Maria is a slight, diffident woman who has floated on and off of welfare for the better part of a decade. A native of Guatemala, she has raised six children, survived an abusive marriage, and suffered from medical conditions ranging from hypertension to diabetes. For the past six months, she and her two elementary school-aged children have slept on the living room floor of her eldest daughter’s one-bedroom apartment as Maria has conducted a disheartening job search. “There are two things I can do,” Maria explains in Spanish as she fingers her wispy black hair. “Take care of kids or work as a housecleaner.” She has papered local motels with applications, but the only position she could find was a babysitting job on Saturday mornings. “It doesn’t cover anything,” she says quietly.

Over the past five years, the nation’s welfare rolls have plunged by about 40 percent. But the decline mostly reflects an exodus of white women from public assistance. Minorities have lagged behind, and Latinas like Maria are leaving at the slowest pace of all. While Hispanics are 11 percent of the population, they now account for 22 percent of welfare recipients. That’s nearly double the level of a decade ago. And in areas with a heavy concentration of Hispanics, the numbers are much higher: In New York City, for example, Latinas outnumber white welfare mothers almost twelve to one.

These women are subject to much more stringent regulations than they were just a few years ago. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 did away with the federal entitlement to assistance. Now states parcel out welfare checks with strict work requirements attached. There is a five year lifetime limit on cash assistance, and with few exceptions, recipients must work after two years on the dole. States were required to reduce their caseloads by 25 percent last year, and another 25 percent in 2000. In order to meet those goals, caseworkers have put enormous pressure on their clients to find jobs. There are loopholes in the legislation, however, that could allow some recipients to stay on the rolls beyond the time limits. States can exempt 20 percent of their caseload from the five year cap. In addition, the welfare bill’s restrictions apply only to the funds states receive from the federal government; once the five years are up, welfare clients could continue to receive state money. In other words, the current restrictions allow for a residue of long-term public aid recipients.

Latinas will probably be disproportionately represented in this category. On virtually every predictor of gaining self-sufficiency, they are at the very bottom of the scale. According to a 1994 Census Bureau report, 64 percent of Hispanic welfare recipients did not finish high school, almost double the rate for white women on public assistance. In addition, nearly half of Latinas living in the United States are immigrants, and the vast majority speak poor English, disqualifying them from all but a handful of jobs. These women are also concentrated in inner cities, where employment is hard to come by. According to a report in The New York Times, competition is so fierce in some poor urban areas that supermarket managers can insist that even employees who bag groceries speak English.

Obviously, with their low levels of education and poor language skills, many Latinas would profit from employment training or literacy classes. But they are the women most likely to be shut out of existing programs. According to Community Voices Heard, a welfare advocacy group based in New York City, only 25 percent of Latinas on the dole have access to job placement and training services, compared with 40 percent of African American women. That’s not just because most of those services aren’t offered in Spanish. In many cases, Latinas can’t even communicate with their caseworkers, who would refer them to programs.

Poor English proficiency isn’t the only obstacle first generation Hispanics trip over in their effort to become self-sufficient. Hispanic culture is deeply conservative, and many Latinas cling to traditional views of motherhood. They are hesitant to leave their children, and voice doubts about their ability to measure up on the job. For now, many of these women have maintained their welfare eligibility by participating in state-sponsored workfare programs or providing constant proof they are job hunting. And as long as these women make a “good faith” effort to find work, most states probably will not cut them from public assistance.

That fact that Latinas are having trouble leaving the rolls isn’t a good sign. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States, and they show indications of developing an underclass. Teenage Latinas have a high pregnancy rate and the highest high school drop-out rate of all major ethnic groups, which translates into a high likelihood of becoming welfare mothers themselves. Latinas earn the lowest salaries of all women workers. And as they labor in low skill jobs, or struggle to find employment, it seems increasingly unlikely they will pull their families into the economic mainstream. “Latinos already have the highest rate of poverty in the United States,” says Ramona Hernandez of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “I think that number is just going to keep going up.”

Spanning Generations
Latinas on welfare are not a uniform group. They include teenagers and aging grandmothers; some are third generation Americans, others came to this country just a few years ago. “More recent immigrants have to deal with the language issue,” says Minerva Delgado of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. “Second and third generation Latinas have their own set of problems. They have low levels of education and literacy, and bigger families. Finding work is challenging for them, too.”

Diana Perez, a third generation Mexican American living in Chicago, can testify to some of those challenges. Perez is among the 30 percent of Latinas on welfare who have less than a ninth grade education. As the single mother of six children, child care is expensive and difficult to find. And like many Latinas, she has a spotty work history; after 25 years on the dole, her resume only lists a brief stint on an assembly line.

Perez is not a woman of immodest ambitions. “I want to work in an office,” she says. “A place that is clean.” But after two years of job hunting, she hasn’t even been able to find work in a factory or on a cleaning crew. “It makes you feel like putting your head in a bucket,” she says of her unsuccessful job search. “You feel like you are nothing.” But despite the frustrations she’s grappling with, Perez possesses an enormous advantage over many first generation Latinas: She speaks English. Women who can only chat in Spanish have trouble landing jobs at McDonald’s. “It’s the biggest barrier for women trying to leave public assistance,” says Ramona Hernandez.

It’s not just Central Americans fresh off of the boat whose English proficiency is limited to a handful of phrases. Many first generation Hispanics never become bilingual. Walk through the streets of Adams Morgan, in Washington, D.C., where wizened men hawk green plantains and salsa music pulses at full volume, and the reason becomes readily apparent. In this Havana-like environment, women can buy their groceries and rent apartments without speaking a word of English. And Adams Morgan is by no means an abnormality–swaths of cities across the country resemble transplanted slices of Latin America. Many Latinos ensconce themselves in the small radius of these barrios. That doesn’t do much for their English skills. And most of these neighborhoods are located in inner cities, where jobs are difficult to find. These residents are also sealed off from networks that could inform them about work opportunities in surrounding areas.

Many immigrants are undocumented, a status that can lead to some unusual welfare cases. Women who enter the United States illegally can’t go on the dole. But their children born in the United States are eligible for benefits. There are roughly 100,000 “child-only” immigrant cases in the United States, according to a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. Many more families are eligible for government largesse, but shy away from applying for aid because they fear being deported. Those who do receive a welfare check through their children end up playing by different rules than direct recipients. Most significantly, they are exempt from the five year time restriction. By the same token, they can’t enroll in job training or English classes. Without work papers or access to social services, these women are doubly dependent on public assistance. Freed from short time restrictions, many will rely on government charity until their children are no longer eligible.

Take a 24-year-old Salvadoran woman we’ll call Lourdes. Lourdes immigrated to the United States eight years ago, and all three of her U.S.-born children are on the rolls. She briefly scrubbed toilets in an office building and found her salary barely covered her babysitting bills. Now she shares a one-bedroom apartment with six other people, putting out feelers to find work as a maid. Even if she did have a green card, it’s hard to see what other jobs she’s qualified for–her-seven-year-old son has more formal education that she does. And because of her illegal status, she can’t attend state-sponsored English classes or enroll in job training workshops. “They only way I could get papers is through a lawyer,” she says almost inaudibly over the phone. “I can’t pay for that.”

Madres First
Scanty education, language barriers, and not-quite-above-board residency papers aren’t the only stumbling blocks Latinas encounter as they attempt to move from welfare into work. Latin American culture is scarcely progressive, and many Hispanic women see their primary role as caretakers to their children. “The biggest issue in these women’s lives is raising their children,” says Tim Bell, coordinator of the adult education program at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago. “They’re being forced to take on an entirely new identity.”

One of the thorniest issues all working parents have to confront is child care. For women raised to consider themselves madres first, spending time away from their kids can be particularly difficult. Latinas tend to have more children than white women, and they harbor a deep distrust of day care. A 1991 New York state study of female welfare recipients found that 75 percent of Hispanic mothers feared their children would be mistreated in day care, compared with 45 percent of non-Hispanic mothers. It’s worth noting that most Latinas can only afford unlicensed day care, facilities that often run the gamut from terrible to mediocre. And in conversations with several women I got the impression they had all seen the same horror stories about deviant care givers on television. In any case, when they work, Hispanics generally have family members watch over their kids–an arrangement that may ease their consciences, but is far more unreliable.

Perhaps because so many Hispanic women primarily identify themselves as wives and mothers, they are less confident about what they can accomplish on the job. According to the New York study of public aid recipients, 45 percent of Hispanics on the dole feared they could not perform as well as others at work, compared with 26 percent of non-Hispanic women. That makes sense in the context of Latin culture. From a young age, women are barraged with the message that they must be deferential and self-sacrificing. Sociologist Evelyn Stevens dubbed the Hispanic image of the ideal woman marianismo–she postulates that the ultimate role model for Latinas is none other than the Virgin Mary herself. As psychologists Rosa Maria Gil and Carmen Inoa Vaszquez point out, the tenets of marianismo may make for accommodating housewives, but they don’t mesh with the dictates of the workplace. “Can you imagine a list of attributes [like abnegation and submissiveness] in a resume, job description, or want ad?” they ask in The Maria Paradox.

Getting off of public assistance will require many Latinas to shake some of the most deeply held creeds of their culture. For that reason, public policy analysts say, it’s important for social workers and teachers in job training programs to have a sense of the world Hispanics are coming from. But most social services not only flunk the “culturally sensitive test”–they are literally conducted in a different language. Fifty-seven percent of Spanish-speaking welfare recipients in Brooklyn and Queens cannot communicate with their case worker, according to Andrew Friedman of the welfare advocacy group Make the Road by Walking. Few states offer bilingual training programs. There are private and community-based organizations across the country that provide training in Spanish. But since the national zeitgeist became “work first” with the overhaul of the welfare system, many women have been barred from these programs, too.

Until a year ago, there was no limit on the length of time welfare mothers could take classes at the Chicago Commons Employment Training Center, which serves a predominately Latina clientele. Because women encounter different obstacles as they prepare for work, it didn’t make sense to impose an arbitrary “one-size-fits-all” deadline, explains program director Jenny Wittner. “A lot of these women need an enormous amount of help to have a shot at a decent job,” she says. A whopping 82 percent of the women have been in abusive relationships. Some students can’t decipher the help wanted ads or balance a checkbook. And Hispanics who are illiterate in both Spanish and English often need months of language classes before they can function in even low-paying jobs, says Wittner. In part because the program was open-ended, Chicago Commons has posted a solid success rate: Four years after leaving the program, 63 percent of the women are still working.

When the welfare reform bill was passed in 1996, however, caseworkers began pulling their clients out of the Commons. It wasn’t the caseworkers’ fault, Wittner hastens to add. The legislation’s strict requirements for caseload reduction have placed enormous pressure on social workers to shove women into jobs or short-term training programs. While Wittner cut the Commons’ program down to six months, 12 of her students were forced to drop out in January alone. Wittner says service providers across the country are running into the same problem. “States are only allowing for two to three weeks of training,” she says. “That just doesn’t encompass enough time for learning.”

Cristina di Meo of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies says Latinas in New York City have seen their educational opportunities fall, too. Community based literacy classes in the City were once stuffed with welfare mothers trying to learn English, she says. That changed in 1997, when New York City instituted a “workfare” program which requires able bodied public aid recipients to work 35 hours a week in exchange for cash assistance. “Students have dropped out of English courses in droves in order to meet the workfare requirement,” says di Meo. The only program open to Spanish-speakers now is a workfare arrangement providing English classes two days a week over six months. “It’s inadequate,” she says. “The students hardly learn any English at all.”

Second generation Latinas seem to have more opportunities to get ahead in workfare programs. Bronx native Sandra Agront has been on the dole her entire life: Her mother raised seven children on public assistance, and Agront opened her own account when she had the first of her three kids at 18. Nine years later, the second-generation Puerto Rican is working and preparing to take the GED high-school equivalency test. In order to fulfill her workfare requirement, she watches over kids at a shelter. She enjoys spending time with children; her goal now is to become a teacher’s assistant. Even if it were an option, she wouldn’t want to go back to collecting a welfare check and spending long days watching soap operas. “I like what I’m doing,” she says.

Agront is an example of what workfare can be under the best of circumstances. Enrolling in GED classes was the first step to realizing her aspiration of attending college, and her internship is at least linked to her career goals. But Agront’s arrangement wasn’t the product of considered state planning–instead, she seems to have chanced upon it. Her first workfare job was sweeping floors in a tenement. The job training program she attends in the Bronx generally requires students to enroll full-time; the directors have made exceptions for some workfare participants. She’s also fortunate to have two family members who can watch her young kids. With her support network and some lucky placements, she has a good chance of becoming self-supporting over the long term.

That’s not the case for many monolingual and poorly educated Hispanics. Without English and basic literacy classes, these women will have trouble finding even low-skill jobs. And if they are hired, not all of these positions will lead to long-term employment. Take Maria, the mother of six who is currently unemployed. The primary reason she’s been on the dole four times is because most of her work experience consists of cleaning motel rooms: When tourist seasons draw to a close, a round of layoffs generally ensues, and she goes back on welfare. In addition, few “pink collar” jobs provide benefits. If workers or their children fall sick, many will go on public assistance to qualify for Medicaid. They will, of course, lose this safety net if states begin to strictly enforce time limits.

A Two-Way Street
That’s why we should stop giving short shrift to training programs. Providing instruction need not rule out requiring women to work or perform community service. If programs were time-flexible and provided on-site child care, many women would find ways to juggle jobs and classes. And in order to steer women away from the revolving door of work to welfare, it makes sense to prepare them for skilled jobs that pay above the minimum wage and provide benefits. “We’ve found that women who undergo vocational training have higher rates of job retention and more opportunities for advancement,” says Wittner. “They have careers, not temporary jobs.”

It’s a challenge to persuade Latinas raised on a steady diet of marianismo to aspire to become electricians or welders. Aside from their own cultural biases, these women face pressure from boyfriends, husbands, and parents to keep out of traditionally macho professions. As one woman put it, “[y]ou can bust your knees scrubbing floors, and they think that’s much better than being a foreman at a construction job earning $20 an hour.” But single Latina mothers have to put food on the table, and they want to do meaningful work. When they realize how much heftier the paychecks are for fixing cars rather than flipping burgers, many will abandon the values in which they were raised and train for traditionally male crafts.

These women will also have to accept the fact they cannot be stay-at-home parents. Many Latinas already understand this. “I can count on one hand the women who have told me they don’t want to work,” says Andrew Friedman. “These women want jobs.” If Hispanics feel more comfortable leaving their kids with family members, we should respect that choice. But caseworkers and employers should also insist these mothers have back up plans for the days aunts and grandmothers do not come through. And we should assure the child care available is safe and affordable.

If we met these women half way, and provided them with the training they need to become self-sufficient, the vast majority of Latinas would rise to the challenge. Like most welfare recipients, they want to make their own decisions and provide their children with decent upbringings. But we are not meeting these women half way. Quite the opposite; we are actually cutting them off from the few comprehensive training programs that are open to them. And with the rules rigged this way, most service providers are pessimistic about the prospects for indigent Hispanics. “These women are going to end up in low-paying, low skill jobs,” warns Tim Bell, director of adult education at Erie House. “Their kids will grow up on the street. And believe me, we will pay a price for it.”

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