Little Help on Taxes Will Go a Long Way
By Margery Eagan
Boston Herald April 4th, 1999

Their stories were lost amid news of Gov. Paul Cellucci's plan to put a tax cut referendum on the ballot.

But some struggling working mothers, former welfare mothers, also testified before the taxation committee last week. They spoke about what the Legislatures passing of a so-called Family Tax Relief Plan could mean to their ability to pay the rents soaring all over Boston, plus the cost of adequate child care -- the real underpinning of any reasonable welfare reform.

Among them was Lawanda Durham, 27. In nine years she has moved from shelter guest to full-time shelter coordinator at Project. Hope, a Dorchester shelter offering housing to eight mothers and their children; day care, a food pantry, housing and job help.

In the 10th grade, pregnant with Eric, now 10, Durham dropped out of Boston High. Thus began the familiar odyssey: home to her own mother, then to a shelter, then to her own-apartment paid for by the state, along with child care for Eric so Durham could get her GED and job training.

Then, in an equally familiar odyssey, it was off to the $7.10-an-hour job as an underwriting clerk. It improved her office, skills and confidence, but Lawanda Durham could not support herself her son, even with tremendous family help free haircuts and toys baby outfits and bedroom sets and the all-important babysitting.

"When I couldn't t make it anymore I really felt depressed," Durham said this week in the Project Hope office, where she now oversees many shelter operations. "It was like oh God, I would have to go back on the system and, you know, if you tried to save any money (on welfare) it's impossible, and you can't have a car that exceeds X amount, and there s this stipulation and that stipulation and they ask you 50 million questions

"I didnt know what my grandmother maiden name was till I went on welfare. Now I know," she said. "Its Plant."

But Lawanda Durham got lucky. She found job at Project Hope that started. at $8.50 an hour. A quick pay raise to $9 enabled her to get off welfare while keeping her rent subsidy. Last year, when her income increased to $25,960, she lost that subsidy,. and her rent for a very small, very modest, first-floor Dorchester two-bedroom jumped from $430 to $719 a month. Her landlord, she said could get $825.

The reason the family-Tax Relief plan would help a Durham and others like her is this: At a time when housing costs are exploding. the legislation would double to $5,000 the rental deduction allowed under Proposition 2½. It, would increase the child-care deduction form $4,800 to $8,000, reflecting more realistically child-care costs (which amount to nearly 30 percent of monthly income, a study by the Womens Educational and Industrial Union found last fall)

Although Durham, now earning $30,000 is no longer eligible for the state earned-income tax credit, the family tax plan would triple, that 'credit and make; a significant difference to those earning just slightly less than she.

And while the legislation Is endorsed by numerous organizations, including the Associated Industries, of Massachusetts and Parents United for Childcare, Mary Lassen of the Womens Educational Union said yesterday, "its going to need a lot of people speaking up and pushing to get it through" -- to make sure it does not die, like so much other needed legislation, from neglect.

Said the Union's Laura Russell at the taxation hearings: in eight. years there have been $1.7 billion in tax cuts in Massachusetts. The: business climate has improved; many businesses are. thriving. 'But much less has been done for the working poor or the working and barely making it -- women alone or husbands and wives with low wages, higher and higher rents and astronomical child-care costs.

Lawanda Durham spoke this week about how "ashamed I was going into a store with food stamps." Then she joked, "Now I wish I had some." What she'd really like is enough saved .to put a down payment on a small two-family now being renovated down the street. from Project Hope. "It is my dream," she said, "and I am so close."

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