Kordell Richardson's mother, a devout Baptist, taught her children never to accept a handout. But when Richardson separated from her husband more than 20 years ago she faced a dilemma. She suffered from asthma, had two young girls at home, and a third was on the way.

A neighbor encouraged Richardson, of Battle Creek, Michigan, to apply for welfare assistance, and she began receiving a monthly stipend through Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). "They helped me all right—they helped me get in such a big mess," Richardson recalls.

"There was nothing else I could do at that time," she says. "I was pregnant, I couldn't work."

From the start, Richardson says she strived to become self-sufficient. She found a babysitter for her girls and took piecemeal jobs. "Every time I would make a little money, thinking I could safely get off welfare, I got dragged back into it." Richardson tried numerous government-conceived strategies to wean her family from public aid. "It was a dead-end situation," she says. "They always had some program, but it didn't last long enough for you to really benefit, or it closed down."

In 1995, Richardson moved to Lansing, Michigan, where she qualified to rent an apartment at a government-subsidized rate of $8 a month. Her Section 8 caseworker, Mary Ann Harkema, directed the local affiliate of Love in the Name of Christ (Love INC), a community clearinghouse of area churches that links laypeople with neighbors in need.

Harkema encouraged Richardson to obtain work experience through volunteer opportunities. Eventually Richardson landed a paying job, but she told Harkema, "I'll go crazy 'cause I'm going to have some money now, and I'm going to spend, spend, spend." Harkema introduced Richardson to ...

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