Doling for dollars

The Cold War over, defense giant Lockheed Martin mines another government program for profit -- the war on poverty

That's only a theory, of course, as no one is keeping tabs on who gets helped and for how long. But it is clear that Lockheed Martin has no incentive to dip into the ranks of the hardcore. The state pays the company to get someone, anyone, off the dole, and when Lockheed Martin delivers the numbers, the state pronounces success.

A woman like Electra Taylor represents the program's potential as well as some of its unresolved questions. Taylor, a 28-year-old Midland native who dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, is raising three boys--ages 12, 9, and 7--by herself. She has been on welfare sporadically for five years and lost her most recent job last summer when the maid service for which she worked moved to a suburb, and she couldn't arrange transportation. Taylor loved Ms. Evans' class.

"You learned things you thought you knew," she says. "It wasn't like they were trying to brush us off. She makes you feel like you want to get up and go to work every morning."

Within two weeks of the class' conclusion, Taylor had found a job as a nurse's aide--making $5.50 an hour for 18 hours of work a week. Eight of her fellow students had also found work; Ms. Evans estimates that her students will be earning on average $6.50 an hour, exceeding the federal goal set for welfare recipients of $5.50 an hour (the minimum wage is $5.15).

Even with her new job, though, Taylor realizes that her Lockheed Martin-sponsored experience hasn't settled all of her economic issues.

She doesn't know, for instance, how much her new source of income will affect the $398 a month she gets in food stamps. The rule of thumb, state social workers say, is a cutback equal to about 20 percent of whatever new income she receives. Taylor isn't certain that it makes economic sense for her to work this job and doesn't know if she'll get health benefits for her family.

"I'm still looking," she says, "because I don't think it's gonna be enough."

Some of the people in Ms. Evans' class, of course, do not get jobs. They will remain in Lockheed Martin's database, and the case managers will still attempt to locate suitable work. Whether these men and women will fade away in the coming months, frustrated with the job hunt--or ultimately run up against the five-year welfare limit--no one knows.

But the loud woman in Ms. Evans' class--so full of brash enthusiasm at the beginning of the course--is one of those who seemed to drift away with time. When the Dallas Observer tried to reach her recently to see whether she'd found work, she made it known that such inquiries were no longer welcome.

Yet if anyone could extract a miracle from six days of part-time instruction, Ms. Evans could.

She expounds on the work ethic with the zeal of a street preacher, attempting to instill the skills and perseverance needed to get employed and stay that way, something most of her students have failed to do until now.

From 8:30 a.m. till midday, Ms. Evans talks about building self-esteem, maintaining adequate hygiene, asserting oneself, networking with friends, putting together resumes, and talking to prospective employers, all with an engaging, empathetic manner that never condescends.

On the first day of class, she assigns a piece of homework: "Spend at least 15 minutes pleasing yourself. Not your children, not your man, but pleasing yourself."

"Uh-huh," the loud woman says in a slow and sensual tone, drawing more laughs.

Ms. Evans smiles and adds sympathetically, "When you are looking for a job, that is a job."

Welfare administrators have warned all of Ms. Evans' students, who are receiving either cash assistance, food stamps, or both, that they must attend her class or risk losing some of their benefits.

The new state rules require that most welfare recipients, if they want to collect their full monthly benefits--a maximum of $188 in cash and $321 in food stamps for a single parent with two kids--must attend a seminar such as Ms. Evans'.

The students receive coupons for day care and bus fare so that neither issue will prevent them from attending class.

Along with the morning seminar, the students who are receiving cash assistance--known these days as Temporary Aid For Needy Families, TANF--are linked up to a Lockheed Martin caseworker who helps them search through the Texas Workforce Commission's computerized listings for job prospects. When the six-day seminar is over, the students are expected to begin beating the pavement to find at least a part-time job, contacting two prospective employers in person each day and documenting those meetings.

In Texas, unlike some states, welfare administrators never strip away all of a family's benefits even if both parents refuse to attend the class or seek work. But one parent can lose $78 a month for failing to participate. In two-parent households, the maximum penalty is $125 a month if both parents refuse to work.

With the consequences made clear, Evans' students show up promptly every morning. Meeting in a classroom on the second floor of a strip shopping center near the former Red Bird Mall, the students sit attentively in folding chairs. Only one woman, who lays her head on her arm, seems uninterested. Dressed in an army jacket and carrying luggage, she stops coming after three days, putting herself in jeopardy of losing benefits.

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