The Rogers/Cohen Family

Faces of poverty in Cincinnati, Ohio—Christopher Rogers, 13, sometimes uses the $3 an hour he earns cutting grass and working on a candy truck to pay the phone and electric bills when money runs short. He and his mother, Ana Cohen, are occasional welfare recipients, with Ana going off welfare when she finds work and then back on again when the jobs end or the hours and pay don’t add up to a livable income. “The way they have it now, the system is based on work but when there isn’t any work, it doesn’t work,” Ana said.

Ana’s mother and her grandmother were welfare recipients. The welfare reform of the late 1990s sought to break this “cycle of dependence” by providing job readiness and job search programs, requiring community service in exchange for receiving cash assistance, and setting a lifetime limit of five years. Ana’s experience reveals how difficult it can be for those at the bottom of the economic ladder to maintain independence as hard times trickle down.

Ana signed up for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) when she and Christopher moved from Texas to Cincinnati in 2000. She went to a mandatory job readiness program called SuperJobs for “classes on resume writing, what to wear, interviewing skills and how to fill out an application,” she said. Through SuperJobs, she filled out applications and sent them in by computer or delivered them directly to possible employers.

Her problem then wasn’t the job market but Christopher’s physical and mental health problems. He had chronic ear infections and needed tubes put in his ears. “And he didn’t know how to talk so I had to take him for speech therapy,” Ana said. She was frequently called by his preschool to come get him because of behavioral problems. When Christopher was five years old, he appeared in a front-page story in the Cincinnati Enquirer with the headline “Kicked out of Kindergarten Five Times.” By the end of that year, she was able to enroll him in a special school for children with behavioral problems. He was diagnosed with ADHD and began receiving medication, which Ana said has helped. He now goes to a regular public school and does all right.

“It was hard to find work that would fit around all this,” she said. To fulfill the work requirement for receiving cash assistance of $355 a month ($4260 a year), she did 30 hours a week of community service at an agency that helps poor people. She selected it because it was one of the few community service sites that allowed women to bring their children to work.

In 2003, Ana began attending Cincinnati State Technical and Community College on a Pell Grant and federal student loan that included tuition and an additional $1500 per semester for expenses. She majored in graphic imaging and packaging and advertising. “They told us there was money to be made in that,” she said. “I didn’t know printing on paper was about to go obsolete.” She worked in the college’s printing department as her co-op assignment but when she graduated in 2006, she couldn’t find a job. “There weren’t that many printers left,” she said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken computer graphics or something else.”

Through SuperJobs, she found work with a security agency that handled events—football games, concerts, and circuses. She liked it but it was occasional work that ended altogether when the company went under in 2009. “They would just call when they needed you, and I would be asking them, ‘What do you have coming up?’ so I could see how much I would be making.” A few months here and there, she got so few hours that she went back on public assistance. Sometimes, she made less than she would have made on welfare but she didn’t want to ask for assistance to make up the difference because “even if I got just $5 of cash assistance,” it would count as a month towards her lifetime limit. “It’s nerve-wracking,” she said.

Sometimes, she took by-the- day jobs at places like Labor Ready and Labor Works. “They paid you $5.50 an hour and most of the jobs were outside Cincinnati,” she said. “If you didn’t have transportation, you had to pay them $7 each way.” Through another temporary agency, she did telemarketing for four months until the company’s Cincinnati office closed. At one point when she was being recertified for food stamps, she was recorded as having six different jobs although all of them were irregular and occasional.

Through another security agency, she found work at the football stadium. Whenever the Bengals play, Ana is stationed at the stadium’s $500 a game club level checking tickets and keeping people from the cheaper seats away. For more than a year, she worked close to full time doing security at a CVS store through the same security agency. She was paid $11 an hour. When she was laid off, she received unemployment insurance. That lasted through March 2011. At that point, she had no income—just food stamps and subsidized housing—and was not able to find another job. This is when Christopher’s earnings paid some of the bills.

“I hated to ask him but he knows our situation,” she said.

Listening to the conversation, Christopher said, “Yeah, but it’s okay, Mom.”

She applied for cash assistance again and received it for four months. During that time, she went to a different jobs program, Cincinnati Works. “They had this class where they teach you to write the perfect resume,” she said. In August, she took her perfect resume to a potential employer and got the job: sitting at the sign-in desk at a residence for senior citizens. It pays $9 an hour. Right now, she’s a “floater,” meaning that she comes in when needed—so far about 24 hours a week.

Ana said that she has never “made enough money not to be on food stamps, and I’ve had to use welfare as a fall back. There’s just not enough jobs that pay enough for me to get over that hump.” Recently, Ana received a notice stating that she has five months to go before she reaches her lifetime limit.