The shrinking safety net: because of Edgar's budget cuts, 35,000 Chicagoans are losing welfare benefits this month | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The shrinking safety net: because of Edgar's budget cuts, 35,000 Chicagoans are losing welfare benefits this month 

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"It's not like I haven't been looking," says Edward Rance. "I tried at Midas Muffler. I tried at the University of Chicago, to be in the kitchen. I tried at a messenger service, the Turtle Wax company. I tried Acorn packaging and Nabisco, Nestle's, M & M and Mars candy bar. I tried all the small factories in our neighborhood. I've been looking and looking for over a year, but there ain't jobs in Chicago. The jobs are out in the suburbs, and they don't want you coming on no public transportation. They tell you you have to have a car."

Rance, who is 27 and lives with his sister and her two children in Humboldt Park, doesn't have a car. In fact, he doesn't have much of anything. In April he will have even less. Rance is one of an estimated 50,000 single adults in Illinois who will lose their welfare benefits during the next three months as a result of a package of budget cuts approved by the General Assembly and Governor Jim Edgar last July. Thirty-five thousand people in Chicago will lose benefits in April, and thousands more will be cut off in May and June.

Rance went on the welfare rolls after he lost his job as an assembler at a Zenith picture-tube factory. As a single adult, he qualified for $110 a month in food stamps, a state-funded health-insurance program, and a $165 cash grant. The cash grant, which was reduced to $154 in January, was awarded under the state's General Assistance program. General Assistance has since been renamed Transitional Assistance (TA); it is the very bottom of the social safety net, available to people with little or no income who cannot qualify for more generous programs, such as unemployment compensation, disability benefits, or Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC).

Since Rance went on welfare, the closest he has come to a job was a three-month training course for a service position at the Inter-Continental Hotel. He was almost hired, until a background check revealed a ten-year-old robbery conviction. "What young black man do you know that hasn't been in trouble at some point?" he says. "It was for stealing a lawn mower. I did two years probation. I did lie on the application. They said they were going to do a five-year background check, but they did ten years. They said if I would have just admitted it, it would have been no problem." But he isn't sure that's true.

When Rance received his TA check at the beginning of March it included a termination notice. He will receive no cash grant or health insurance for the next three months. He will receive food stamps because they come through a federal program that isn't affected by Illinois budget cuts. Most welfare programs are funded at least partly by the federal government, but TA money comes directly from the Illinois general-revenue fund, which makes it an attractive target for state budget cutters.

Edgar's original budget proposal for 1992 would have limited all TA recipients--employable or not--to six months of benefits per year. Democrats in the legislature softened that, leaving nine months of benefits for most recipients--but six months next year--and twelve months for people defined as not employable, including the elderly poor, the disabled, the functionally illiterate, and people who have to care for children or invalids. The Illinois Department of Public Aid reviewed the cases of some 91,000 single adults on the TA rolls and determined that some 50,000 of them are employable. Officials estimate the cutbacks will save the state $15 million this year, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the $13.1 billion general-revenue budget.

"The governor's thinking when we were doing the budget," says Edgar press aide Dan Egler, "was to make programs for children and families a priority over those that basically serve able-bodied adults." The TA program, he says, was "designed as a temporary bridge to help people through a rough time."

But for a bridge to function, it has to lead somewhere. The state unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in February--521,000 people were out of work. It's hard to imagine that the tens of thousands of people who will lose welfare benefits in the next few months--many of whom lack basic skills--are going to be very successful competing for whatever jobs open up.

Karan Maxson, administrator of IDPA's division of planning and community services, has been charged with coordinating job-placement activities for TA recipients. Her staff have been contacting day-labor agencies and searching out part-time job possibilities, but she acknowledges that there will be more job seekers than positions. "It's not realistic that all of them will find jobs," she says.

Social-service advocates, exasperated with Governor Edgar's "get a job" rhetoric, wish Edgar would pay closer attention to Maxson's sober assessment. Michael Marubio, director of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness, brought a delegation of welfare recipients to Springfield to meet with Edgar during last year's budget negotiations. "It was the first time Edgar had ever met a person on General Assistance," Marubio recalls. "We had an unemployed steelworker there who had broken his leg. He couldn't do day labor anymore, and he could have been cut off under Edgar's original proposal. He was explaining this, and the governor said, 'Are you telling me McDonald's won't hire you? I don't believe that.'"

"The governor is very sensitive to the needs of these people," says Dan Egler. "But with a decline in state revenues brought on by a national recession, state government cannot continue to provide all the services that it has provided in the past."

Yet someone will have to provide services to the people who will lose income and health insurance as a result of state cutbacks. The state may save money, but taxpayers are still going to have to foot the bill for increased demands on the federal, county, and city governments. "We're going to find agencies inundated with people," says Jackie Reed of the Westside Health Authority, a coalition of 20 health providers and neighborhood organizations in Austin, East Garfield Park, and West Garfield Park. "We're going to see longer lines in places where people get hot meals. You're probably going to see an increase in drug peddling. You're going to see more violence in the community. You will see some businesses close, because they will have less sales and more stickups."

While the next few months will be difficult in neighborhoods on the south and west sides, where most welfare recipients now live, next year could be even worse. The state is now facing a $600 million budget shortfall, and Edgar isn't likely to endorse a tax increase. There are also indications that he will call for another $300 million in cuts from IDPA when he delivers his budget message on April 7. Many social-service advocates fear that Edgar will follow a regional trend and call for the complete elimination of Transitional Assistance. (Michigan eliminated its general-assistance program last fall.)

The TA program is an easy target for budget cuts for a simple reason: more than 80 percent of the people receiving benefits live in Chicago, but only one-fourth of the state legislators do. Local units of government are not required to participate in the state-funded TA program; those that do must levy a one-mill property tax to support the program. Most urban areas of the state--including Peoria, East Saint Louis, and Springfield--participate. (Chicago pays in $22 million per year, but gets back a far larger sum.) But most local governments find that they can provide benefits for less money if they stay out of the program. So most state legislators don't have constituents who benefit from the program--which makes it a hard sell in Springfield. The negative impression many legislators have about single adults on welfare doesn't help.

"It's an easy population to hit," says John Bouman, supervisor of welfare litigation for the Legal Assistance Foundation. "The stereotype is that it's young black males, and the mental image in Springfield is some good-for-nothing guy hanging out on the street corner committing crimes. That's not accurate, but that's what you're fighting against. You hear the rhetoric, 'Don't you think they ought to be working?' That's what the governor and the Republican leadership really believe."

From a political standpoint, says Bouman, Edgar and his Republican colleagues don't have much reason to be concerned with complaints from people who lose welfare benefits. "They don't vote a whole lot, and when they do vote they certainly don't vote Republican. It's perceived as a Chicago problem."

Unlike other Republican officeholders, however, Edgar may pay a political price for ignoring problems in Chicago, especially those that affect a significant number of the city's black residents (84 percent of TA recipients in Chicago are black). In his 1990 campaign Edgar won nearly 20 percent of the vote in Chicago's predominantly black wards, more than any Republican in recent memory. Twenty percent doesn't sound like much, but Republican candidates often receive less than 10 percent of the vote in black wards, and the extra support helped secure Edgar's narrow victory over Neil Hartigan.

Ironically Edgar won black support in part because he campaigned in favor of keeping a state income-tax surcharge to provide support for government programs. Hartigan was against the surcharge, and his antitax stance, combined with lingering resentment about his support of a third-party challenge to Harold Washington in 1987, won Edgar endorsements from a number of well-known black community leaders, including Lu Palmer of the Black Independent Political Organization, Nancy Jefferson of the Midwest Community Council, and Bob Lucas of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. (While Governor Edgar has won a reputation as a tough-minded budget cutter, candidate Edgar had a knack for distributing public resources to potential allies. The Midwest Community Council and KOCO each received $35,000 in state grants in the months before the 1990 election; some of the money came directly from a literacy program run by Edgar.)

Edgar's harsh policies will erode the foothold he had in the black wards, says Doug Dobmeyer, director of the Public Welfare Coalition. "This spells the death knell of Edgar's political career. This will become a major public issue, and we're picking up significant support." Last fall, for example, Jackie Reed and other community leaders convinced IDPA director Phil Bradley to insert a notice for a public meeting into December check envelopes for TA recipients with west-side zip codes. More than 1,000 people turned out on January 11 and formed a new organization called the Westside Survival Initiative to develop plans for emergency assistance and to lobby against further welfare cuts.

On March 4 Operation PUSH put out a call for an "emergency meeting" about welfare cutbacks. Two days later representatives of more than 100 organizations turned out for a strategy session and formed the Coalition for Jobs and Income. A rally at the State of Illinois Building drew several hundred people on March 12, and dozens of people were on hand the next day for a legislative hearing on the TA program.

One of the speakers was KOCO's Bob Lucas, who did not hesitate to criticize the administration he helped elect. "When you declared war on us last year," he told legislators, "we didn't declare war back. As of yesterday at high noon we declare war on the state legislature and the governor."

Lucas's verbal offensive did not impress Senator Miguel del Valle, who argued that the benefits might not have been cut if community groups had staged a better lobbying campaign in 1991. "The overall efforts have been anemic," he told Lucas. "Community organizations should be hanging their heads in shame. . . . You have not been doing your part. And those groups who supported Governor Edgar, you have a special responsibility to make sure this governor is going to put out programs saying we will protect the poor."

Despite this testy exchange, Doug Dobmeyer is confident that community organizations and political figures will put their differences aside and form a united front to resist further welfare cuts during this year's budget battle in Springfield. "Now we have the basis for a broader coalition. We've got more public officials involved and Operation PUSH. I'm sure we can win." Dobmeyer, Michael Marubio, and other social-service advocates think the involvement of Operation PUSH will stiffen the spine of the Legislative Black Caucus, which will in turn stiffen the spines of house speaker Michael Madigan and senate president Philip Rock.

Advocates also hope that Madigan and Rock will hear from Mayor Daley, who condemned state welfare cuts at a March 3 news conference. Daley, who has his own budget problems, is not happy about the prospect of 45,000 jobless, incomeless adults demanding emergency services from the city.

On one point Edward Rance is in complete agreement with Edgar: he'd rather have a job than suffer the indignities of living on a meager government handout. One of the toughest things, Rance says, is trying to explain his situation to women. "Sometimes it seems like every woman I know is working. How can you say, 'I'm on welfare'?" He says it's impossible to think about long-term relationships. "A girl once asked me, 'Let's get married.' I looked at her like, let's get married? What are we gonna do, have a honeymoon in the basement? What are we gonna do, live with my sister?"

Because he lives with his sister, Rance is in no immediate danger of becoming homeless. He turns over all of his food stamps and most of his welfare check to his sister in exchange for room and board. Next month he'll have much less to contribute, which makes him distinctly uncomfortable. "When she comes home from work and sees me just sitting there watching TV, I know she doesn't like it. She don't say nothing, but she doesn't like it."

There is one industry that offers high-paying jobs in Humboldt Park, but Rance says he'd rather avoid it. "Sometimes, I want to go out there," he admits. "I love the money that drugs make, but I hate what it does to people. I tried it, but I didn't like the character it brought out in me. I don't want to be out there and catch a bullet, and I don't want to be in nobody's house that the police might kick in the door at any minute."

Rance has been thinking about going to live with his grandfather in Mississippi. "By the end of the month if I don't get no job, maybe it's time for me to leave the city."

But maybe not. Despite dozens of rejections, he's ready to hit the streets again looking for work. He thinks some jobs may open up at temporary labor services in the spring. "I look at it as a blessing in disguise. I've been looking for work, and this is going to make me look even harder."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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