Walk a Mile in Your Sister's Shoes: The Realities of Life on Welfare

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I truly believe if the press, the policy makers, and the public would walk in the shoes of the poor, our conversations and headlines would be very different today.

--Jean Soliz, former Secretary of the Washington
State Department of Social and Health Services

Can you understand other people without first walking in their shoes? A group of UW researchers believes you cannot, and they have designed a program based on that concept to help lawmakers understand the ramifications of welfare reform.

The program gives lawmakers first-hand experience with the welfare system. It has drawn the attention of the national media and has become a model for similar programs around the country.

A cover story in USA Todayfootnote 1 describes how the program is giving legislators the chance to see for themselves what it's like to live on welfare. Founded in 1994 by Natasha Grossman of the UW's Northwest Institute for Children and Families and the UW School of Social Work, the program pairs a legislator or other policymaker with a welfare recipient for a one-month period. During the month, the partners agree to speak weekly by telephone and participate in two activities together. One activity relates to the welfare recipient's life: going to the welfare office, to the food bank or to the grocery store, for example. The other activity is selected from the policymaker's life: attending a committee meeting, community forum, or hearing. Furthermore, policymakers are asked to feed their families on a food stamp budget for the month.

Officeholders from Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have participated in the experience, discovering for themselves the challenges of trying to subsist on a food stamp budget. Funding from the Arnie E. Casey Foundation has been provided to replicate the program in six more states during fall 1997. North Carolina was funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to conduct a Walk A Mile project during 1997.

I have never experienced the anxiety of thinking I had no food to eat, or fear of going hungry, until this past week.

--Washington State Representative Julia Patterson,
Walk A Mile Participant

The project is funded in six states by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; in Nebraska, it is supported by a grant from the Woods Charitable Fund Inc.

"Many policy makers have not seen the welfare system from the perspective of the recipient and most recipients have not been a part of the legislative process," says Grossman.

With the passage of welfare reform, policymakers have been struggling to understand what reforms will mean, both for the system and the people in it. The Walk a Mile program provides an educational experience that can help politicians on both sides of the aisle to learn from those who will be most affected by their decisions.

Since the project's inception, over 300 policymakers, including members of both parties in city councils, in state legislatures, and in the U.S. Congress, have participated in the program.

  1. "Lawmaker learns welfare isn't a windfall for poor," USA Today, Dec. 3, 1996.
  2. "State officials volunteering for close-up view of poverty," The Seattle Times, Nov. 21, 1994.
  3. "Putting a human face on welfare reform: Program links state lawmakers with recipients," The Seattle Times, Dec. 23, 1994.

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