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Caught in the web of Poverty

  19981101jbwelffoodT.jpg (8560 bytes)
  Lennette Kistner carries groceries from the Indian Creek Valley Food Pantry in Normalville, Fayette County, during a monthly trip. She gets to the pantry by “bumming a ride.”
Every morning, Lennette Kistner drags herself out of bed, fights off fatigue from her lupus, and then shoulders a load so heavy she’d be forbidden to carry it across Pittsburgh’s weight-restricted bridges.

The load is all the burdens of her frail family. It’s her mentally ill husband, her mentally retarded daughter, her emotionally disturbed son, her alcoholic brother, her infirm father and even her two healthy children.

Except for her father, they live together in a tiny frame house in a coal patch built on a mountainside in Fayette County, a section of southwestern Pennsylvania that sits just above West Virginia, in central Appalachia. A half century ago, when coal and coke companies abandoned the county, Fayette’s economy caved in.

For the past decade, Fayette’s welfare dependency rate has been surpassed in Pennsylvania only by Philadelphia’s. About 51/2 percent of Fayette’s residents receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the state’s primary welfare program. Many of them also get other forms of government subsidy — food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security disability.

The Kistners are typical in getting a combination of government checks. They subsist on welfare, Social Security disability and food stamps.

They also work very hard. But it’s the kind of work that produces sweat beads, not paychecks.

19981101jbwelfportT.jpg (9110 bytes)  
The Kistner Family

They cut their own wood to burn in the stove that heats their house. Lennette’s husband, Clair, hunts, and they butcher the animals themselves and freeze the meat. They farm six acres and can the harvest, hundreds of jars of corn and peppers and tomatoes. They barter, fixing a flat tire in exchange for a ride to the dentist, splitting logs for a farmer so they can keep some for themselves.

Lennette has lived her entire life on welfare and in poverty. But 25 years ago, when Lennette’s mother supported her on welfare, the check bought twice what it does now. A family could almost survive on it. Now, many welfare families do something else to get by, baby-sitting a friend’s children for a few unreported bucks here or selling a few jars of homemade jelly there.

The original intent of welfare was to provide enough money so that a woman wouldn’t have to leave her children to work. It was supposed to help out widows and other women raising children alone. But that was 65 years ago. It was a different time and a different culture.

Now, welfare reformers say jobs give these women dignity. The reforms are designed to help mothers leave their children and go to work.

To Lennette, however, welfare reform doesn’t look like a yellow brick road to a paycheck palace where she’ll discover she always had the ability to be self-supporting.

For her and many others like her, welfare reform is just one more burden to bear.

Yet Lennette is confident it won’t break her. She believes she will find a way to detour around the reformers’ demands and still come out on top. Most of all, she wants to complete her latest project, which is to leverage everything she owns and buy a farm. It’s a project that doesn’t fit into welfare reformers’ demands for a paycheck. But it’s one that would enable her and Clair to use their skills to make their family just a little bit more self-sufficient.

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