Emily” is the Johnson County version of the “Welfare Queen,” the one who has been banished to myth.
Maybe she’s not such a myth.
I’ve changed her name. I know her well, through a common friend.
Emily is smart, college-educated and has lived in Johnson County for years, almost completely on public assistance. Even now, after the latest welfare reform in Kansas, Emily is still getting away with major help from taxpayers.
Emily, 32, has four children, ages 2 to 16, all born out of wedlock to different fathers, none of whom pay child support. So, Emily is on her own. She has been since the first of her children was born while Emily was in high school.
She didn’t work until fairly recently. She now holds a 21-hour-per-week job that pays $7.50 per hour. Emily makes sure she works the 20 hours a week minimum to stay on welfare in Kansas.
Emily lives in Section 8 housing, a federal program for the poor that results in her paying zero rent. She can stay in that housing rent-free until her last child turns 18 years old.
In addition, the state of Kansas has been paying her $558 per month in cash assistance. She also receives enough food stamps to cover the meals for a family of five; Medicaid; utility subsidies that drastically reduce Emily’s utility bills (federally funded); and free day care from Head Start. Her largest expense has been filling up her car with gas.
Emily earned her degree in liberal arts at the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a grant that not only paid for her entire college education, but actually netted her $900 cash back per semester.
Emily has survived quite well all this time, mostly on the public dole. She has been able to raise a family and pay all her bills on a timely basis. Her credit is pristine.
Her housing is comfortable, and she drives an old, but fuel-efficient Toyota. The family eats well, but there are no steaks. They watch cable TV on a small HDTV. They go to Worlds of Fun, occasional Royals games and bowling every other Saturday. (Kansas just cracked down on a long list of prohibited activities, although these were not among them.)
For the first time, however, Emily is in a tough spot.
Her youngest child turns 3 soon, and therefore will no longer be eligible for free day care through Head Start. Day care will cost more per hour than Emily is making at her job.
Emily also is almost out of time on her cash assistance, which stops after 48 months — it began in 2011 — unless she gets a hardship extension. Her food stamps and other welfare benefits would continue, so long as she qualifies.
It would seem Emily just needs to get a full-time job that covers enough to pay her expenses.
However, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Emily would need a job paying more than $50,000, after taxes, to improve her situation, compared to making as much as $20,000 a year plus welfare benefits.
If Emily makes too much, she will lose her Section 8 free housing, and the more she makes, her welfare benefits will start to decrease.
Emily is not sure what she will do.
She probably could not land a job right now that pays enough to leave the system. I believe welfare incentives have encouraged her to not tap into her potential or harness her education. She’s smart and educated and without any obvious mental health issues. But furthermore — why try? Her welfare equivalent of $50,000 after taxes is a good standard of living. The trap is that cash assistance doesn’t go on forever.
Here’s a guess as to Emily’s immediate plan: She can stay on welfare if she works 20 hours a week or is attending vocational training. When Emily’s youngest child reaches 3 and loses free day care, Emily might quit her $7.50-per-hour job and stay home to take care of him. In the evenings, she could take vocational training classes for a year, paid for by the taxpayers, while her 16-year-old child babysits. That buys Emily another year of welfare, while she considers her next option, and her youngest will only be a year away from kindergarten.
What then? I don’t know, but that’s the point. She’s reached the trap the welfare system has carefully laid out for her, where the benefits will not be enough, with no income bridge in sight.
Apparently, legislators in Kansas, Missouri and elsewhere are frustrated with the whole system. And they think Emily’s longtime dependence on welfare is typical. Not all welfare recipients are like Emily, to be sure. But the system is enticing.
Knowing firsthand cases like Emily’s makes it understandable why outraged legislators have come down hard on able-bodied welfare recipients who choose not to work to their capacity and who continue to milk the system.
It is also understandable why someone like Emily, caught in this trap — though it is totally her own doing — will do everything she can to hang on to benefits as long as possible.
Reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.