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Welfare Reform Rhetoric Rings Hollow in the Delta


SHELBY, Miss. — Sitting in the tidy shack of a house she rents for $140 a month, Diane Walker is complaining about the severely slanted floor, the broken electrical fixtures and the water that rushes through the roof when it rains.

And in a still more hopeless tone, she laments her dismal prospects for bettering her family's lot.

"I've been looking for a job for about three years," said Walker, 32, adding that she has filled out applications at every factory and store in the area. "But you can't make somebody hire you."

Like many of the people living in the cheap houses, trailers and barrack-type apartments in her neighborhood, Walker supports herself and her three children with public-assistance checks and food stamps. Her sense of being trapped in the welfare system is common in the Mississippi Delta, a region where too few jobs and inadequate schools combine with other vestiges of a racist society to make poverty particularly intractable.

Federal officials designing welfare reform acknowledge that "ending welfare as we know it"--President Clinton's professed goal--may be impossible here and in other rural regions.

The Administration hopes to break the vicious cycle of welfare dependency by limiting Aid to Families With Dependent Children to a maximum of two years and by guaranteeing public service work for those who cannot get private sector jobs after two years on welfare. The Administration is still working out the financial details of its reform proposal, which it intends to submit to Congress late this month.

But the "two years and out" formula may not make sense in chronically poor, remote areas where training, child care and jobs are in desperately short supply. Presidential adviser Bruce Reed, chairman of the group designing the welfare reform package, said these areas may have to be exempted from the two-year limit.

"That system will not work here," said Robert Gray, Shelby's mayor. "How can people go to work if there are no jobs? Jobs can't be created that fast. Where's the money going to come from?"

There are a lot of Shelbys in the United States. While the debate on welfare reform has centered on places such as South-Central Los Angeles, a quarter of the national poverty population in 1992--9.5 million people--lived in non-metropolitan areas. The poverty rate in rural areas was 17%, much higher than the national average of 11%.

According to experts, about half of the rural poor live in areas plagued by persistent poverty, including the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, South Texas, the "black belt" from southern Alabama to South Carolina and the Native American reservations of the Southwest and northern Plains states. For the 30 years between 1960 and 1990, 540 counties, most of them in these regions, have consistently had poverty rates of more than 20%.

"Ending welfare as we know it assumes that the opportunities are there but people are not motivated to take them," said Mark Rank, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of "Living on the Edge," a new book on welfare. "But if you go to the Mississippi Delta or Appalachia, you'll find lots of willingness to work, but there are no jobs."

Even if the cities and their suburbs are where the jobs are, many rural welfare recipients do not want to--or cannot--move there. The cost of moving is too great, and they lack the necessary education and skills to earn more than a minimum wage. They believe that their children would be worse off in economically depressed urban areas, where they would probably have to live.

"When we ask the question: 'Why don't they move?' we are ignoring that there's much else besides jobs that get people through their lives," said Janet Fitchen, an anthropologist at Ithaca College in New York. "Many poor people could not survive without their kin network."

Donna Wade, a 23-year-old mother of four who lives in Itta Bena, another Mississippi Delta town south of Shelby, has such a network right where she is.

Wade said she has tried to get a job since she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. She knows there are more jobs in Jackson, the state capital, where she regularly takes one of her children for medical treatments. But she said she cannot imagine moving there.

Although her house is modest and her resources scant in Itta Bena, she has a support system there. Her mother, who lives down the block, is especially involved in the rearing of her eldest son, who was born when Wade was only 13 and views his grandmother as a second mother. The father of her three younger children lives nearby and often takes care of them. She never lacks a helping hand in times of crisis.

Wade, who has been on welfare for 10 years, said she and her friends are concerned about news reports that Clinton would limit benefits for two years.

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