In Decatur, Georgia I was lucky enough to meet several women who are participating in a work preparation class through their TANF program. The program is administered through a private organization that contracts with the State of Georgia to provide work readiness and job search training for TANF recipients.
By all accounts, the women are getting a lot out of the training and there was an energy in the participants I met that I have not encountered anywhere else in my travels. The women I met were all convinced they would soon be off of welfare and into jobs, and felt they were getting the help and preparation they needed to succeed.
While waiting outside one of the classrooms for the women to get out of class, I heard a roar of laughter, and then an instructor came out, and looking a bit surprised to see me, said “I just gave the women a writing assignment, and the question was “What does it mean to be white?””
Given the fact that everyone I saw and encountered in the program (and in Decatur itself), was either African-American, Latino, or of Asian descent, I thought it was a curious question, apparently designed to encourage the women in the program to think about their own pre-conceptions and biases.
According to the instructor, one of the students had piped up “I’m a strong, powerful black woman, I’m black and I’m proud – I don’t know what white women are like, but that’s what I am!”, which had led to the laughter I’d heard when I arrived.
After class ended, “Connie” was the first woman who agreed to talk to me. As you will hear from her interview, she is a poster child for how TANF can and should work – as a temporary program providing cash assistance and job training and placement for women and children in need. Connie had no experience with welfare prior to losing her last job during the economic downturn. She had always worked, and expected to continue to work all the way until her retirement. Unfortunately, with the recession, and a newborn at home, things were taking longer than expected.
What I found most endearing about Connie was her matter-of-fact approach to her situation. There was no feeling sorry for herself, no giving up and deciding to stay on welfare, no slacking off – Connie is a woman with a mission, and the mission is to get on with her life so she doesn’t have to rely on the government.
So isn’t it better for Connie to have TANF as a temporary, short-term solution that helps her get up and out of welfare, than to have her languishing for years on programs that do nothing to prepare her for a life of independence and self reliance? And if so, then why are we gutting the one program, TANF, that by all accounts is succeeding in it’s mission of getting people off of cash assistance by making it a short term solution with a workfare requirement?