Public Square

The Arduous Road from Welfare to Work: One Woman’s Story

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Editor’s note: The Trump administration recently reinstated work requirements for those receiving welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). While IFWE does not focus on public policy, we do believe this is an important step because of the principle behind it—it points individuals made in the image of God and endowed with creativity and unique gifts to the dignity of work.

In light of this news, we thought it worthwhile to revisit this powerful and encouraging story of one woman who successfully moved from welfare to work. The road is not easy, but there’s a positive ripple effect that is seen in the family for generations.

The following is an excerpt from IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty. This post was adapted from Marvin Olasky’s chapter entitled, “Alleviating Poverty through Provision of Welfare.”

It’s been seventeen years since Congress passed welfare reform. I’m looking for a detailed study of what happened to people who were on welfare back in the day and left it: Did they get and hold jobs? Did they advance to management? Did they die on the streets? I’ve seen a few statistics but none that are definitive. I’ve heard even fewer stories.

Here’s one story, and it originated not with me but with journalist (and 2012 National Book Award recipient) Katherine Boo. She profiled Elizabeth “Cookie” Jones, a longtime welfare recipient whom Boo met in a D.C. public-housing project.

A Purpose-Driven Heroine

A friend of Jones also on welfare suggested that Jones, then twenty-seven years old and the mother of three elementary school children by three different men, was making a mistake by going to work. The reason: “Her kids are raising themselves”—and that would ruin them in the long run.

Jones agreed to spend time with Boo so legislators would come to understand “the stomach-turning choices implicit in that bumper sticker of a phrase ‘welfare-to-work.'”

Boo documented how Jones found a job but then “faced a choice: Ice the job, reclaim the welfare check, walk the kids home from school. Or keep the job and risk the kids.” Jones decided to work because her mother had gone on welfare after having a child at age seventeen, and Jones had done the same – but she now vowed to break that pattern, “or I’ll die trying.”

Jones, in short, was a purpose-driven heroine facing huge obstacles, including the bad public schools in her poor part of the District. Boo’s implied question: Would Jones’s children die as their mom tried to break the generational pattern?

“They Think She’ll Get Hurt”

Boo wrote a new profile of Jones for The New Yorker five years later, in 2001. By then she had become a police officer, even though her children didn’t like it: “They think she’ll get hurt. She fears they’ll get hurt if she gives it up.”

Boo wondered whether Jones and her children would have been better off had she stayed on welfare. Five years later Jones was still working and Boo was still following her: Boo said on NPR,

The positive benefits that a mother is going to get from work—self-esteem and exposures to mainstream culture, the benefits of higher education – those are real benefits. But family life in the short-term, I think, isn’t very pretty.

I respected those Boo stories and wanted to learn what happened, so I had a World  Washington reporter track down Jones. We learned she persevered in police work: She now has fifteen years on the job. She helped bring to justice a woman eventually sentenced to twelve years in prison for physically abusing her foster son.

“It’s Always Been Hard”

Looking back over the years and thinking about her original decision to go from welfare to work, Jones said,

I knew I had to do something. It’s always been hard—from day one.

Jones’s first job off welfare left her with fewer dollars than the friend who remained on welfare received. But Jones persevered, garnered increases in responsibility and salary, and raised three children, who are all in their twenties and doing well.

Jones said her move off welfare helped her children “tremendously. They’re not in jail, they’re productive members of society, and they’re responsible.”

  • One is a college graduate.
  • A second (in the Navy for four years) is married and has a son.
  • Her youngest child went to college for two years and is now working.

A while ago Jones saw her friend who remained on welfare for her children’s sake, but the two did not talk long because “the vibe wasn’t really pleasant.” Jones says one of her friend’s sons was killed on the Washington streets.

Jones’s story is just one story, and I don’t doubt that other stories could also be found—so let’s tell them! Let’s not hear just about dollar costs, as if people were sacks of groceries.


Editor’s Note: Read the rest of Marvin Olasky’s article in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, available in the IFWE bookstore.

Help reach more people with a life-changing message of faith, work and economics! Donate to IFWE today. 

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