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The welfare trap: two mothers, two choices and two struggles for self-sufficiency

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Tasha Moore and Tamara Applewhite knew each other as children at the Langfield housing projects. Both dropped out of high school and got pregnant. Both relied on public assistance. And both regularly work 40 or more hours a week.

The similarities end there.

Applewhite, a 43-year-old mother of five, avoided drugs, alcohol and parties. She attends church on Sundays with her children, all of whom she has raised on her own.

Moore, 46, battled crack addiction for years. A thief and prostitute for part of her life, she lost most of her children due to parental neglect, and she slept on the streets when not in jail.

Yet Moore – not Applewhite – is the one breaking free of the welfare system. Moore now works full-time as a health worker assisting homeless women. She no longer relies on Medicaid or food stamps and expects to give up her Section 8 housing subsidy within the year.

And Applewhite?

She cut back her work hours in the past out of fear she would lose her child care and Medicaid benefits. She said she didn’t see the point in working harder if it meant receiving less. Only recently has she decided to work more hours – even if that means losing benefits.

Her story is much more common than Moore's.

Welfare rolls in Erie County have grown by nearly 8,000 recipients in the past 10 years, according to Erie County Social Services data. Even accounting for a decline in 2016, the numbers remain higher than a decade ago. Even more telling, the number of residents receiving long-term safety net assistance has fluctuated far less, suggesting a core of benefits recipients that has been unsuccessful in making the leap to economic independence, even in a healthy economy with falling unemployment rates.

There are many reasons. But a big one is the "benefits cliff" – the point where welfare recipients would lose more in public assistance than they would earn by working more.

Moore, with help from others and few children to care for, navigated the cliff toward self-sufficiency. Applewhite has not.

Their stories show how hard it can be to get off public assistance. The way government provides and regulates public assistance can seem like a trap for those who face their kinds of choices.

“It just makes people fail,” said Penny Selmonsky, the supervising attorney for the Public Benefits Unit of Neighborhood Legal Services. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”

‘Only thing they got’

Sitting among the weeds outside the metal door to her East Side apartment, Applewhite imagines working full time for a nursing home and breaking free of Social Services forever.

But Applewhite isn't sure that kind of dream is realistic. Though she's been working 50 hours a week recently as a home health aide, if she doesn't cut back on her hours, she said, she stands to lose her family's Medicaid, child care support and food stamps.

"I'm just keeping it real," she said, as her children filtered in and out of the doorway.

The goal of welfare reform is to provide incentives and training for people to work and support themselves.

But those receiving Social Services benefits can find themselves financially punished for working. The more hours, promotions and pay raises they receive, the closer they get to a sudden reduction of benefits. At some point, a bigger paycheck can result in fewer benefits and less income for their families.

"You can work your way off of a benefit but then find yourself in such a hole that you don’t have enough income coming in to pay off your expenses," said Sam Magavern, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good.

As the single mother of five, four of whom are still young, Applewhite said she feels caught. She doesn't have the education, literacy or computer skills to get a good-paying job. The children's fathers don’t provide support. So she voluntary picks up extra shifts each week, filling in for others.

That hard-earned money enables her family to eat out at a fast food restaurant occasionally and to buy the school supplies and clothes they need. She notes with pride that her 3-year-old son, who has tested positive for high lead levels, always has enough money to buy a treat when the ice cream truck rolls down the street in warmer weather.

But now, she faces a crucial decision as she anticipates her semi-annual re-certification interview for public benefits: cut back on her hours and earn less money to maintain health insurance, food stamps and child care benefits for her family, or keep working 40 to 50 hours a week and face the loss of those benefits. If she earns more, she would lose free health care coverage for herself, but she would be entitled to low pro-rated premiums for her children under Child Health Plus.

“I weigh my options: Should I give up or not give up?” she said.

She thinks of her kids.

“I’m the only thing they got," she said. "It’s only me. The only way they’re going to have things is if I provide.”

The hard path

Moore grew up near Goodyear Avenue on the East Side, born to an alcoholic and unloving mother.

The only people she saw helping families were the drug-dealing gang members on the street. She was a good student at South Park High School but dropped out her senior year and joined the neighborhood gang. Her mother didn’t object. Moore became pregnant a year later.

The following year, Moore and her mother were riding in the back seat of a relative's Cadillac to celebrate her mother's 35th birthday. Moore noticed her mother's head tipped back. Her eyes had rolled up and she had dropped her beer, unconscious.

"She wouldn't answer me," said Moore, who was 19 at the time.

By the time the ambulance got her mother to the hospital, she was dead.

That was one marker along a path of crime and addiction that lasted 15 years, during which Moore gave birth to six children. She lost custody of three of them, turned one over to an aunt and abandoned another in the hospital, she said. She slept in abandoned buildings, prostituted herself for cash and spent short stints in jail.

The last five years were the worst.

“I didn’t speak to nobody but the dope boy,” she said, tears streaking her smooth, brown cheeks.

Her brother would search for her. Whenever he found her, he struggled to get her clean, clothed and fed. Moore felt she was beyond saving.

Finally, her brother came to see her in jail. He was leaving for Jamaica and came to say goodbye. He looked in his sister's eyes and cried.

"You’re the one in jail, but you’re killing me, too," he said. "I don't want to leave you here."

His words were a revelation: Somebody loved her. Somebody cared whether she lived or died.

Moore came out of jail clean and promised herself a new beginning. She stayed away from her old neighborhood, ate at soup kitchens, reconnected with her children and gratefully accepted help from family members.

For the first time, she applied for temporary assistance from Social Services.

Eventually, she faced the benefits cliff, too.

Benefits cliff

A News analysis of data from the Social Services Department, federal agencies and other nonprofit organizations shows what public assistance recipients face as they confront the loss of benefits as they climb the ladder in the working world.

A single parent with two children in grade school could receive cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid and keep what they earn from a minimum wage job. But once the parent starts making more than $12 an hour, the higher wages don't offset the loss of benefits, even with transitional cushions built in.

If that parent continued to work the equivalent of full-time hours and gets a raise to $16 an hour, she or he would wind up hurting more financially than when earning minimum wage because of the loss of most Medicaid benefits and sharp cuts to food stamps and child care assistance.

First Deputy Commissioner Karen Rybicki, who supervises public benefit programs for Erie County Social Services, pointed out that when a person makes too much money to continue receiving public benefits, they are entitled to 12 months of transitional Medicaid and child care assistance, as well as five months of food stamps. But then that, too, ends.

Applewhite is all too familiar with the benefits cliff. She's made many career-harming decisions to avoid losing her public assistance.

For several years, she worked as a motel housekeeper. She did well enough that she was offered a 75-cent-an-hour raise and a longer schedule.

She declined.

She got pregnant, gave up her cleaning job and eventually wound up doing assigned work as part of her mandated public assistance requirement. She has received public assistance for 15 years, picking up short-term work off and on but not enough to jeopardize her family benefits.

Moore at first reacted similarly when her supervisor offered her a raise as a community health worker at the Matt Urban Hope Center.

“Pay me less,” she responded.

Though Moore deserved the raise, her boss knew Moore would now face the loss her cash benefits and a cut in her food stamps.

Moore was lucky. Her supervisor helped her build a game plan to survive the transition. She insisted Moore take the raise. Then she pointed her to a food pantry, helped her apply for a secured credit card and linked her to counseling and self-sufficiency programs that introduced Moore to the concept of household budgeting.

Since then, Moore has slowly weaned herself off social services. She makes under $32,000 a year.

But from the time she brought home new pillows and comforters for her bed, she reveled in their smell and feel and promised herself she would never go back to a life of second-hand shabbiness.

She took advantage of every helping hand – every adviser, lawyer and supervisor with a college degree – who helped her navigate Social Services pitfalls, connected her with mental health treatment and helped her lead an independent life. She met with college professors who kept her after social-work classes because they noticed her crying when she saw her life story reflected in textbook cases.

And she leaned on her family, who supported her every impulse to improve her life.

"They want me to do better," she said. "They want me to grow."

Moore has reconnected with all her children – one of whom attends college in North Carolina and two of whom are working full time. Her 16-year-old son, a high school junior, still lives with her aunt. None of her daughters has gotten pregnant. Moore supports her 9-year-old son, who lives with her and is doing well as a fourth-grader.

Moore also earned her bachelor's degree in social work from SUNY Buffalo State this past spring and is working toward her master's degree from the University at Buffalo.

“My goal is to work in public policy," she said. "They need to know what’s really going on down here.”

Taking a risk

Others don't have Moore's support team, or the transportation, education or counseling to get ahead.

And those like Applewhite have more responsibilities. Applewhite supports all her children, one of whom is not yet school age.

With her limited literacy skills, Applewhite doesn't see any white-collar jobs in her future. She’s willing to work hard and has held a variety of low-wage health care and food service jobs. These days, she said, she sometimes works more than 50 hours a week, often taking overnight shifts.

Like roughly a third of home care workers in this region, Applewhite has no car and receives no transportation assistance. She often relies on her mother for rides to and from work.

She'd eventually like to work at a nursing home, she said, caring for patients and working a more regular schedule. It's not a big dream. But she sees it as an exit ramp from her long reliance on social services.

With her higher wages, Applewhite's food stamps have already been reduced. She pays her own utilities and cable bill as well as three quarters of her rent. But losing Medicaid and child care assistance would be tough, she said. Her youngest son is 3 and not yet in school.

“I’m thinking," she said in early fall. "I’m really thinking hard.”

Last month, Applewhite said she'll take the risk. She hasn't cut back on her hours, which was her original plan, and is bracing to lose benefits when she appears for her recertification interview. She's researched buying into a health insurance plan through work and hopes to enroll her 3-year-old in a preschool program early next year.

She is anxious, she admitted, but she's not going to game the system.

"I’m feeling good, and my kids understand," she said. "If I've made it this far, I can keep on making it."

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