I Had A Back Row Seat to Welfare Reform

Once upon a time, I had a corner office in an 1880’s era converted church building in one of Southern California’s oldest towns, where I’d grown up in an orange grove.

At this church building, we gave out bread, emergency groceries, clothes, Christmas presents, motel vouchers, gas vouchers, helped people with rent or utilities, and eventually, helped homeless families get jobs and decent places to live. I was stumblingly bilingual and full of fire to right the wrongs of the world. I was the director of Family Service Association, a position I’d held since I was 24 years old.

Getting to that place was somewhat of a long story, or a short one. Everyone who was anyone in my small town knew the story of how I’d come to be a happy little blonde baby wheeled down the street by my stunningly beautiful grandmother. My mother Sterling Sturtevant, an award-winning animation artist and designer of Mr. Magoo, had died of pancreatic cancer when I was three months old and my grandmother had brought me home to Redlands to raise me.

Family Service had the distinction of holding the first nonprofit charitable exemption in California. It had been founded before the turn of the 20th century by nurses visiting the tuberculosis patients who lived in tents in a consumption camp outside town. Also in Redlands was the first licensed day care center in the state: Redlands Day Nursery.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows is from Redlands. He wrote a book about how it was one of America’s great small towns.

And so it was — and is —

But his story is the story of a rich man. Having read some of his writing, I know he hasn’t shared any of the experiences we had in that long-ago time. My best friend used to joke that working at Family Service was like a popular sitcom at the time: “Night Court.”

So if Family Service was that show, I was Judge Harry Stone. My best friend Cathy was Markie Post’s sympathetic, kind public defender. My school friend Gilberto was Mac, the Bailiff. We didn’t have anybody like the scurrilous prosecutor played by John Larroquette. At least not in our building.

Some time in 1989 or 1990, I was writing up case notes when my phone buzzed.

“Is this Amy Cass-eel?” a woman’s voice asked.

“This is Amy Castle,” I said.

“Hold for Secretary Kemp, please.”

Whu —

“I’m looking at a newsletter about poor mothers making ends meet. There’s some kind of heart on the top. Did you write this?”

“Yuh-yes,” I stammered.

“I’m very interested in ways we can help these families,” he said.

“So — so are we,” I sputtered.

He shot out a series of rapid-fire questions. I struggled to keep up. They worked so hard, I said. They lost their benefits if they tried to work. There was no way they could pay for child care without scholarships. If they worked even a little, they lost food stamps. Then there were school supplies, uniforms, dental care, clothing —

Every single one of them wanted to work, I said. It was just impossible to do it while on aid.

“I know,” he said. “I hope we can help them.”

This was Jack Kemp, and at the time, he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for President George H.W. Bush. That’s who was shooting rapid-fire questions at me on that old telephone line in the corner office of that rickety old former church.

This is the kind of stuff we would talk about, every two or three months or so, for the next couple of years.

The cheap, simple desktop-published newsletters I wrote got sent all over to all kinds of people. The rules we’d written up for giving people emergency financial help were slotted in the back of the national FEMA emergency assistance book, published by the United Way.

In my mind, back then, “public-private partnership” meant what we did when the Big Bear earthquake struck in 1992. I had by that time overcome the objections of board members to taking any money from the government, and we administered what were for our Southern California area, substantial FEMA emergency assistance funds — for zero administrative dollars. In other words, we were spending the government’s money for maximum effect, for free.

Nobody “got it” back then, but knowing what most people know today about disaster fraud (fake 9–11 and Katrina victims) you probably won’t be surprised to hear why Family Service was asked to disburse the emergency financial aid for people whose houses had been destroyed or damaged in the quake “up the hill.”

As soon as the quake and damage hit the news, people showed up from, as we used to say around RLS/NS: “parts unknown.” Federal and state government officials had no clue how to determine who was who, and who was entitled to money, yet they knew something was wrong —

One of our many sometimes-paid, sometimes-volunteer interns spotted one of the applicant families living in the back of a U-Haul. A stolen U-Haul with Missouri plates.

We found a luxury RV parked on the side street where we took deliveries and watched from the upstairs windows as the “family” got out and got ready to come in and tell us they’d lost their cabin in the quake. This dovetailed with the story told by one of our friends, a former Catholic priest named Desmond Ditchfield.

Desi, a man who still lived simply with his wife and kids (he was in no way one of those priests — he’d just realized he’d rather be married and have a family) still drove his tiny put-putting Geo Metro. Desi regaled us one day with the story of driving to work one morning at the Victorville parish, and passing a large RV parked by the side of a lonely desert road. He saw a well-dressed family by the vehicle, removing their swank resort wear and adorning themselves with rags and dirt smudges.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes after he got to work, in walked the dirty, shoeless transients.

I can still picture Desi’s twinkling eyes as he said he let them go on for half an hour before telling them he was the guy in the rust-bucket GEO and he knew where their RV was parked.

But fraud prevention wasn’t why I got a call in January or February of 1993 from the national United Way asking if I’d be willing to fly to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress as part of the Welfare Reform process.

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson had instituted a type of welfare reform in his state. Policy wonks weren’t as dominant then as today, but the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector had published volumes of ‘research’ about the deleterious effects of public benefits on poor women and homeless people in general. In the late 1980s,the public had just become aware of homeless families as a problem; my organization had initiated a program called Home Again Project to help individual, local families find housing and jobs and maintain them. Today, this type of program is referred to as “Rapid Re-Housing” for government funding purposes, and my former boss at another nonprofit took credit for inventing it. Heck, Hillary Clinton probably takes credit for it now.

Pettiness Break

I had spoken with Rector via phone — I’d just like to say that I knew Jack Kemp and Rector is not only not Jack Kemp, he’s exactly the type of a**h*t who’d spend an entire life inventing reasons why poor people suffer — reams of material amounting to treating “them” less kindly than a Victorian poorhouse or Dickens’ bootblack factory.

Back to the Story

I can pinpoint when I went to DC to testify before Congress about Welfare Reform. It was early 1993, because my daughter, born August, 1992, was about 6 months old.

My big turnaround trip started at the Ontario International Airport. Once in D.C., I was supposed to — and did — meet with three moms who’d been helped by a similar organization to Family Service in D.C. prior to the hearings. I spent a couple of hours with them, writing notes and listening to their stories.

At the time, I was struck by how they had so many more resources than our families in the Redlands area, but this was to be expected: they lived in a big city, the seat of the entire federal government.

We were shuttled to Capitol Hill, and I have to say, I don’t remember too much about the location and going to the hearing except the ugly green cloth hanging from the tables. I had a spare 90 minutes, and my host took me to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I remember that the most. Touching John Glenn’s capsule. Looking up at Chuck Yeager’s tiny orange X-1. Wondering at the spidery frailness of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane. Seeing the astronaut’s suit, realizing it was made of cloth. Thin-looking padded cloth!

We waited in an anteroom, and the three moms were incredibly nervous.

“Don’t worry,” I told them. “Just be yourself. You have great stories to tell. They need to hear it.”

I told them this based on what I knew, judging by my organization and board and staff. Judging by Jack Kemp. I was going by my colleagues at the United Way. Heck, I was even going by the policy wonks at the Urban Institute.

Then our “handler” came in, a staff member, I think of Senator Moynihan, but he wasn’t present. She motioned for me to come. When the three moms stood beside me, she put her hand out, palm facing forward.

“Not them,” she said. “Just you.”

That was the first time I realized what it was, I think.

My stomach churned; my heart felt empty. There were only two officials in the room when I entered. One was Barney Frank, who seemed to be paying attention and taking notes. A couple of seats away from him sat a youngish dark-haired man in a pinstripe suit, playing with a pencil and rolling his eyes at the ceiling. After a while, I could tell he’d lost interest in the pencil and appeared to be trying to see up my skirt.

It was Andrew Cuomo, Assistant HUD Secretary, currently the Governor of the State of New York.

I won’t say I’ve never spent a more pointless 45 minutes, but close.

After they let me go, it was getting dark. I asked where it was good to eat, and the hotel sent me down by the Potomac. I was too scared to take a cab, so I walked, seemingly endlessly.

Eventually I found the place, and a couple of normal, decent guys who were the crew of the Yacht Mystery saw me nervously asking if I could sit at the bar. They regaled me with tales of sailing on the river, and treated me like a queen. I was escorted to a cab and taken safely back to my hotel.

Then I flew home, and as soon as I opened the front door, Mike thrust a shrieking baby Meredith in my arms and said,

“Here, take her!”

I’m almost 100% certain none of them talked to a single person who was ever on aid the entire time, 1992–1996.

And then President Clinton signed Newt Gingrich’s bill and blew up even those tattered lives.

Welfare reform.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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