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L.A. on $7.37 a Day

Photo by Anne Fishbein
JOANIE MURRAY* GETS HER $221 GENERAL RELIEF CHECK on the eighth day of every month, and today is the 8th of April. In addition to the $221, Joanie will get $125 in food stamps, the maximum allowed on GR. This seems like an unnervingly small amount to stretch over 30 days of life in present-day Los Angeles, but she says she can usually do it. "People ask me how I get by on that little money, and I tell 'em, 'Carefully, very carefully!'" Joanie says, grinning at her own joke. "I just have to hope I don't get robbed, or need some new shoes, or something doesn't go wrong with my teeth. On GR, if you've got a toothache, they don't want to fill it, they only want to pull it, so I got to save up if I want my teeth cleaned or filled."

Last month, for all her budgeting, Joanie ran out of money a week early. The good news was she still had a little food left in the fridge, plus four bus tokens stashed in the small metal box she keeps on the kitchen counter by the stove. Bus tokens are a big issue, since she lives in Hollywood and the check-cashing facility where she picks up her benefits is a block away from the Coliseum. Nearly all the destinations in her life -- job interviews, appointments with relief workers, visits with her daughter or her mother -- require bus tokens, which she buys in packets of 10 for $9. At $42, monthly passes are a better deal, but such an expenditure doesn't fit into her budget. "So I mainly end up just not going a lot of places," she says.

One month recently, the 8th arrived and Joanie was completely out of food and tokens. She had only the money to take the bus one way, which would have been fine except that when she arrived at the check-cashing outlet, the girl at the window told her there was a problem with her check. So there she was with no money, no way to get home and no food in her tiny single apartment when she got there. Joanie walked the three miles to the Social Services office, where an indifferent caseworker took down her complaint. The "problem" turned out to be a clerical error on the county's part, and the worker told her she'd get her check in 10 days. Joanie made it home by persuading a sympathetic bus driver to let her ride free just this once. Then she called friends until she found somebody who could lend her a few bucks to buy food. "That's GR," she says. "You never know when they're gonna mess up and you get nothing at all."

In the beleaguered and fraying system of financial safety nets known as public assistance, General Relief is the net of last resort. It is mandated by the state of California to provide a basic economic floor for the state's poorest single adults who don't qualify for any other program. Yet, although the state requires GR, it is up to the counties to fund and administer the program. In the case of Los Angeles, this is a formidable burden. L.A. County has 29 percent of the state's population but carries 63 percent of the state's GR caseload. As a consequence, in the last few years, when budget-strapped county supervisors went looking for significant cuts, they began to cast their collective gaze toward GR. At first the supervisors merely shaved benefits. Ever since 1992, when the maximum was at $341, the supervisors have been steadily shaving benefits, until in 1996 they cut the maximum monthly payout to $221 -- $188 if the recipient shares a place with a friend or relative. Then, in 1997, when faced with the alternative of unpopular cutbacks in hospital and fire-department budgets, the county instead slashed into the structure of General Relief itself. It used to be that recipients could stay on GR indefinitely. Now, as a result of the '97 cuts, all those physically able to work are to be terminated at the end of nine months -- whether or not they've found jobs. They are then allowed to apply again three months later.

The number of L.A. residents tossed off GR will not be as massive as the quarter-million county mothers slated to be dumped from CalWORKs (formerly known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children) on January 1, 2003. Rather, GR terminations are scheduled to roll out in waves starting this November at the rate of up to 4,000 recipients a month. Joanie Murray's benefits will terminate on November 8, 1999.

 

JOANIE DROPS A TOKEN INTO THE RECEPTACLE, THEN walks to the only open seat with the practiced balance of a sailor as the No. 204 bus bumps and sways down Vermont Avenue. The check-cashing facility at the intersection of Vermont and Martin Luther King Boulevard is nearly deserted when she arrives. She walks up to window number 3 and gives her GR and food-stamp cards to a young woman whose curled and spiked hair resembles an aloe vera plant. The aloe woman swipes Joanie's cards through a machine, then dispassionately watches the results on a computer screen off to her left.

At 44, Joanie is a pretty woman -- 5 feet 1 inch tall, with an expressive, even-featured face and a nicely kempt, stylish way of dressing. Her figure is decidedly Rubenesque, but still curvy enough to draw frequent male glances. She fidgets as she waits for the computer's results. She got a notice three days earlier that she wouldn't be getting her check because her CA-7 form had not been received. "But I sent it," she says. "I'm very, very careful about that, mainly because I can't afford not to be."

CA-7s -- brief questionnaires that GR recipients must fill out monthly to report whether they have found work or enrolled in school -- seem to be one of the main sources of clerical snafus resulting in lost or withheld benefits, something welfare advocates say happens with unsettling frequency. When Joanie got her noncompliance notice, she immediately called ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), an advocacy organization that has helped her with problems in the past. ACORN workers assured her they would intervene, but Joanie is still jumpy. Suddenly a machine behind window 3 whirs into motion, and Joanie relaxes. "Everything is okay," she says. "I can tell by the sound the printer makes. If it's printing out a no-benefits notice, it goes slower." Sure enough, the clerk counts out a stack of 11 twenties plus a single and shoves the bills under the glass.

Joanie pushes some of the twenties back and asks for two money orders, for $67 and $24.50. "One is for my rent," she says. "The other one's for my phone bill." With the service charge subtracted, she is left with only $124.03, which she intends to make last the rest of the month. She carefully puts her remaining money into an envelope and, with a quick glance around her, stuffs the envelope into her pocket.

ON FIRST BOUNCE, IT'S DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND exactly why Joanie Murray is still unemployed. She is certainly bright enough, with good social skills and a seemingly earnest desire to find a job. Her personal habits suggest responsibility: Her apartment is spotless and well-organized; she's scrupulously on time for appointments and always calls when she says she will. Nonetheless, Joanie has been on some kind of public assistance most of her adult life.

The trajectory of Joanie's existence was determined less by one large incident or decision than by a series of choices and circumstances that, over time, acquired a cumulative force, drawing to itself more of the same. She was raised the eldest of six children in the Crenshaw district. Her mother was briefly married to her father, a former Air Force man from Cincinnati, but he didn't stick around. "After he left, my mother raised us pretty much on her own," Joanie says. To support the family, the mother cooked at the local hamburger joint, the Tiki Burger, and later did maintenance for Saks Fifth Avenue. "She wasn't home a lot, because she was working real hard to make ã sure that we had what we needed. She was the mother and the father for a long time."

Joanie was a skinny little girl who was often picked on by larger kids until, in the fifth grade, she got tired of it and started slugging back. Perhaps in part because of the bullying, she had one clear ambition from the time she was 7: She wanted to be a policewoman. "At first I liked it because of the badge and the gun," she says. "You know how kids are. Then, as I got older, I imagined myself putting the people in jail who molest kids and take drugs. That was my mission."

The goal persisted all through junior high and high school, where, Joanie says, she was sometimes teased because she wouldn't ditch, smoke or get high. "The kids used to call me Square Joanie, and I'd tell them, 'Say what you want, but I'll never be in the back of the police car, handcuffed. I'm going to be in the front, driving. You just wait and see if I don't!'"

 

Through most of adolescence, Joanie didn't date much. Then, in her senior year, she fell for a sweet-natured boy she'd known all her life, with whom she felt safe. "He used to bring me flowers all the time, and fabric 'cause he knew I liked to sew," she says. "And he was a real good mechanic and fixed people's cars in the neighborhood, so everybody liked him." Before long, Joanie had sex with her boyfriend, without protection, and the inevitable happened. In April of 1973 she dropped out of classes a month before graduation to have the baby. "That was my biggest mistake," she says. "But, see, I was always going to go back and get my diploma after my daughter was born." She actually went so far as to re-enroll in night school twice, but in each instance something got in the way. At first it was a bout of migraine headaches accompanied by fainting spells, a condition eventually diagnosed as high blood pressure. Then the medication her doctor prescribed to keep her from having a stroke made her so drowsy she couldn't concentrate.

Two years later, Joanie found a new boyfriend and got pregnant again. Father number two seemed responsible enough when she met him, but he split soon after the baby was born. Her son turned out to be a difficult, sickly boy who gave baby sitters a hard time. So, although she applied for jobs, mostly she found it easier to stay home, working odd housecleaning gigs that paid under the table, rather than pay for child care and lose her free Medi-Cal.

And the years drifted by. "I figured I'd wait till the kids were grown, then I'd find me a real job," she says. However, when her son turned 16 and moved out, she was 38 with no skills, no diploma and no real employment record. "I'd apply for all these jobs," she says, "and nobody even called me for an interview." Finally, in 1993, she landed a temporary housekeeping position at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital. "I just loved going in every day. When you're on assistance, people talk to you like you got a tail," she says, "but work gives you" -- she searches for the word -- "dignity."

When the Martin Luther King employment ended after a year, Joanie couldn't find other work: "I'd apply and never hear anything." After a while, she says, the constant rejection got to her. "I'd cry and cry and think, 'What's wrong? Don't I look right? Aren't I smart enough?' I guess you could say I lost my determination." She forces an overbright smile. "But now I've got my determination back," she says. "Prayer has helped a lot. I just tell myself, 'Joanie, the Lord is not going to let you be out on the street.'"

THERE IS A DISCOUNT CLOTHING STORE NEAR THE check-cashing facility, and Joanie decides she wants to browse a bit after picking up her check. "It used to be GR gave us $55.56 every six months as a clothing allowance. But now they broke it down, and $9 of our $221 monthly check is supposed to be for clothes," she says as she leafs through a standing rack of cotton interlock pants with matching T-shirt tops.

Ever since she learned to sew in seventh-grade home-ec class, and found she had a knack for it, Joanie has made most of her own clothes. Others she gets at Goodwill. "But I choose real good things, nice fabrics, and you can't even tell." Today, however, she splurges and buys two brand-new pantsuits at $8.99 apiece, one in pink, the other in gray. The total with tax is $19.46. "I had my eye on these for three months, and the price has just come down," she says. The purchase makes her feel happy and expansive. "I'm going to wear these on job interviews. You've got to look good if you want an employer to take you serious. I take good care of my clothes," she says. "Just because I'm on GR doesn't mean I have to look like a tramp." She tells about a GR worker who mouthed off to her regarding her neat appearance. "'You don't look like you're on welfare.'" Joanie imitates the worker's sarcastic tone, then waggles her head from side to side with righteous disgust. "Mmmm, mmmm, mmm!" she says. "I told that man off, yes I did! I told him, 'I'm supposed to look like a street person, right? Well, you don't know a thing about me, and don't think you do!'"

Two doors down from the clothing boutique is a 99-cent store where Joanie routinely buys personal items like skin cream and shampoo, plus other sundries such as aluminum foil and laundry soap. "I can stretch everything to the limit, even toothpaste," she says as she scoots through the aisles surveying the merchandise with an appraising eye. At the register, her total is $12.43. "The only thing that gets thrown away at my house is the wrapper."

 

Later that day, back in her apartment, Joanie distributes her remaining cash among several hiding places. Fifty dollars goes in a shoebox in her closet. "This is money I am going to try to save," she says. She tucks a $5 bill in her little metal kitchen box along with four new bus tokens and four quarters, "For an emergency." The final $32 she puts in her wallet -- spending cash for the rest of the month. Then she places the money orders in their respective envelopes. "Usually my phone bill is only $10," she says. "It's high this month because I've been calling different places out of my area looking for a job."

JOANIE IS AT THE HIGH END OF GR RECIPIENTS IN THAT she has her own place -- a $66-a-month HUD-subsidized wonder she managed to snag two years ago. Even for those who qualify for housing assistance, finding a subsidized apartment can be next to impossible. But Joanie got lucky. A friend gave her a tip about an apartment building, a three-story gray stucco structure located on a ã quiet east Hollywood side street, and she got the call to move in only six months after she signed up. Before that, she'd bounced around between a cheap motel where, she says, "bad stuff" goes on every night, and her mother's place. "But I'm too old and independent to live with my mother," she says. "All we did was fight."

Joanie's building is remarkably pleasant, designed in the faux-Spanish style popular in the 1940s and recently refurbished with lots of fresh paint, new easy-to-open windows and a wrought-iron gate around a small courtyard where residents may barbecue. Her own tiny second-floor apartment is a 10-by-12 single room, plus a kitchen and bathroom. The furniture is sparse yet neatly maintained, consisting of a bed covered with a frequently washed mauve floral comforter, a rose-colored plush easy chair she found for $10 at a local thrift store and carried home in a grocery cart, and a scarred side table that holds the white TrimLine phone she bought at a swap meet. She has rescued and brought back to life several orphaned houseplants, and their lush health gives the apartment a hopeful atmosphere. "Next to the birth of my babies," she says, "when I got my own place was the happiest day of my life."

Joanie strategizes aloud as to how she will keep this apartment if November rolls around and she is still jobless. "I can collect bottles and cans, and I sew real good, so I can do some alterations for people," she says. "But that'd only give me enough to buy food and stuff. It won't be enough for my rent or my phone." She would use her skills to make and save extra money now, she says, "But if the GR workers found out, I'd lose my benefits, because that's against the rules."

The requirements for GR are simple and rigid: You can't have more than $50 in cash or savings, which includes such minor assets as burial insurance. You may own one car, as long as it's not worth more than $4,500. And you're allowed to have basic furniture and the tools of your trade. After you've qualified, you may acquire up to $200 per month of "earned income" without losing benefits. Gifts of any size are deducted, dollar for dollar, from your check.

According to Joanie, most GR recipients earn some money here and there in order to get by. "But they usually don't report even a penny of it, because a lot of times you'll think it's earned income but then your GR worker will have a reason why they'll disallow it." Joanie narrows her eyes. "If I get any kind of extra money, I don't tell nobody. I mean, nobody."

Margaret Quinn, General Relief Program manager for Los Angeles County, has heard the complaints, and acknowledges occasional problems. But, she says, "Department heads don't have the latitude to make individual exceptions." Welfare advocates feel the system's inability to be responsive to those it serves is precisely its problem. "There is so much about General Relief which is well-intentioned in theory," says Estela Alferez, program coordinator for L.A. Family Housing Homeless Service Center in Boyle Heights, "but in practice, it's often completely irrational."

 

JOANIE PUSHES A GROCERY CART THE MILE DISTANCE between her place and a Jons market located on Santa Monica Boulevard near Western Avenue. "This here cart is my car," she says, grinning. "It don't require no high-priced gas or oil changes, and it never gets a flat tire." At the market, Joanie shops for the full month. She buys meat first, $2.81 for the family pack of boneless beef chuck steak. "I make beef burritos with this," she says. "I chop it up real fine, then put in seasoning." When she spots stew meat next to the chuck, she considers it a moment, then puts it back. "Too expensive," she says and reaches for a package of ground beef instead, $4.81 for 4 pounds. She pays $1.99 for 5 pounds of sugar, $1.99 for 2 ounces of pepper. She also buys eight cans of tomato sauce at 79 cents a can, 4 pounds of fresh cabbage for 99 cents and so on, until her cart is nearly full. Her big purchase is strawberries, $4.99 for a flat. "But they're healthy, and won't one of these berries go to waste."

At the register, she cautions the checker not to go over $125 -- the amount she has in food stamps -- and positions the flat of strawberries last on the conveyer belt, just in case. The precaution is unnecessary. The total is $91.46, and Joanie is exultant. "This was a good shopping day," she says. "I got everything I need plus strawberries -- with $33 in stamps to put back in the kitty."

On the walk back home, Joanie muses about her various plans to get a job by cutoff time. "I'm not going to be caught without a backup," she says. "For example, I've signed up with an agency where you get paid by the hour to take care of sick people in their homes. Of course, for that kind of work, they want you to have a car. But I've heard they'll give you cab vouchers if you don't have one. I'd like to do housekeeping work in a hospital like I did at Martin Luther King. But this year I've applied at 21 hospitals without any luck. I think it's because of my age. It's against the law for them to say so, but that's got to be it."

THE NEXT DAY, FRIDAY, JOANIE GETS UP AT 7 A.M. TO DO her laundry. She has not had the spare change to feed the coin-operated washer and dryer in her apartment basement for several weeks, and the dirty clothes have piled up. "I did seven loads," she says. "It cost me $9.50, and I wasn't done till quarter to 3 in the afternoon. But everything is clean now," she says. "And being clean is real important to me." The happy orgy of washing was partially inspired by the fact that Joanie believes she has a line on a job. "My girlfriend called and told me that they're hiring where she works at Harbor General. She's coming tomorrow, Saturday, and is going to tell me more about it." However, Saturday the friend doesn't show up. "She had to work late," says Joanie. "But I still think I have a really good chance of getting that job. I'm telling you, something good's gonna happen. I just feel it."

Sunday and Monday it rains. Tuesday the weather has cleared, so Joanie decides to go to the Department of Social Services building, "so I can check the job boards at GROW," she says. General Relief Opportunities for Work -- or GROW -- is the newest requirement for GR "employables." A welfare-to-work-style job-training and -placement program, it was first implemented on February 1, 1999, as part of the county's plan for weaning people from GR. But of the 25,284 people referred to the GROW program in its first four months, only 641 have found jobs -- one-third of which are part-time.

A Department of Social Services memo outlining the three basic components of GROW -- Orientation, Job Club and Vocational Assessment -- is written in a chipper, can-do tone. "Job Club [is] a three-week activity consisting of a one-week job-skills workshop and two weeks of directed job-search activities," reads the memo. "Activities are designed to motivate, build self-esteem and self-confidence, improve self-image and develop workplace skills. Professional vocational assessors determine what participants need to obtain jobs if they remain unemployed after Job Club."

For participants, the staff has developed a professional-looking notebook labeled "Passport to Success," which is handed out on orientation day. Inside are 14 sections that serve various functions. There are spaces where goals may be listed, a calendar on which the participant is encouraged to map out a "plan of action," a phone and address directory for "networking," even a separate page on which one may recall favorite songs that made one feel positive about oneself. "What we do may seem like soft skills," says Job Club workshop coordinator Kelly Lingel, "but with people who haven't worked in a long time, it's where we have to start."

 

In March, Joanie completed both Orientation and Job Club. She sniffs when she hears the official description. "You want to know what you do in Job Club?" ã she asks. "You learn to write a résumé, which I already knew how to do, and they tell you to dress neat and clean for an interview, like I don't know that! Then you spend the rest of the three weeks calling numbers out of the Yellow Pages to ask people who don't want to hear from you if they're hiring." She shakes her head in exasperation. "They were supposed to have a bunch of employers from different companies come down to talk to us, but that never happened. On the last day, one guy from a place that needed security guards did come. But the requirements were to have finished high school and have no felonies." She laughs. "So nobody in the room could even apply." Another shake of her head. "I'll say it to anybody. GROW is worthless! Nobody I know has found a single job through GROW."

Even staff members admit that the end goal of all GROW's earnest coaching is maddeningly elusive. "The problem," says Tony Iniguez, director of GROW's Metro Special district, "is that we don't have 13,000 positions waiting at the end of the training," a situation that is unlikely to change, he adds, unless the county's employers play a greater role in welfare-to-work. "So in essence what GROW is doing," concludes Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness, "is spending nine months and a lot of money putting people through a vocational-training program, at the end of which they're all kicked off a cliff without a rope."

One of the proactive things the GROW office does do is to post job listings, and Joanie makes a point of checking them regularly. "The job with my friend still looks good," she says, "but I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket." She smiles pleasantly at the guard at the door of the Social Services building, passes quickly through the metal detector, then takes the elevator to the fourth floor, where the GROW offices are located. Around the corner from the elevators, some 100 slips of paper are tacked to a series of freestanding bulletin boards. The jobs posted are divided into categories: cook, clerical, janitorial, security guard and so on. Near the boards are banks of telephones where homeless applicants can make calls to set up interviews.

Joanie scans the eight or so listings under the heading of housekeeping and jots down a few telephone numbers. "The trouble is, they leave the same postings on the board for a long time, so you don't know if those jobs have been filled or not," she says. "And even if they aren't filled, there's sometimes 100 people going for one position." Indeed, the most recent listing is dated March 28, two weeks earlier. "Domestics is my field," says Joanie. "I really like it, especially housekeeping in a hospital." Her voice drops to a sad, confiding tone. "Of course I still really, really wish I could've been a police officer. I keep thinking about sometime taking the written test for the LAPD -- you know, just to see if I could pass. I really blew it when I never got my high school diploma. I'm going to get it someday -- and not the GED either, the real thing. You just wait and see if I don't."

As she leaves the building, Joanie runs into a friend, Gloria, who is also going up to look at the domestics positions. Gloria tells Joanie she has just interviewed for a housecleaning job at California Hospital, a position that Joanie applied for last month. "I don't know how the interview went," says Gloria, "if they liked me or anything. But you should call. I mean you got to be persistent, right? If you're persistent, then eventually you got to get lucky." Joanie nods. "Persistence is the key."

On the way back home on the bus, Joanie gets a nosebleed. "It happens when my blood pressure goes up," she says as she dabs at her reddened nose. "I think I'm just so stressed because I want a job. My mom says I worry too much. And I tell her, 'You don't understand. You have an income for the rest of your life. I'm gonna be cut off.'"

 

Joanie is friendly with her three sisters and four brothers, but her mother, who is on disability because of two serious strokes, is the mainstay of her emotional support. Joanie talks to her two or three times a day, in part, she says, because her mom's speaking ability was severely compromised by the strokes, and she wants to make her practice. "My mom's embarrassed about how she sounds," Joanie says, "but I understand her just fine. She keeps tellin' me I should get married. And I always tell her, 'I can be poor on my own.' I don't need a man to help me do it, layin' around and eatin' up all my food, hollering and screaming 'cause it's all gone. 'No, Mom,' I tell her. 'What I need is a job.'"

IT'S LUNCH TIME WHEN JOANIE GETS HOME. SHE immediately calls the personnel office at California Hospital and leaves a message that she would like to come in for an interview. By the end of the day no one has called back, but her mood is roseate just from the possibility. She also has an update on the Harbor Hospital situation. "My girlfriend called and told me that on Monday, she's going to pick me up and we're going to go to the personnel office together and sign me up."

When, by the next afternoon, no one from California Hospital has returned her call, Joanie's confidence swings downward again. She makes a foray to a nearby convenience store and spends $5 on toilet tissue, peroxide and sanitary napkins, and converts $20 of her remaining cash to quarters. "So I know everything will be washed for the next month." In the evening, she is restless and contemplates spending $20 to get her hair done at a local beauty college. "My hair's lookin' kind of ratty, and if one of the job interviews comes through, I want to look good," she says. But with such nickel-and-dime purchases as ice cream for her granddaughter, that would bring her cash down to $35 for the rest of the month. So reluctantly she decides against the hair appointment. "If I just save that money and add another $12 to it, I can pay my rent a month ahead. I think that's a better use of my money," she says.

Getting ahead on her rent is a running theme for Joanie. If she loses this apartment, the next step down would be her mom again or a shelter. "See, I know I'll get a job," she says, repeating what is clearly her favorite comforting mantra. "But I want to have the rent a few months ahead, come November. You know, just in case."

Statistically speaking, her precautions are wise. When the plan for this year's terminations was first formulated, the Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness asked UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research to conduct a study examining the impact of a sudden loss of benefits for GR recipients. The results, published last April, indicated to no one's surprise that people did very poorly: 72 percent reported increased hunger; 49 percent of those studied dropped from at least two meals a day to fewer than two on most days; 43 percent were no longer able to buy and prepare their own food but had to depend upon such sources as shelters and food kitchens; 38 percent could no longer afford transportation, including buses; 68 percent had a negative change in their housing arrangement; homelessness more than doubled; and 18 percent admitted to turning to illegal activities such as drug dealing, theft and prostitution. Seven percent fewer people searched for jobs once they were off assistance.

"There're always going to be poor people," says Joanie. "So what are those poor people supposed to do when GR ends and no one wants to hire 'em? When GR ends, things are going to get real tough. It's going to be like the big Depression has come back to Los Angeles."

THOSE DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FATE OF THE General Relief Program -- the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles Department of Social Services -- admit that the new GR time limits are potentially problematic. However, both tend to point the finger of blame for the looming catastrophe elsewhere. "It's premature to say we're worried," says program manager Quinn. "But, yes, there is concern. This is a very vulnerable population. Let me put it this way. Time limits were not something anyone at DPSS wanted to see. For that, you'll need to talk to the Board of Supervisors." ã

 

Joel Bellman, press deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, says the problem is not with the board's decision, but with the Department of Public Social Services and its implementation of the GROW program. "The supervisors voted unanimously that the way to end the cycle of dependency was to prospectively limit the time GR recipients could draw benefits," says Bellman. "The board collectively believes the economic climate is healthy enough now that, given the tools and opportunities, most GR recipients can find jobs. So we're sitting on the Department of Social Services to make sure those tools and opportunities are made available. But if there is an expectation that the board is going to blink in September and extend time limits, what incentive is there for DPSS and the client population to get their respective acts together?"

Miguel Santana, deputy to Supervisor Gloria Molina, states it flatly: "The board will not change its mind on time limits. What we'd like to see instead," he says, "is a better case-management system in which caseworkers have the authority to analyze each client's situation and make individual recommendations." But such a scenario would require an overhaul of the entire system. "Exactly," says Santana. "We'd like this program to be flexible enough to be effective for all its clients. And if that's not happening we need to analyze why."

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking for Joanie.

THURSDAY, APRIL 15, AT 6:30 P.M., A WOMAN FROM California Hospital finally calls Joanie back. Can she come in for an interview the next morning? "I certainly can," Joanie replies. When she hangs up the phone, she's so happy she actually bounces up and down on her bed a few times, then dials her mother and shrieks the good news: "I got me a job interview!"

Friday, Joanie arrives at 8:10 a.m. for the 9:30 appointment. "But I wasn't even nervous," she says. "I wore my new peach pantsuit, the one I just bought last week. I know they really look at your grooming, so I had touched up my nails and pinned up my hair. I also wore a nice perfume, White Shoulders, that I got on sale for $8 a while ago at a store that was going out of business."

The interview lasted 20 minutes, and Joanie is sure she handled it well. "I took both of my hands and I put them on top of the table so they wouldn't shake," she says. "Right away, they asked what I wanted to be doing in five years, and I said I want to be a supervisor. I was scared to death. But these interviewer ladies were nice, and I think I gave good answers. I only started shaking after I left." She cocks her head to the side quizzically. "You know, out of all the applications I put in since 1993, this is the first place that called me back. That must mean somethin'."

The two personnel women promised to let her know the following Monday, the 19th. Joanie floats happily through the weekend, but then Monday comes and goes without a telephone call. "No news is good news," she says. That night she does a couple more loads of laundry, this time towels and her bedspread. "I was singing the whole time," she says. "I kept singing, 'This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine' . . ."

On Tuesday, the 20th, there is still no word, and Joanie's perspective has retreated to philosophical. "If they call me, they call me," she says. She considers going over to the GROW office again to check the job boards, but a friend who has just been there says the listings haven't changed since her last visit. Instead she decides to go over the résumé she wrote during her GROW training. It reads, "I'm hardworking and always on time. I'm friendly and work well with others. I follow directions well." Under job experience she has written only, "1993, 1 year at Martin Luther King Hospital."

By Friday, California Hospital still hasn't called, and even optimistic Joanie concedes it is a dead issue. Worse, the job possibility with her friend at Harbor General has dried up. "Turned out she had it wrong. They aren't hiring till July," Joanie says. "But July isn't that far away. And in the meantime, I'm just going to keep on going." Early next week, she plans to drop by Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital and Children's Hospital. "Even though nobody has told me that they're hiring, who knows?" she says. "It could happen."

Over the weekend, Joanie spends most of her remaining food stamps buying fresh fruit and two boxes of Hoffy smoked beef sausages, plus some cash on bus tokens. She also breaks down and has a manicure -- $9 at Queen Nails at 42nd Street and Broadway. "I looked over my money, and I couldn't afford to do it. But a manicure makes my hands look so much nicer, and it helps me keep my spirits up," she says. "After this, I'm not going to spend no more money. I have $21 in cash left, $3 in food stamps and two bus tokens. I won't have enough to pay my rent ahead, but with that $21 I can pay the phone bill in advance as soon as it comes. That'll at least give me a little more security. Because, you know, I need my phone to make job calls."

 

On Wednesday, April 28, Joanie walks to both Hollywood Presbyterian and Children's hospitals in the morning. "But it didn't work out," she says. "The people in the personnel offices said neither of them are hiring." She also calls the personnel office at California Hospital. "I didn't get it. I was pretty sure, but I still thought it was good to call. It'll help them remember me if another job opens."

KELLY PECK WAS UNTIL RECENTLY THE DIRECTOR OF Sodexho Marriott Services, the outside contractor that handles nonmedical hiring for California Hospital. "In filling these entry-level positions like housekeeping, we look for a strong customer-service focus," explains Peck. "In other words, someone who will smile readily and who presents themselves well. In addition, the candidate needs to be able to understand and speak English. And there are also some physical requirements. They must be able to push or pull between 25 to 50 pounds, and be able to stand or walk for eight hours at a time."

When Joanie is described to him, he allows she probably hit all of these marks. "But, everything being equal," continues Peck, "we look for a record of continuous employment. If the candidate has a break in their employment of a couple of years, we have to wonder why." Peck frowns at Joanie's dilemma. "You see, there has been so much downsizing in the health-care field, we get 45 good candidates for each one of these slots, most of them with a lot of work experience. Yet, all that said, if we knew she was on General Relief, that would've given her a real edge, and we might have hired her, because we get a tax credit every time we hire somebody off of welfare. So I'd hope that during their training, these GR people are being told this tool exists."

Jennifer Miu, deputy director of the Metro Special GROW office, blinks when the issue is mentioned. "All our job recruiters are supposed to tell employers about the tax incentive," she says. But what about the GR recipients themselves, the ones actually applying for the jobs? Are they told? "They should be," she says doubtfully, then concedes that the information is nowhere in the literature. "You have to understand, the GROW program is still very new," she says.

IF ECONOMICS ARE THE STANDARD, JOANIE MURRAY doesn't contribute much to the society in which she lives. She certainly hasn't chipped in her fair share of the national tax base; in fact, she has mostly taken away. But if the standard of value is reckoned in human terms, Joanie lands well into the plus column. She is, in fact, a good woman leading a decent and deeply ethical life. She's active as a volunteer for ACORN, the welfare advocacy organization that has aided her on occasion. She has a natural generosity of spirit that makes her more likely to offer a favor than to accept one for herself. Yet she doesn't hesitate to interfere if she feels a friend or family member is heading in a destructive direction. She has worked hard to be a good mother, and now works equally hard to be a patient and attentive grandmother and aunt. "Just because you're on assistance doesn't mean you can't make yourself useful in this world," she says.

On Saturday, May 1, with eight more days until check day, Joanie's nerves are on edge. She has run out of certain basic food items such as bread. "I need to diet anyway," she says. "And I'm going to a barbecue tomorrow at my baby sister's, which means I'll be bringing lots of extra food home with me." Of course, she'll have to use her last two bus tokens to get there. "But that's okay, because my sister always gives 'em back to me."

Joanie busies herself straightening her apartment, which is already very straight. "You know," she says, "I been thinking: I haven't been going to church as regular as I used to." For years, she says, she steadfastly attended a Baptist church called Peace Chapel located at 76th and Avalon. "I used to go every week, no matter what, and it was a big help to me -- especially during the years before I got my own place, when I was fighting bad with my mother. I'd go to church on Sunday and just sit there and cry the whole time. And I'd always feel better when I left. But now they got this new minister and I don't like him as well, so I stopped going as much." She looks worried. "I've been wondering if that was a mistake. Maybe if I start going to church again, good things will happen for me. I think that's the way it works. I really do."

 

Sunday is the barbecue, so Joanie decides to put off her new church regimen for one more week. She takes the bus to her sister's place on Gage Avenue in South-Central and has a wonderful time at the party. However, her sister forgets to replace the bus tokens, and Joanie doesn't feel comfortable asking. "So I guess I'm going to have to break into the $20 I was going to use for the phone bill," she says when she gets home. The fact clearly depresses her.

Midmorning on Monday, her daughter calls and says she wants to take her to lunch "as an early Mother's Day treat." Joanie is still feeling blue, but she has run out of job leads to pursue so agrees to go. She says that the daughter is also on public assistance. "She used to work before the baby," she says. "And she's going to start again as soon as my grandbaby goes into kindergarten. I tell her, 'You make sure you go back into the work force. Don't be stupid and get stuck on welfare like I did.'"

Joanie and her daughter eat at a nearby Subway restaurant. After lunch, the daughter pulls a $100 bill out of her purse and thrusts it into Joanie's hands. "For you," she says. Joanie is embarrassed and tries to push the money away, but the daughter insists, telling her it's a Mother's Day gift from her and her brother. "We saved for it," she says.

Back home alone later, Joanie is giddy with relief. "Believe me, that money is going to be put to good use," she says. "I can take care of two months' rent now!" She pauses. "Of course, you can bet I won't report this to GR, or they'd cut it out of my benefits, and I'd be down to nothin' again."

IT IS SATURDAY, MAY 8, CHECK DAY AGAIN. THE $100 gift still has Joanie feeling so euphoric that on the way to pick up her benefits, she buys a $5 bouquet of roses for her mother from a man on the bus. Then she spends another $29 on clothes for her mom and herself to wear to church tomorrow, Mother's Day. "I know maybe I should have saved the money and not bought that stuff," she says. "But sometimes I just get tired of being poor."

By the end of the day, after doing her usual shopping for groceries, plus paying the rent and the phone bill, Joanie tries to muster some optimism. "I got a new tip on a job that I feel really good about," she says. "This time I really think I might get it . . ." Then her confidence seems to crack. She stops talking and looks away. "I try not to be worried," she says when her gaze returns. "But I want a job more than anything in the world. I'm proud that I raised two decent kids. And I'm proud that I can live on $221 a month and still keep my self-respect. But right now, all I want is to get up in the morning and have a place to go and put in my effort. I want to feel tired when I get home 'cause I worked hard. I want to go collect my paycheck on Friday. I want to open a bank account. I don't want to be scared all the time."

Joanie's eyes fill up with tears and panic. "My whole life would change if somebody would just give this lady a chance," she says. "I just don't know what I'm gonna do if I don't get a job. I really truly don't. I've been looking as much as I know how. What more am I supposed to be doing?"

Then Joanie Murray takes a deep breath, sits up very straight and smiles her most radiant smile. "But see, some nice person will give me that chance. I just know it. I do. I'm not giving up. I've got a really good feeling."

 

 

As of this writing, the county supervisors have not extended GR time limits, and Joanie Murray has not found a job.

*"Joanie Murray" is a pseudonym.


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