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), Home Energy Assistance and the real lucky ones with Temporary Rental Assistance (TRA). Which meant you got to live for free for about two years. The new system feels like an interview, dozens of documents and it is a must to put the father on child support. That means a day in court as well. Cash assistance is not free anymore because the new system requires young women to do volunteer work, job search or attend school. The question is are these programs really working?

Adair Mora 28, mother of three from Union City, NJ has been on welfare for five years. She has received all assistance except Temporary Rental Assistance (TRA). She has done the job search program and the volunteer work and this is what she had to say about her experience, “There are no training positions, no pay and no certificate to help you move forward in the volunteer program. There are other options like school, but caseworkers do not advise you about the better options. They prefer to send you to random job sites to volunteer.” If these young women do not want to attend school their only other options are job search or the volunteer program. They can do 30 hours a week of volunteer work for as long as they would like, but the problem is that there is no training or learning from it. The job search program sends these women to the unemployment offices to sit at a computer and search for jobs. Ms. Mora explains that, “Job search activities are ridiculous because all people do is sit and write down places they have applied to. It can be made up and caseworkers do not bother to check if they are really searching for a job. For volunteer work I was always sent to daycares that is about it.” Is it the welfare system’s fault or the young women who are not taking the opportunities given to them seriously?

Robert Knapp, Deputy Director of the Hudson County Welfare Division states, “The program in place to require recipients to participate in “volunteer” programs is known as the Community Work Experience Participation (CWEP). The requirement to report to sites and work is a state requirement not one of Hudson County. This requirement is mandated in all counties throughout the State of New Jersey. The issue of school and education and training is also to be offered to the recipient, but the school hours cannot count as the CWEP or volunteer hours. The availability of training and education is offered to all recipients if appropriate and the recipient that is not made aware of the opportunities should request to meet with a supervisor in order to clarify their plan of action with the agency.” Ms. Mora its time to see a supervisor!

The Hudson County Welfare Division has employed Mr. Knapp since December 1968. His duty as Deputy Director is to assist the Director in the day-to-day operations of the division. He is second in charge of over 500 employees and deals with policy issues concerning the changing rules and regulations concerning public assistance. Mr. Knapp also interacts with the personnel office in regards to problems and issues with employees. He is the liaison between the division and all law enforcement agencies on the federal, state, county and local level. In other words, he is the big boss, the chief and for many years he has been committed to helping others.

“Yes, the goal of the welfare system today and since the late 1990’s is to assist all people to become self sufficient and support their families. But this is not accomplished in one “swoop”, it is a process where training and education is involved,” says Mr. Knapp about the process of change.

Jersey City is the largest city by square miles and population in Hudson County so in proportion will have a great number of people in contrast to the smaller cities and towns in the county. According to Mr. Knapp, the welfare population in the entire county has decreased from 21,000 cases in the 1980’s to the current case count of approximately 4,500 cases. But this number does NOT include those on Food Stamps and Medicaid.

Cilia Lecea, 19, Weehawken, NJ has recently earned her Medical Assistant certificate, is a volunteering Emergency Medical Technician and is planning to go back to school to be a certified Ultrasound Technician. She was in the CWEP program and currently receives full benefits while in school. “It helped me find a career so that I am able to maintain me and my daughter on my own,” said Lecea about her experience with welfare.

Young women on welfare have every opportunity to better themselves and their children. They can attend college or any type of school they would like and receive food stamps, cash, help with the light bill; free childcare and even a NJ Transit bus pass on monthly bases. Eventually, earning a degree, finding a job and slowly, but surely they are able to get off government assistance. There really is no excuse. The women that decide not to take advantage of the help will suffer consequences when their assistance reaches their five-year deadline.

Natasha Ortiz, 35, mother of four children, from Florida has been on welfare on and off since 1996. “The system has too many loop holes, but the system does help if you want it to. When I lived in Jersey and was on TRA I had to go to school and work. I went to school to get my Home Health Aid certification and they also helped me get my drivers license. Then I went back to school to get my Medical Assistance certification. I was receiving food stamps, a bus pass and Medicaid. I was a single parent so I was receiving full benefits. Ms. Ortiz recalls a hard time where she had no choice, but to abuse the system, “I abused the system once. I took the 300 dollars and gave it to my ex who took it and flipped it when selling drugs. We made the money back to get an apartment. I did not use it to get high I used it to get out of my situation. I did not do what most girls do which is getting their nails done and hair instead of buying their children clothes or food.

Ms. Ortiz explains the only difference between Jersey and Florida welfare laws, “The welfare system is different in Florida. I needed to get drug tested before receiving any help. I had to pay for my test as well. I got reimbursed because I passed the test. If someone fails they send him or her to rehab and the individual has to pay for it. If you fail a second time its three years of no help and it goes on your permanent record.”

Being a single mother and attending 40 hours of CWEP can be overwhelming. It leaves very little time to be home with the children and get chores done. Volunteering 40 hours a week for only $321 a month will leave you not only feeling unappreciated, but also it takes away from being with your children. A program (not many women know about) called Smart Steps is a better option. The Smart Steps Program gives people who are eligible for welfare the option of receiving benefits while going to school full-time. The Smart Steps program is run by One-Stop Career Center. Only a few women are selected every year because it is very limited. The program allows them to skip CWEP (the volunteer program) as long as they are in college and keep a 2.0 GPA or higher. They must bring in their school schedules and grades at the end of every semester so their caseworker can review their progress.

There is a catch to this program. Besides the fact that you must be going to college you must also earn a degree in a job that is in high demand in the state of New Jersey. For example, a Registered Nurse or a teacher would help a recipient qualify. The difference between the CWEP and Smart Steps program is that CWEP puts you to work full-time to earn your monthly benefits. Smart Steps puts you in school and you still receive your monthly benefits including case management, child care, transportation assistance and, in some cases, Emergency Assistance; with welfare food-stamps and Medicaid as well.

Laurice Roess, Career Development Facilitator, serves as an employment counselor for the women that qualify for the Smart Steps program. She feels that the only way to get ahead is by taking advantage of all the benefits welfare has to offer. Roess tells us of a positive story she encountered, “I know a girl who I have counseled for 8 years. She had nothing when she first came, but she did what she had to do and now she is a lawyer. The program only works if the women take advantage of what the state has to offer and she makes something of herself.”

Ms. Arelis Vazquez, Case Worker of the Hudson County Welfare Division gives her take on her experiences with recipients, “This job can be very stressful and emotional, but it is our job to make sure every woman gets the help she needs. The possibilities are endless if these women were focused on bettering their lifestyle. Unfortunately, most do not take it seriously enough to prosper. I do have many cases though that makes me feel like my job is worthwhile. I have seen plenty of mothers go to school and graduate and eventually they get off the system.”

It is pretty clear that nowadays whether you are a poor single mother or not there are plenty of opportunities to become a well-rounded educated individual. There is a way out of the hood. This should be a wake up call to the many women who maybe did not know of these opportunities or are just too lazy to get with it. Whatever the case may be there is hope and opportunities out there.

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.” – Nido Qubein



See other stories by Diana Hernandez “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients”