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This past spring, Victoria Fenwick received an envelope in her mailbox from the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS). The letter served as Fenwick’s introduction to one of the more contentious catch phrases of the 1990s: welfare reform. It informed her that as a recipient of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Fenwick was now required to participate in a new District-sponsored program that would help her move off the welfare rolls and into the work force.

The letter read like a note from Publishers Clearinghouse: “Congratulations! You have been selected to participate in an exciting new program, which will help you GET AND KEEP A JOB,” it cheerily announced. “This program is a tremendous opportunity for you to FIND, GET, AND KEEP a job. Realize your full potential! It Pays to Work! Do it for Yourself! Do it for your Children!”

Fenwick ignored it all, including the exclamation points.

The following week, another letter arrived at Fenwick’s house from Community Family Life Services—one of D.C.’s welfare-to-work contractors. Last November, the District handed over $52 million and the bulk of its welfare caseload to eight private vendors including nonprofits such as Community Family Life Services as well as Fortune 500 behemoth Lockheed Martin IMS. The contractors would help the District meet the various work requirements in the new federal welfare law.

The letter from Community Family Life Services welcomed Fenwick to its program and encouraged her to call the office as soon as possible. But it also featured a less cheery notice: Failure to participate in the new welfare-to-work program would have severe financial repercussions for Fenwick and her family.

Fenwick confesses that she doesn’t read very well. Growing up in Lexington Park, Md., she dropped out of high school in 11th grade. “Well, I understood some of [the letter],” Fenwick says. “I understood that if you don’t participate in the program, they’ll [reduce] your check.”

Still, Fenwick believed she had one thing working to her advantage—the District government’s reputation for inefficiency. “I thought they were faking,” Fenwick says.

They weren’t. It took a few more weeks for Fenwick to discover that $100 had been subtracted from her monthly welfare check. After only two written warnings, Fenwick says, the District government had “sanctioned” her for failure to comply with its new welfare-to-work program.

Fenwick eventually agreed to participate in Community Family Life Service’s program. But as many as 1,600 TANF recipients involved in the District’s welfare-to-work program remain on the sanction list. And the number is steadily rising. “Many of them don’t believe the sanction process is going to hit them,” explained Mary Lou Tietz of Community Family Life Services last month during a forum on welfare reform sponsored by DC Action for Children.

Welfare advocates argue that the sanction process—whereby warnings are conveyed by letters many people simply ignore—is just one misfire of many in the District’s welfare-to-work program. According to the District’s own figures, a majority of the city’s TANF population reads at a fifth-grade level or below. That means that the stern warnings sent out to the District’s welfare population largely go unread.

Four weeks ago, D.C. Councilmember Sandy Allen, whose Ward 8 constituency has the city’s highest percentage of welfare recipients, held a public meeting on the new TANF requirements at Allen Chapel AME Church on Alabama Avenue SE. The church’s community room was about half-full. Welfare advocates, welfare-to-work contractors, and bureaucrats from DHS and the Department of Employment Services showed up to discuss the carrots and sticks of the new welfare regime. But less than a handful of TANF recipients braved that evening’s thunderstorm to voice their concerns.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, otherwise known as welfare reform, requires states as well as the District of Columbia to sanction TANF recipients who fail to participate in work activities without good cause. The District has chosen to take a lenient approach by implementing the adult-only sanction: Only money for the adult family member, not the children’s allowance, is removed from the welfare check.

But advocates argued that evening that the action does not carry the desired effect. “The word ‘sanction’ means nothing nine of 10 times to TANF participants,” said Brenda Jones. Jones runs the Parklands Community Center in Southeast and works with many TANF families. “We need to stop using language that TANF participants won’t understand.”

The critique is a valid one. According to the District’s own request for proposals for the welfare-to-work contract issued last month, “DHS estimates that some two-thirds of TANF customers read at or below the fifth-grade level.”

District officials counter that the sanction process is harsh but fair. “We don’t want to seem punitive—we don’t want children to go hungry—but we’ve got to make sure people understand,” responded Kate Jesberg, acting administrator for the DHS’s Income Maintenance Administration, at the Allen gathering. (Jesberg failed to return follow-up calls about the sanction process.)

Others believe that the way D.C. makes recipients understand is anything but understanding, given that the city knows that many people receiving letters can’t read large chunks of them. “These people are citizens of the U.S. They ought to have due process,” says Richard Shannon, a welfare advocate who runs ChurchFare, which works with the D.C. welfare population.

Advocates also argue that the process ignores the reality of life for many TANF recipients, who often move frequently. “You cannot send mail to a brother or sister in Washington, D.C., and assume that they are at the same address as six months ago,” Jones commented as the audience chuckled.

District officials believe the sanction process gives ample warning. Though Fenwick claims she received only one letter apiece from the D.C. government and Community Family Life Services, she should have received two more notes, according to officials, before the penalty took effect.

The second notification letter, such as this one from Lockheed Martin IMS, politely reminds TANF recipients that it’s in their best interest to make the call: “To date, our records indicate that you have not scheduled an appointment,” the note reads. “In order to avoid possible sanctioning of your TANF grant, you must contact us within three days of this notice…”

The third letter cuts to the chase right away. “This is your final notification letter from Lockheed Martin IMS Welfare Reform Services,” it says in the third sentence. “Therefore, if you do not contact us immediately to schedule an appointment, the Department of Human Services will begin sanctioning of your monthly TANF grant.”

Even when the written message gets across, literacy remains a big issue in welfare reform. The new welfare law takes a work-first approach that forces all welfare recipients to enter the work force as soon as possible, even if they lack the basic skills necessary to function productively once there.

When Harriett Diin received her letter from G&S Associates, another welfare-to-work contractor, she eagerly signed up, in hopes of improving her education. Diin dropped out of school in the eighth grade and reads at an elementary-school level. But at her program orientation, Diin says, a G&S staff member handed her a newspaper and told her to look for a job.

“How can you send out anybody that can’t read or write and have them find a job?” asks Jones. CP