Real-Life Fairy Tale for Welfare Mom

When you are one of the "real people" being honored at a national political convention, you receive information on a need-to-know basis.

For example, 37-year-old Nancy Santana knows she is supposed to arrive at the Los Angeles Staples Center at 2 p.m. Monday for hair and make-up. At 5 p.m., she will be onstage at the Democratic Convention following a tribute video about her accomplishments. That's all she knows.

And she seems fine with that. Because Nancy's greatest accomplishment seems to be her ability to take life as it comes.

Four years ago, she was an unwed mother of three, living off public assistance in Philadelphia. The African-American woman first went on welfare when her oldest child was diagnosed with cranial synostosis, a condition that occurs when the bones in the skull fuse together too soon and put pressure on the brain. In those days, Santana’s janitorial job paid about $7,000 a year, not enough to cover her medical bills.

She eventually returned to work, but sought assistance again in 1994 when she became pregnant with her third child out of wedlock.

At the time, Nancy could have been a poster child for the push by the Republican-led Congress to reform welfare. And she admits that when President Clinton signed the resulting Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in August of 1996, she feared losing her benefits.

But she is living proof of the worn adage that what does not kill us makes us stronger.

Nancy signed up for a welfare-to-work program called Philadelphia Works and at the end of the 12-week training session, attained a janitorial contract with the city. As she attracted more clients, she hired people to help. The next thing she knew, she was running her own janitorial cleaning service with a staff of 25 employees and gross annual profits of $200,000. Not bad for a woman armed with only a high school GED.

Along the way, Nancy received financing in the form of a $1,500 loan from the owner of her apartment building and a $40,000 loan from the Philadelphia Empowerment Zone, a federally-funded program that provides capital for business incentives in urban areas. But it was her desire to be self-reliant that drove her to succeed.

"When you don't have any other choice ... you find a way," she said. "You are the only person you have."

"In the back of my mind I was nervous, but I knew this was a good incentive. I think (welfare reform) was the best thing that could have happened."

With an endorsement like that, shouldn't she have spoken at that other political2 convention two weeks ago in Philadelphia? Isn't she living proof of the conservative belief in removing the crutch of public assistance?

Not so fast, says Nancy.

While she is the first to admit the former welfare system was abused and could still stand some improvement, she insists the program is a necessity for some.

"I didn't have a child on drugs and I wa never on drugs," she says, "and some have emotional problems. I can't see just pushing people off welfare without looking at their individual circumstances."

About three-fourths of Santana's employees are welfare recipients and she has watched them falter when confronted with issues of childcare and transportation. She suggests that welfare-to-work training include courses on work ethics to better prepare welfare recipients for the transition to the workplace.

But that's not what Nancy is thinking about as she hurries off to get her hair and face done. She's thinking how nervous she is to appear before so many people.

And what if she is asked to speak? Nancy says she'll make do.

"(The Democrats) are allowing me to be me, to tell it like it was and like it is," she says. "It wasn't always easy. But at least there was something there for me to get to."