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The Disappearing Act

May 13, 1998
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

MISSOURI WELFARE REFORM, PART 3 OF 3: WHERE ARE THEY?

JEFFERSON CITY - Easter Newton is moving on up to the east side of Columbia.

After less than a month of living at the Salvation Army's Harbor House, Newton, 38, recently moved her family into their own apartment. She and her common-law husband, Ronnie Jones, worked for weeks full time, often overtime, to make the move.

Newton put in 40 hours per week at Boone Hospital Center as a nurse's aide. Jones often worked more than that housekeeping at the Holiday Inn. Still, somehow, they had time to find a new place to live.

"Everyday I was out looking for a house," Newton said. "I'm just happy, as happy as I can be."

The path to the future wasn't always so smooth for Newton. Seven years ago, she was collecting welfare for her family. But like a growing number of Missourians she moved off the welfare rolls and into the workforce.

"Everything's just falling in place. I don't think we're going to have a hard time at all."

Newton's story is one of success. She's not collecting welfare anymore, and she's no longer living at the Harbor House. She's got her own apartment with her own dishwasher.

How many other former Missouri welfare recipients now have their own apartment, or their own dishwasher? For that matter, how many are working anywhere?

Don't ask the state, because it has yet to find out. Like much of the rest of the United States, Missouri's administration has not released any data on where the former recipients are going.

Tom Jones, one of Social Services' experts on welfare-to-work efforts, said Missouri has only recently started to look into the matter.

"We are working on a project with the University of Missouri, checking to see what kinds of jobs they've gone into," Jones said. "We don't know specifically where they are at this point in time. But that is information we've been trying to secure."

How many are working? How many are still in poverty? How many have left the state? Answers to these questions would seem central to any claims that reform has been successful.

Another complication: The states currently have no way of tracking recipients from state to state.

Could it happen that a recipient might pick up and move to another state, starting the welfare-to-work clock over again?

"Theoeretically, it could," Jones said. "Luckily, because the 60 months is quite a ways off... it's something that we have time to work on."

Meanwhile, it may not be safe to assume most of the Missouri's former recipients are being paid to work.

In New York State, for example, it took only two years to get 480,000 people off the rolls. But one government report said 70 percent of those people have yet to find jobs.

The governor's office has said the increased demand placed upon food pantries, combined with the low unemployment rate, probably means Missouri has a problem with the working poor.

That was one of the concerns Rep. Vicki Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, expressed when the House was looking at welfare reform earlier this year.

"A minimum wage job may not be enough to keep people from being dependent in the future," Wilson said. "Do we want to move people into subsistence existence or do we want to make them into taxpayers?"

While paying taxes may be a measure of success to Wilson and other lawmakers, to working-class Missourians like Newton success might take a different shape.

Today she owns her own apartment, and she owns her own dishwasher.

"I love it, I like nice things, and I know the only way to get it is to work hard for it," Newton said.

Newton and Jones are working hard, but they are, after all a success story. How many others are there?