In the Spotlight

News & Features
Views on Welfare Reform
By Chris Roberts
October 14, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of the MPR Welfare to Work Series

46-YEAR OLD CHAMRON TAN has been a financial worker for Ramsey County for the last ten years. As a former refugee from Cambodia who has never received a dime of public assistance, Tan says he knows it's possible to find work, regardless of your circumstances. But he's also acutely aware of how difficult it is to break free from welfare dependency, whether you're a high school drop-out single parent with four kids, or an immigrant who doesn't speak English. Under the old welfare system, Tan the financial worker was never allowed to share his unique experience with recipients. He was a paper pusher.

Tan: I would just maintain the case as long as they have eligibility. Meet the eligibility rule, they get the money, and we process the paper. That's it.

Roberts (reporter): You couldn't encourage them to go work? Why not?

Tan: You cannot say that.

Roberts: Why?

Tan: They say it's not our job to do that.

Now, under the Minnesota Family Investment Plan, or MFIP, Tan does even more paper pushing than before, but he also cheerleads or issues warnings to participants faced with a five-year deadline to find permanent work. Before, says Tan, duties in the Ramsey County welfare office were strictly delineated between financial, employment, and child care workers, and lines were never crossed.

Tan: Well, when we start a new MFIP program, all the three agencies work together trying to help one participant get to a job, so it's much better than before, but it create a lot of work for us here.

More work because the county is monitoring the progress of participants much more closely, taking note of when they move, get married, have children, or change jobs, because it affects their level of assistance. In some cases, participants have to file monthly household income reports, or if they miss an initial orientation meeting or annual recertification meeting, they're sanctioned, meaning their grant is reduced. All of this means more paperwork and more time on the phone with the clients themselves or other agencies. Chamron Tan says the whole idea behind MFIP is to reward people who work with slightly higher grants than those who don't. It pays to find a job under MFIP. While Tan strongly believes in that philosophy, he worries about where immigrants or refugees saddled with cultural and language barriers fit in.

Tan: They don't have the opportunity to get ahead and especially when they come to this country, like my age or older, it's really hard to adjust. So it's more difficult than people that grew up in this country, that they grew up and they speak the language and then they still have a hard time to find a job.

Roberts: Well somebody in this country would say then, "Don't come then."

Tan: Most people do not come by choice.

Tan also thinks the five-year time limit placed on participants may be unrealistic.

Tan: Too fast. Because some participants that have been on the system long, and then they don't have a work history, it's really hard for them. Sometimes it frighten them.

Roberts: But it's five years.

Tan: You say five years, not really... not really long, because I came to this country about 14 years [ago]... it seems like a very short time.

Tan says it's too early to say whether the goals of welfare reform will be achieved. His views contrast somewhat sharply with Sandy Nelson, his workmate across the aisle, who's attitude toward her job has been uplifted by welfare reform. Nelson came to Ramsey County three years ago, from Washington County, where she was a financial worker for eight years. Nelson rejoices in the fact that public assistance is no longer an entitlement. People have to work, she says, and if they need help the county is there for them.

Nelson: We provide you with counselors, we provide you with means to develop skills, we allow you training sessions on interviewing, writing résumés; we try and teach you that no, you are solely responsible for you and your family. And we're not here to support you, we're here to help you.

When participants complain they need a four-year college degree to find work, Nelson replies they don't - at least not for awhile. First, she says, you need to teach your children the necessity of work through your own example, and feel the pressure of feeding your family and paying your bills just like everyone else.

Nelson: You know, welfare has always put them in a special class. We've always catered to them, been sympathetic toward their needs, we've never said, "Get a job," even though many workers think it, because we think, "Why can't they get a job?" You know? You never would say that. Now we say it. "You need to get a job, you need to support yourself." It will build self-esteem, it will make you a better person, you know, and it's a whole new world for us.

Roberts: Do you like the new world?

Nelson: Yes!

Under MFIP, Nelson is more of a parental figure who directs tough love toward her clients. Before, she says, recipients often expected her to be their personal secretary and would heap verbal abuse on her when the system wasn't meeting their needs. Nelson clearly relishes her new role.

Nelson: I like to say "No, you have to get a job." I like it. It feels good to me. It feels good to say, "You know what, so and so? You're going to feel good about yourself too, but you have to work."

Roberts: Now, is that because of all the verbal abuse you've taken in previous years and it's kind of your way of getting back? You don't have to accept it anymore, is that what's going on?

Nelson: Part of it is the fact that, you know, I get up every day and go to work. I have a family, you know? I'm a tax payer. Why do you get to stay home? Why do you get your daycare paid? I pay my own daycare, you know, and I think, "What makes you different than me?" and it feels good to say, "You're not, you're not."

Nelson has the utmost confidence that MFIP will succeed at removing people from the welfare rolls. She says there have already been too many success stories for her not to feel that way.

Nelson: You see the changes in these people. I mean, I think that the fear is coming... is just kind of being eliminated and they're starting to work with these employment-service people who are there to help them. And I think the idea of getting out, getting away from the kids is good for them. It is good for them. And you see them come in and they're all... they're looking so nice and you think, "You know, they used to come in so haggard, and you know, like, why do I have to be here, grumpy and...." You can see the change in them. And they come away from there saying, "I'm not alone in this," makes a difference.

Sandy Nelson says had welfare reform not come along when it did, she would have gotten out of the work for good, because the old system wasn't helping anyone.