Empowerment Center Faces Welfare Deadline

Article 2 of 2. Dr. Goldie Roberts is the Executive Director of the Empowerment Center of Greater Cleveland, formerly Welfare Rights. She is marking her one-year anniversary as the director in February 2000 by staging a forum and a demonstration to call attention to the impact of the changes in the welfare system on Cuyahoga County. The forum will be February 12, 2000 at Trinity Cathedral at 10 a.m. and the demonstration will be at 11:30 a.m. in front of the state office building on Superior Ave. on Valentine’s Day.

Brian Davis: What do you see in the future for the landscape in Cleveland? And what do you see as the future for the Empowerment Center?

Dr. Goldie Roberts: I would like to see growth in the Empowerment Center, where perhaps we are linked with other neighborhood centers, where maybe we have volunteers in each of those centers. Volunteers that we have helped to train and educate so that they can do that in their own neighborhoods. And when it is necessary to galvanize people, that those people are already there with their own group and allegiance there and where we can pull together a group in a moment’s notice.

[I would like to make] sure that our services are provided on the West Side as well as the east. Pretty much now, we are focused on the east, but we do have some linkage with Merrick House, and would like to do more collaborations. But more so doing community education, and educating community people to become leaders in their own rights out there, because that’s what the whole sense of empowerment means.

BD: What do you see as the future of Cleveland in the final 9 months of welfare, and 10,000 families no longer eligible next year?

GR: I’m being optimistic. I’d like to think that with people not having the full three years’ benefit, that there might be reprieves given in the last hour to extend the times. Ethically, you have to know how you are servicing people if you are still training your own folks in how to do this. So I am hoping that something happens in the 11th hour. But barring that, we as an agency will be out there assisting people, making sure they know about other resources, so that they are not just cut off. And we will be making sure that people who will be coming off in October will do what is necessary at that time so that they are not sanctioned.

That is the major thing, making sure that they do what is necessary to make sure those benefits keep coming while we work the other end, to see what can be done about stopping the clock.

BD: Do you feel hamstrung? That if you press too hard about the harm that welfare is causing in the community that your funding will be cut off if you are critical of the structure?

GR: No, I haven’t felt that at all. One of the major things is that the County Welfare [Department] has done a great PR job in giving the impression that anybody who is on welfare can help themselves and get off if they just do 1, 2, 3—the four steps.

But then, when you are in the system, I think the public just does not know how hard it is to access those services. As an administrator I have been in there, and heard “Oh, that is a great program.” Only, when I try to send a client through there, I find out that the program does not run the way I was told it did. So I’m being drawn in too, because it does sound great. But it just doesn’t happen like that. That is what I see as a major problem.

BD: The message that we are delivering now is that working with your child or raising your child is not a job. You need to be earning money outside the house in exchange for monetary support. Doesn’t that lessen the value of nurturing, raising and producing a productive member of our society?

GR: Absolutely. I would like to see, particularly with single parents, that they be allowed to stay home with their children, and that it should be an option. Some people want to work; they really want to work towards a career. But some people don’t have the skills. Maybe we could be more family friendly, where we don’t require so much time outside the houses. This country is founded on the work ethic, so maybe it will take more women in leadership positions to start to institute this.

BD: Some of the more mainstream and even middle-class women’s groups haven’t taken much interest in welfare reform. Do you see that as a problem?

GR: Which groups?

BD: Well, for instance, NOW (National Organization for Women), or other women-oriented groups who haven’t really focused on, that is really an assault on . . .

GR: I think that people are somewhat stymied. They don’t understand the system, welfare reform and all of the changes. I think that they are trying to take it in and get all of the information, because this is only the second year. Some of these groups just don’t understand what is going on, and they are still trying to pull the information together.

We did participate with the League of Women voters for their annual meeting, and we talked about welfare reform.

BD: Do you see churches as leaders in trying to make changes to protect children?

GR: Absolutely, because if you look back to Dr. Martin Luther King, he went to the churches because he felt that was a strong base. You had bodies there that would be committed to moving on. So, historically, churches have been right there in the forefront.

BD: Since a lot of this is moving the safety-net to the private sector, do you think that churches, nonprofits, hunger centers, the traditional places that people turned to for assistance, are being overwhelmed by people and therefore they don’t have time to reflect on the bigger issues like this is hurting our community?

GR: I think that what is at stake here is, of course, the child. But the fact is that welfare reform has been in place for two years, and the first year nothing much was going on. Now this year some things are opening up, such as people getting contracts to do child-care. More church representatives are in on the workshops, and they are trying to gear up.

Because everything is so new, people are not sure exactly where it is going. With the churches that I have been privy to sit with, their people are getting their contracts with the County to help with the day-care piece, and to help with serving families.

I just think that there has not been enough time, and that it really hasn’t settled in.

BD: Do you think that people will change their opinions about welfare reform once mass amounts of people start leaving the rolls?

GR: There is going to be plenty of media coverage once October 1, 2000 comes. I think that once the data that is being collected now about what happens when people leave welfare is made public, it will help.

When we can see that people are drastically hurt when they are sanctioned, and when they are forced off the rolls before they have any visible means of support, and also the number of children that are going to be involved, it is going to take those harsh numbers to make people understand that welfare reform hurts.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #40, February 2000