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'I would love to say I could work again. But I'm not going to lie to myself. Things are going to get worse for me,' said Colleen Fitzgerald, with her son, Larry Collins, in her Everett home. Health problems, including a benign tumor, have sidelined Fitzgerald for the past four years.
"I would love to say I could work again. But I'm not going to lie to myself. Things are going to get worse for me," said Colleen Fitzgerald, with her son, Larry Collins, in her Everett home. Health problems, including a benign tumor, have sidelined Fitzgerald for the past four years. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)

For some, fear over welfare changes

Disabled parents worry they won't be able to meet new work requirements

Colleen Fitzgerald said she has never liked accepting government handouts. When her daughter was born 16 years ago, she spent a year on welfare, but soon took a full-time job as an aide for the mentally ill that paid about $3,000 a month. She knows the financial -- and emotional -- boost that paychecks bring.

But when doctors discovered four years ago that she had a brain tumor, and she later developed throbbing back and leg pain, Fitzgerald again sought and got state help. She still feels too weak to work.

Now, as Governor Mitt Romney proposes overhauls to the Massachusetts welfare system to increase the number of recipients who are employed, Fitzgerald is worried she will have to find a job by the fall.

''I would love to say I could work again," said Fitzgerald, 36, in her Everett apartment, where she lives with her daughter and 2-year-old son. ''But I'm not going to lie to myself. Things are going to get worse for me. It's just my luck."

As state officials scramble this year to redraft Massachusetts welfare laws, one of the most vexing problems they face is what to do about the 5,600 parents like Fitzgerald, who say they are too physically or emotionally disabled to find a job.

Until now, Massachusetts has given benefits to such parents for an unlimited time, as long as they proved that their infirmities persisted. But this program may be abandoned by October, when the state is forced to comply with federal rules that require that one out of every two welfare recipients meet work requirements -- or risk losing federal grant money.

John Wagner, commissioner of the state Department of Transitional Assistance, said roughly $40 million in federal aid each year is at stake if Massachusetts does not show that half of its welfare recipients are working or undergoing training toward employment. Currently, only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the state's welfare recipients are considered to be engaged in work activities, based on the federal definition, Wagner said.

''We have to get with the national program," Wagner said.

For the past decade, Massachusetts did not have to worry about financial penalties because its welfare system, which was overhauled in the early 1990s, operated under a 10-year waiver of federal rules. That waiver expires this fall, prompting Romney to say the state must initiate overhauls to help more welfare recipients, including the disabled, to return to work.

''We have an obligation to help them maximize their self-sufficiency," Wagner said, noting that the state has cut its welfare rolls by more than half, from about 110,000 families a decade ago to roughly 48,000 today.

Wagner said that many severely disabled parents will be protected because they generally qualify for federal Social Security benefits, which are higher than state welfare payments. Children of these parents can continue to receive welfare benefits.

Advocates for the poor say that reduced work requirements -- such as 10 hours a week -- may be too demanding for many parents beset by physical or emotional problems. They fear that disabled parents, unable to work, may end up with no government assistance.

''This will result in severe harm to those families," said Deborah Harris, staff attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute in Boston, who has spoken out against the governor's proposal.

She recommended instead that the state conduct detailed reviews of disabled welfare recipients to ensure they are doing everything in their power to return to work, and that the state is doing its part to provide training and child-care services.

She suggested that those who cannot work -- and do not qualify for federal disability checks under Social Security -- should be able to enroll in a new state-funded disability welfare program. Participants, she said, would not be considered part of the general welfare pool expected to work, and therefore would not jeopardize Massachusetts funding, Harris said.

As lawmakers rethink how to help the state's disabled welfare recipients, a 56-year-old Revere mother said she worries that people with psychological disabilities such as hers, which are not obvious at first glance, may be the first to face stricter work requirements. Four years ago, she began suffering from panic attacks and severe depression after experiencing several family traumas.

''Everything that's wrong with me is inside," said the woman, who lives with her 14-year-old child in a homeless shelter. She asked that her name be withheld from print to protect the family's privacy.

The woman, who spent much of her adulthood working as an accounting clerk, said she does not know how she would be able to find a job -- let alone keep one -- when her mental state is in such flux.

''I have to lie down when I have a panic attack," she said. ''How many jobs will let you do that?"

As she watches over her toddler in her Everett apartment, Fitzgerald said she understands the state's emphasis on self-sufficiency for welfare recipients, but said that many parents need more time to return to normal life.

In the spring of 2001, she was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor the size of a golf ball. She had surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital to remove it, but her health problems did not end there. She began developing mysterious lumps in her body, which doctors are evaluating, as well as rheumatoid arthritis, a protruding disc in her back, and an ovarian cyst.

In 2002, she gave birth to her son, Larry Collins, and the boy's father has since left her life. She said her benefits did not increase after Larry's birth, due to the state's ''family cap" rule that does not award more benefits for additional children.

Fitzgerald said she cannot imagine how she will get by if she loses her welfare benefits. The $490 a month barely covers her rent, phone, laundry, and medication. Every month, she relies on some help from her sister because, she said, ''I always come up short."

Fitzgerald said she has applied for federal Social Security benefits, which would give her about $600 a month, but she has been told she may have to wait a year to hear if she qualifies.

Meanwhile, doctors say her brain tumor appears to have returned, and she may need another surgery soon. The worries about her health are constant.

''I can't remember the last time I had a full night's sleep," she said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.


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