Cafe via Roma: A training ground for welfare recipients

Joann Dent likes to greet customers with an infectious smile and a cheery voice. A newly appointed manager of Cafe via Roma, she does everything from staff training, bookkeeping, food making to store cleaning. To her, the coffee shop is not just a business but also a family that helped and shaped her.

Situated in the south side of Missouri River and a block from the Missouri State Capitol, Cafe via Roma is a quaint European-style coffee shop in northern Jefferson City and a social enterprise owned by non-profit Central Missouri Community Action (CMCA).

When Dent joined the welfare program three years ago, she couldn’t even imagine living without the benefits. Now, 26, with a 3-year-old son, she can’t think of anything better than earning a living on her own.

Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, Dent moved to Jefferson City to be with her working mother and sister when she was 21. She signed up for TANF after she gave birth to her son Christian in early 2013. Through the Missouri Work Assistance program run by CMCA, she received soft skills training, attended resume writing workshops, took a short-term nurse assistant class, and volunteered for a year at Cafe via Roma.

She was a standout employee during her time volunteering at Cafe via Roma, and two months ago, she was promoted from a volunteer to be the manager of the cafe.

“Before I got on the work assistance program, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t work too many hours. I can’t live without my food stamp and TANF money,'” Dent said. “Now, I’m like, ‘I don’t care about the food stamp. I can pay myself.'”

A social enterprise and job-training lab

The idea of purchasing a coffee shop was driven by CMCA’s ambition to seek more revenue streams.

“As any business might do, we looked at where our revenues come from to operate our program,” said Darin Preis, executive director of CMCA. “The idea was we would create a business and generate profits that we can put into our program. At the same time, it can be used to train people in the Missouri Work Assistance program.”

After three years of planning, CMCA purchased the coffee shop in November 2014 for $65,000.

Initially, CMCA encouraged work assistance program participants to work as volunteers and count volunteer hours towards required work activity hours. Dent was one of the first volunteers working there.

Over the next 15 months, four managers came and left. When the last one left, Dent stepped up and offered to take the management position.

“Joann called me at home (one) evening, saying, ‘I think I can do this. I think I’m ready to step up and give it a shot,'” Preis recalled. “I thought, ‘Gosh, among all the people I want to give a shot to, this is a perfect example.'”

Preis emphasized that the coffee shop isn’t just a for-profit enterprise, but also a lab for on-the-job training.

“It’s really important to know that a lot of people in the (Missouri Work Assistance) program, the biggest skill set they need to work on is soft skills such as customer service, customer interaction, appropriate attire, expectations of employers, etc,” he said. “We just finished building a training curriculum that we are going to specifically apply to our cafe staff to really bulk up the training component…because ultimately, whenever they are done working with the cafe, we want them to be hirable and successful wherever they go next.”

Although the business hasn’t been easy, and the profit margin has been slim, CMCA managed to hire five employees, including Dent. As a manager, Dent is responsible for teaching staff everything from food- and drink-making to catering and customer services. She and former employees created cheat sheets with detailed recipes and step-by-step instructions.

Rebecca Schuessler, 24, signed up for TANF and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, in November 2014 when her daughter was born. Schuessler joined the Missouri Work Assistance program last November and has worked at Cafe via Roma ever since. Now, paid $8 per hour as a permanent employee, she earns way more than the baseline requirement for welfare participants.

“I like working here,” she said. “The best parts are the homy atmosphere and the customers.”

Dent just moved into a house with two bedrooms. “This is my first time living in a house,” she said.

She enjoys working at the cafe and is excited about the future.

“I like coming in everyday and interacting with customers,” she said, “and sometimes I just go outside and greet people walking by.”

From a business perspective, Preis plans to put more efforts into marketing the coffee shop.

“When we tell people about (the coffee shop), their responses are very positive,” he said. “They think it’s smart of us to try that. It interests them to check out the cafe. We need more of that.”

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Welfare reform produces mixed results 20 years later

Mariah Latimer unbinds a full head of tight braids with fast fingers, combs the hair with a tooth comb orderly and creates varying layers of thickness without a pause.

It’s all part of a free 1,500-hour course she is taking at Paul Mitchell The School, a cosmetology school in north Columbia.

Latimer, 21, is a single mother of a one-year-old son, Ezekiel. She has been on welfare for about a year and a half. Barely making ends meet with $234 monthly temporary cash assistance and $356 monthly food stamp benefits, she said she constantly feels butterflies in her stomach.

“The fact that benefits may not always be there scares me,” she said, “so I want to (be financially independent) when I have the skills to work.”

Latimer is one Missouri welfare recipient who obtains job training, vocational education, childcare services and employment assistance from the Missouri Work Assistance (MWA) program, which is part of the current welfare system known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Two decades after a domestic policy overhaul, the welfare system has helped many people like Latimer for a certain time period, but it still has pitfalls. In 2014, the number of families on TANF for every 100 families in poverty nationwide slumped for about two thirds to 23. The substantial decrease in welfare caseload, however, hasn’t been accompanied by lower poverty levels. Missouri has seen the similar paradox.

Candace Iveson, a clinical instructor at the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work, is skeptical about the effectiveness of the reform.

“If the goal is to reduce the case load, it has been very successful,” she said. “If the goal is to lift the family to self-sustaining position, that has not been successful at all.”

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Twenty years ago last month, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that brings self-reliance to the welfare equation and focuses on getting people into the workforce. The policy provides a $16.5 billion block grant for states annually since the reform, shortens lifetime limits on cash benefits to five years, requires recipients to work or get training, and gives flexibility to states in shaping their own welfare programs to meet their particular needs.

As a result of those changes, people like Latimer have to spend a certain amount of hours a week in some work activity to qualify for cash welfare. Work activity can be a job, volunteer work or short-term job training like the cosmetology class. Currently, Missouri has 10 contracted agencies that run the Missouri Work Assistance program in 19 regions with 94 total offices. Despite these work-focused efforts, the results haven’t been broadly optimistic.

“There are instances that the program has helped families,” Iveson said. “They are specific examples: families that just need a couple months of help or help with job interview skills, or are just teetering on the edge. For families that are any farther, it’s not very helpful.”

Rising spending on non-core areas

In 2014, Missouri was one of 21 states that spent the majority of welfare money on non-core areas, according to a Marketplace report. Non-core expenditures are defined as those in areas beyond cash assistance, childcare and work assistance programs. In 1997, right after the introduction of TANF, about 80 percent of all TANF funding went to those main categories. In 2014, only one-third contributed to those areas.

Cash assistance was cut by more than a half between 1997 and 2014. Spending on work assistance programs remained a small segment of total amount (of the state’s total welfare spending). Child care funds have fluctuated moderately over the past 20 years, accounting for between 10 and 25 percent of total spending in any given year. By contrast, the amount allotted to the other, or non-core, areas has seen a robust increase.

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Clark Peters, an associate professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work, looks at the increasing state’s autonomy with skepticism.

“What the critics would say is that oftentimes money gets funneled to people who have political capital,” he said. The difficulty in distributing the money, Peters said, is “how to strike a balance that allows for creativity and, yet, the most disadvantaged get assistance.”

In Missouri, the maximum TANF benefit accounts for less than a fifth of poverty line, which is $1,680 per month for a family of three. Adjusted for inflation, the value of Missouri’s $292 TANF monthly benefit for a single-parent family of three declined by almost a third between 1996 and 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Without spending increase, inflation will continue to erode the benefits’ value, leaving an expanding gap to be filled by non-cash benefits such as food stamps.

Tougher rules shrink welfare rolls

In early 2015, Missouri lawmakers passed a law that reduced to 45 months the length of time a family can obtain welfare benefits. The law went into effect in January. Only eight states have shorter lifetime limits than Missouri, with Connecticut setting the floor at 21 months. The others are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana and Kansas.

“This is one of the great myths about welfare,” Iveson said. “The reason why they did time limit was that there was a sense that people got on welfare and collected it forever. That has never been the case…The vast majority of people don’t get on it and stay on it forever…That’s not true before and after the change of law.”

More than 6,000 children living in needy households and about 3,000 needy families are expected to drop out of the program when the new bill takes effect, the Associated Press reported.

In addition to the change on time limit, the bill also strengthens the requirements for low-income parents to get job training, do volunteer work or complete vocational education. That means, before getting cash benefits, participants have to outline a personal responsibility plan. If they fail to engage in work within six weeks, their benefits will be cut by half.  If the problem is not fixed, they lose the entire assistance.

One side-effect of the new rule is that “several families in poverty aren’t reaching out anymore,” said Angela Hirsch, community services director at Central Missouri Community Action (CMCA), a non-profit running the Missouri Work Assistance program in eight counties in central Missouri.

“It’s just too much a hassle,” Iveson said.

A second chance, not a promise

Most job training or vocational education programs are short term, which are unlikely to prepare participants for middle-class jobs or make up for years of lack of basic education, Hirsch said.

“It’s hard to assess a participant’s career vision, because they have limited resources and live day to day in crises,” said Brooke Eskridge, community services program manager at CMCA. “We help them break down those walls, start dreaming and goal-planning in a different way, try to get them to think farther beyond the barrier right here.”

Getting out of TANF doesn’t mean those families are self-sufficient. For many of those families, life can still be fraught with challenges. Even those who do find jobs may not necessarily jump out of poverty immediately. Instead, they often work low-paying jobs.

“I don’t know if anybody gets a career out of MWA, but they do get a start towards a career in MWA,” Hirsch said. “I think it’s very effective at getting people a foot in the door of employment, and getting them their first job so that they have something to put on their resumes.”

Iveson said that the reform is unlikely to produce immediate results. “We can address this if we are willing to spend a lot of money on it and have some patience,” she said.

Latimer had a rocky childhood. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Latimer spent most of her childhood and teenage rootless. Since the time she was 5, Latimer has lived at more than a dozen of foster centers, at a teen shelter, with an adoptive family, and been homeless for almost two years. When she eventually moved back to Columbia at the age of 19, she found herself, unexpectedly, pregnant. Having been through a time of depression, she said she is glad to eventually turn to the right place.

“I’m not a greedy person,” she said. “This (work assistance) program has helped a lot.”

Now, five months pregnant with a second child, Latimer feels stressed about the future. She said she is never content with relying on government benefits. Her goal is to eventually stand on her own feet and open a hair center that provides childcare services for single-parent customers.

She is graduating next April. Starting out, she expects to work at a hair salon and earn enough to leave welfare behind.

“I want to be a provider,” she said. “Now, knowing that I’m able to work towards my dream and that dream can help me provide for my children without the assistance, I’m more relieved.”