Tue June 18, 2013
Losing Ground

The Lives Of Three Colorado Women On The Edge Of The 'Cliff'

Perhaps the most important of the welfare reform measures passed by Congress 17 years ago doesn’t serve three-fourths of working poor families in Colorado according to an I-News analysis.

Among those who do receive child care assistance, their chances of escaping poverty and achieving self-sufficiency – the golden miter of welfare reform – aren’t good, either.  Those closest to escaping poverty face the perils of the “cliff effect,” in which even a modest increase in family income can lead to the elimination of a benefit worth thousands of dollars.

Jeannett Escarcega

Jeannett Escarcega shows her son, John, 4, a photo on her mobile phone in their east Denver apartment on Sunday, May 9, 2013. Escarcega encountered the "cliff effect" after accepting a $14.00 an hour job that triggered the loss of $500 in monthly food stamp support and even more in child care assistance (which was later reinstated for a $350 per month fee).
Credit Joe Mahoney / I-News

Jeannett Escarcega has firsthand experience with what it means to suffer the cliff effect. That’s what happens when a raise in salary leads to the termination of a work support benefit, leading to what often is a big net loss for the family involved.

She accepted a job earning $14 per hour as a customer service representative. And that was too much money to continue receiving food stamps worth $500 per month for her family of three, including sons Antonio, 9, and John, 4. She also initially lost Colorado Child Care Assistance, although she has since been reinstated with a parental fee that costs her $350 per month.

“Just not having CCAP was a struggle every day to have someone who could watch my children after school or before school,” she said. “I hired my niece to watch my children. That did not work for very long. I had to find another family member and another family member. So it was a struggle every day to figure out who was going to watch them.”

The loss of food stamps also hurt. With them, she had $500 per month for food. Without them, her food budget shrank to $200, which was not enough. She has subsidized her higher income with credit cards to make up for the loss of benefits, in itself a problem.

For Escarcega, the struggle with the better paying job and reduced benefits has become overwhelming.

“I cry on my way to work,” she said, “I cry on the way back home. Instead of them seeing what mommy is going through, I don’t show it to them. I don’t show it to nobody. It’s all behind closed doors.”

She has begun to consider her options. Before, she had two part-time jobs, one in the morning and one at night, and the work-support benefits.

“It seems like life would be easier to not make as much money as I do now because I would have support and stepping stones to get a head in life. If I was able to have all these (work support) programs and attend school then I would go back to school, get a degree and no longer be on these programs and maybe even help out.”

Jennine Jeffries

Jennine Jeffries, 39, at the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria Campus in Denver on Friday, May 24, 2013.
Credit Joe Mahoney / I-News

Jennine Jeffries is a woman with an engaging smile, a firm handshake and an articulate yet unvarnished way of telling her own story: Broken and abusive childhood home, a frequent runaway and juvenile delinquent, alcohol and drug addictions as she became a popular bartender, a stint in jail.

But her story doesn’t stop there.

With determination and hard work, with help from those who believe in her, with an unfading desire to be something more for her own four children, she has pulled her life back on course. She’s carrying a shiny 3.97 grade-point average at Metropolitan State University of Denver, with graduation set for next spring.

Her 19-year-old son has made that possible in part by caring at home for her 4-year-old twins. She wants him to have a chance at education next.

Jeffries has worked for Metro’s Institute for Women's Studies and Services, and is now an intern at Project Wise, a Denver-based agency that offers counseling and other services to women. She knows who she is and what she wants to be.

“Given the pain I have put my family through, given the pain I have put myself through, given the struggles I have been through, I want a career where I can help those who are like me, women in transition, women who feel that maybe they’re not worthy, or that they have no hope,” Jeffries, 39, said. “I want to make a difference in people’s lives.”

As she prepares for that day to arrive, making the long bus ride each day into Denver from her Section 8 apartment in Englewood, working low-wage jobs, volunteering, keeping up with her family life and her studies, she worries about how she will do it.

Can she possibly make, as a new college graduate, the $40,000 or more it will take for her family to minimally survive the loss of the work support benefits she receives – housing assistance, food stamps and Medicaid?

“I’m terrified that once I graduate I won’t be self-sufficient,” she said, but there’s no turning back now. “What do I next? I want to be the hell off assistance.”

Rachel Contizano

Rachel Contizano, 32, sits in her son Kingston's room at their apartment in Auora, Colo., on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. Contizano, a single mother who lost her job in 2009, receives public work support assistance. She has calculated she needs to earn about $43,000 to make up for the loss of food stamps, day-care-assistance for her four-year-old son, Medicaid and rental subsidies she receives.
Credit Joe Mahoney / I-News

Rachel Contizano, a Denver native, moved to New York and finished community college there with highest distinction. She was employed by an apparel manufacturer, living independently in New York City, just as she wanted.

Then she went on maternity leave before Christmas in 2009 and was soon notified that her job had been eliminated.

She applied for unemployment benefits and received them for the full 99 weeks allowed, her job search fruitless month after month.

“I got up the courage that I needed to move back home,” she said of those dark days. “It was just getting too difficult to survive.”

Surviving didn’t turn out to be a picnic back in Colorado, even though her family helped. As she began to apply for work support benefits for herself and her son, Kingston, to try to get back on her feet, she encountered what she described as a very difficult process with Denver Human Services.

“I did everything I was supposed to do. I followed all the rules,” she said. “If I did what I was responsible for, then they were responsible to help me. And that wasn’t the case.”

She determined that she needed to learn more about advocating for herself.

Her eventual mastery of work support benefit rules led to her appointment to the Denver Welfare Reform Board. She was named a “Woman to Watch” by the League of Women Voters. She just graduated magna cum laude from the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver with a degree in business administration.

Now 32, she wants a career in public policy to help others. She dreams of running for public office.

But first there is a matter of finding a job. She has calculated she needs to earn about $43,000 to make up for the loss of food stamps, child care assistance for her son, now four, Medicaid and rental subsidies she receives. Even for all of her accomplishments, avoiding the cliff effect is daunting.

“It’s very hard to find a job in 30 days, something that is going to keep my head above water,” she said. “So that is something I’m really struggling with right now and that is really scary.”

Read More: In Colorado, Child Care The Key Between Self-Sufficiency And The Cliff

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. For more information: inewsnetwork.org.