By BRIANNA BOND, Capital News Service
ODENTON - In the computer room at the West County Family Center there's a sign hanging above Laguanda Jacobs and Kyrie Taylor's chairs that says, "A goal is a dream with a plan."
Jacobs and Taylor share the same goal: Get off cash assistance permanently. What they need is a plan.
"You have so many goals set up, but so many barriers," Taylor said as Jacobs nodded in agreement, her fingers interlaced and resting on her 8-month pregnant belly.
Taylor, 20, and Jacobs, 27, both single mothers, represent two of Maryland's 52,110 welfare clients who will face changes to the government's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which finances the state's temporary cash assistance program.
The changes, which took effect Oct. 1, aim to force accountability on the state's part by tightening work requirements and limiting the number of hours that activities like substance abuse treatment and education can be counted as work, leaving some welfare clients in jeopardy of loosing their aid if they don't comply.
"We're trying to do something with ourselves, to better our lives," said Jacobs, who, along with Taylor, is studying to get her GED so she can go to college.
Jacobs lives in public housing in Severn with her 9-year-old son, Shaavon, and 3-year-old twin boys, Andre and Andrew. Her baby girl, Zyaira, is due Nov. 12. "It's not like we want to be on (cash assistance)," she said.
Taylor, who also lives in Severn with her mom and her 2-year-old daughter, Najahy, is working part-time at Banana Republic in Arundel Mills Mall in addition to taking GED classes. She's been cut off assistance at least two or three times since she started receiving it about a year ago, she said.
"I know I'm not one of those people just sitting around doing nothing, but you don't get credited," said Taylor, who plans to study nursing at Anne Arundel Community College once she finishes the GED program. "They just keep piling it on."
The changes will immediately affect a small portion of welfare clients, but the long-term implications of the legislation will likely make it more difficult for people who share Jacobs and Taylor's goals of getting an education and leaving welfare permanently.
For example, Jacobs and Taylor now risk loosing their aid if they pursue a two-year college degree thanks to a rule that says clients pursuing a degree can't count their studies toward the work requirement.
Taylor and Jacobs knew nothing about the new rules, probably because the changes just came into effect and most welfare agencies are still analyzing how their caseload will be affected.
"The fact that they aren't aware of this doesn't surprise me because they're back-office changes," said Catherine Born, a researcher at the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. "People will find out about the pieces of this that affect their specific situation when they're in one-on-one interactions with their case manager."
Meanwhile, the moms are getting ready to take the test to get their GEDs at the West County Family Center in Odenton, which provides on-site child care services, emergency baby supplies, parent counseling and adult education, as well as the GED classes. "This place is really reliable" as far as getting participants to their goals, Taylor said.
Not everyone who comes to the center receives cash assistance, but those who do often get bogged down by the bureaucracy, said service coordinator Diana Taylor.
"There's a sense that the people who are making these decisions . . . really don't know the effect it has on the clients," Taylor said. "Laws are made without looking at the whole picture of how (they) will affect society."
Other mentors at the center try to keep the women focused on their goal to permanently leave government assistance. "How'd they get here? Life happened," said Brian Tucker, a computer literacy instructor at the center. "They work hard if not harder and they go through more b.s. and red tape."
Tucker, 39, a former recipient of cash assistance, said he empathizes with Taylor and Jacobs. "It's frustrating, and it's kind of belitting, demeaning," he said.
Taylor said she looks forward to the day she's free from the strings attached to government aid. Her silver bangles clank loudly in the stale air of the computer lab as she talks about having to "bend over backwards" to receive the small monthly check.
She may not know how she'll reach it, but her end goal is clear: "To be on my own."