A journalist follows the lives of three very different Bronx families as they attempt to find sustainable employment before the expiration of their welfare benefits.
In 1996, President Clinton signed a bill that changed the existing structure of welfare: families would receive benefits for a maximum of five years, the limit for a lifetime. Single adults were limited to two years. As more and more families left the welfare rolls, Hancock (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; US News & World Report) became interested in uncovering the stories behind this seemingly good news. For more than three years she recorded the day-to-day struggles of Alina (a Moldavian refugee, hoping to become a doctor), Brenda (an African-American single mother of two, eager to find work), and Christine (a Puerto Rican single mother of four with a heroin addiction and a host of other problems). In the best documentary tradition, the author accompanies the women to “welfare centers, to courtroom hearings, to medical exams, to jail, to classrooms, to their children’s schools,” their graduations, weddings, and birthdays. Hancock exposes the culture of welfare—for both caseworker and client—as an environment that demands personal responsibility, while at the same time infantilizing its clients. Over the course of the narratives, these women inspire a certain fondness from the reader; arriving in the US with no money, and not a word of English, Alina’s success is the result of her incredible drive, strong family ties, and a well-funded network of refugee aid societies. Brenda, having grown up in a series of foster homes and without a family to fall back on, must depend entirely on public aid. Working full-time at a minimum-wage job, her enthusiasm alone is not enough to support a family of three. By the end of the tale, Brenda has returned to welfare, with only a few months left on her lifetime limit. As a heroin addict, homeless and jobless, Christine is the most fragile of the three. As she reaches the end of her benefits, she has lost her four children, spent time in prison for a felony drug conviction, but continues to persevere.
An eloquent, affecting look at the faces behind the statistics.