One is a former crack addict. Another dropped out of the sixth grade, began having children and never held a job. There are two ex-prostitutes, battered girlfriends and wives.
They are what is euphemistically described by policymakers in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento as hard-core welfare recipients, the least-educated, least-skilled and least-employable of all.
These nine Ventura County women, and thousands like them across the nation, represent the most profound challenge to the sweeping welfare reforms enacted in the last few years. While the mix of job training programs and adult education classes offered under the reforms may help many people get off government aid, skeptics say they will do little to improve the prospects and lives of women like these.
Now, Ventura County is testing this conventional wisdom. These nine single mothers are participating in a one-of-a-kind experimental program aimed at ushering what the county calls the "hardest-to-serve" welfare recipients into jobs. The 3-month-old program hasn't been around long enough for officials to know how well the combination of group therapy, upbeat sloganeering and skill training will work.
But some longtime welfare users are feeling good about their future for the first time in years.
"People have said to me, 'That program is for losers and slow people,' " said Shani Jackson, 28, of Oxnard, a mother of three who has been on welfare for four years but is now learning computer programming. "I tell them, 'Hello! Look at me. I'm learning. And, girl, you would not believe what I can do now.' "
Trying to break the cycle of welfare dependency that has enveloped generations of families, many states and the federal government have adopted laws forcing those on welfare to get jobs. California's law, which took effect a year ago, requires current recipients to find work within two years. Those new to the welfare rolls are restricted to 18 months.
In order to continue receiving welfare funding from Washington, counties are required by law to place 75% of two-parent welfare families and 30% of their adult caseload into the work force by October.
To meet this goal, the county has instituted a $17-million welfare-to-work effort called CalWORKS. That program includes seven one-stop career centers, job training classes and mentoring programs. Money has also been set aside to help the jobless buy cars cheaply and to help with child care.
So far, the total caseload in Ventura County has dropped 22%, from 6,431 to 5,029. Officials say they are having difficulty meeting the 75% mandate for two-parent families.
The greatest challenge is the 600 or so people defined as chronic, or hard-core, welfare users. Getting them into the job force is the goal of the Employment Readiness Demonstration Project, which started in January at the Goodwill Industries headquarters in Oxnard.
The women in the state-funded program receive intensive training in assertiveness, managing emotions, resume writing and interviewing skills. A counselor is also on hand to help the women deal with crises that erupt over everything from drugs to violent boyfriends.
The program hopes to move 180 hard-core recipients off welfare within three years.
The program's mantra is, "Get a job, get a better job, get a career."
Sorting tangled jewelry on a table at Goodwill, Maria Guerrero hopes that motto will work for her.
Born in the cobblestoned village of El Sapote, Mexico, she moved with her parents to Ventura County to work the fields when she was 6. By 13, she had dropped out of sixth grade and was married. A year later she had her first child.
At 27, she is single and five months pregnant with her fourth child. Like others in the experimental program, Guerrero has never worked outside the home. Although her husband abandoned the family and lives somewhere in Mexico, she said she is happy to be rid of a man who repeatedly cheated on her.
"It's hard, but I'm glad I'm finally on my own," said Guerrero, a six-year welfare recipient who lives in federally subsidized housing in La Colonia. "I feel like I've been released."
She is eager to start working. "I want to get off assistance. I'm sick of it," Guerrero said.
But it won't be easy. Guerrero has no high school diploma and scored zero on a sixth-grade math test that would have qualified her for the program's computer training course.
Officials believe Guerrero may have a learning disability, but she refuses to be tested.
Although clients are expected to "graduate" in 13 weeks, program director Maureen Ludwig Wiggins thinks Guerrero will need more time to prepare herself to work.
"In some cases, we will need longer than that just to build up their confidence," Ludwig Wiggins said. "Some of these women were victims of domestic violence. They've been held at gunpoint or beaten up. They can develop here."