CINCINNATI — It's 4 a.m. when the overnight bus from Pittsburgh rolls into Cincinnati station. With hours to go until daylight and more than a little fatigued, I join the small crowd of passengers sprawled out on the floor in one corner of the station. A pair of infomercials is playing on endless loop on the TVs overhead and I can only dream of falling asleep. An hour later, I stop trying and make my usual cup of gruel before setting off on foot through the drizzle into town—the wrong part of town, as it happens.
Heading out past the casino and north on Gilbert Avenue, I see office parks and museums give way to blocks of rundown rowhouses with broken windows and ground floors boarded up. There are seedy strip malls, vacant overgrown lots, and once-proud red-brick factories with faded marble molding and "For Sale" signs on the door. Trash has gone uncollected for some time, judging by the overflowing bins.
Few storefronts remain in business—a convenience store here, check casher there, and beauty supplier and furniture store further down. The Speedy Refund tax service silently awaits another tax season, when eager EITC filers will pack the place seeking "Cash Back Fast" (for a fee). Across the street, the Life Skills center promises "Help with dreams—Enrolling Now!" in the form of a GED. A dilapidated stone church next door is fenced off with fluorescent "No Trespassing" signs posted all around. At another former church nearby, all that remains is a crumbling steeple proclaiming the Father's glory. Strangest of all, on this average weekday morning there is hardly another soul in sight.
Continuing out along Route 3, I notice the scene begin to change. No longer are the streets and sidewalks busted up, the homes unoccupied or in disrepair. As I turn into a leafy lane, I come across a battery of dump trucks and heavy machinery laying down a new layer of fresh tar. Judging by the amount of men and machines assigned, it looks as if the job will be complete in time for lunch, leaving ample time to dry before the residents return from work. Sprawling, manicured lawns and curvaceous drives lead up to lavish homes with porticos and chimneys all around. One is a castle made of stone with turrets and lattice windows.
Back in town at midday, I wander into the Lord's Pantry soup kitchen and am offered the daily fare of "sandwiches, drinks, and prayer" along with a few dozen of the city's down-and-out. I gratefully accept all three in exchange for a small donation. Returning to the streets after lunch, I decide to pay a visit to the nearby Contact Center, a community nonprofit. Although I don't know a thing about the place, a flyer in the window headlined "Janitors for Justice" catches my eye by announcing that 48 percent of Cincinnati children are living in poverty—hardly the thing I was expecting to find in this venerable old city of Proctor & Gamble fame. A subsequent check with the Census Bureau confirms the unhappy fact.
Inside the dimply-lit office, I am greeted by Cassandra, a middle-aged black woman with braids and a melancholy aspect, who manages the Contact Center's outreach to families in need. She agrees to my impromptu request for an interview and shows me to a table piled high with handmade Christmas ornaments—to help pay the bills. "I'll Be There" by the Jackson 5 is playing softly in the background.
As we take our seats, Cassandra shares her primary credential for the job: She was once on welfare—a picture-perfect "welfare mom" according to the stereotype, single with seven children. But the welfare she knew did not meet the hype, she says: There was no Cadillac, no name-brand clothes, no fancy meals or other special things. There was the bus to get to work and school; thrift-store clothing for the kids twice a year; food to eat and a roof over their heads, most of the time. "I didn't want to be there, because the money that you get is not enough to take care of you, pay rent, gas and electric, telephone," she explains. "At the end of the month the money's gone, you've got to rely on soup kitchens and stuff like that. You can only stretch the dollar so far."
When welfare reform was passed in 1996, she says she started attending public meetings where men and women in suits would talk about how "those people are lazy, those people won't work." That's when she realized they were talking about her. She says she wondered if they had any idea that she had enrolled in job programs one after another; had seen her kids through public schools and into gainful employment; had applied for more jobs than she can remember and been turned away. "I even tried to work in a sandwich factory," she says. "I make sandwiches all the time at home, but I couldn't get the job!"
It didn't take long for her to realize that the politicians knew very little about how she and her neighbors lived, about the level of opportunity they did and did not enjoy. Making matters worse, she says, most of them didn't seem to care. "Folks that are on welfare, the [politicians] look down on us," she says.
True to President Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it," welfare rolls were slashed in Cincinnati and across the United States—down from 12.3 million in 1996 to around 4 million today, or 1.3 percent of the population. The amount of cash assistance available to needy families also shrank to a maximum benefit of $428 per month for a family of three in the median state, less than half the poverty line. In a handful of southern states, just one in 10 poor families with children currently receives welfare and the level of assistance is less than 15 percent of the poverty line.
Cassandra grants that getting more folks off welfare and into work was a good idea—if only jobs could be found. After showing steady gains during the economic boom years of the late 1990s, the share of single mothers in the workforce started to decline again to 54 percent, for a net gain of just five percent between 1995 and 2009. Meanwhile, around half of those who have found jobs since leaving welfare still cannot escape the poverty trap, and one in three continues to live in deep poverty with earnings below $11,500 a year for a family of four. The rise in deep poverty, especially among children, to 20.5 million people in 2012—the highest rate and number since record-keeping began in 1975—is considered a consequence by scholars.
Cassandra says the combination of welfare cuts, insufficient jobs, and a lack of other in-kind supports for single parents to find and keep what low-wage jobs there are has left a lot of people, like herself, in the lurch. At the beginning of welfare reform, she says, advocates in Cincinnati tried to convey to state officials what it would take to move people off the rolls and into gainful employment for the long-term. "We pointed out what needed to happen: childcare, transportation, education … Without those things how are we gonna get a decent job to make a decent living?" But, she says, many of the promised investments still have not come through—leaving food stamps as the only reliable source of government support for millions of people in need. Citing the latest round of budget cuts in Washington, she worries that even food stamps will decline. "They're taking that safety net away from us."