A year ago, Loretta Gruytch decided to go back to work.
The 71-year-old resident of Lebanon, Oregon, had suffered from high blood pressure for some time. But her medications cost $600 a month, and she and her husband (who also has health problems) live on Social Security. “You make a choice between paying rent and utilities and getting medication, and you have to have a place to live.”
She’d held jobs in retail and as a mail carrier. She didn’t think she could handle a forty-hour job, but she thought that twenty or twenty-five hours would be enough to pay for her prescriptions.
But she had put it off too long. While she was at a job interview at a local deli, she had a brain aneurysm and a stroke, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Her doctor helped her to enroll in Oregon’s healthcare plan. For the past year, Gruytch has been able to get her medicine. But today, mired in budget crisis, Oregon is cutting back on health coverage. As a result, Gruytch may lose her prescription coverage altogether. She says, “I don’t know what I will do if they take my medicine away.”
On the other side of the country, 43-year-old Brooklyn resident Maria Jones has also slipped through the cracks of the social safety net, forced to choose between her daughter’s education and her own health.
Jones came to the United States from Puerto Rico at the age of 18. She married young and had three children, but divorced her soldier husband after the marriage turned violent (they went through rounds of counseling first). When her children were young, she worked in a dentist’s office. More recently, she was a childcare worker, making and selling crocheted and knitted goods on the side.
Two years ago Jones had a massive heart attack, leaving her face partially paralyzed for months. After her illness, she could not work, nor could she complete the work requirements she needed to get welfare. She began to fall behind on rent. Her youngest daughter–“my miracle baby”–was in her first year at Hunter College at the time, and living with her mother. Jones asked her daughter to apply for welfare. “I was always taught that families stick together, no matter what,” says Jones. When a caseworker told her daughter that she would need to leave school and enroll in the Work Experience Program (WEP, the city’s “workfare” program) to get benefits, she dropped out of school.
After she recovered somewhat, Jones told her daughter to go back to college. “She gave me one semester of her life. I was not going to let her give up her dreams to get welfare,” she says. Now, she subsists on a disability check of $570 a month. Her rent is $680. “Unless I hit the lotto, I don’t know what I am going to do.”
In the Bush Administration’s ideological war on the welfare state, Gruytch and Jones are collateral damage. Unlike with Clinton, who sought to end welfare “as we know it,” the Bush agenda explicitly targets noncash benefits, like healthcare and education, which currently are available to poor and working poor people. Some of the changes the Administration seeks are subtle switches in rules–demanding additional paperwork for the earned-income tax credit, for example, or extra documentation for poor children to receive school lunch. Others replace federal entitlements with block grants to states.