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Now leader speaks 'from the heart' on welfare

January 06, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

When women's rights activist Beverly Kipe speaks about welfare reform and the troubles abused women face, she's not just reading from the National Organization for Women handbook - she's lived it.

Kipe, who took the helm of the Washington County chapter of NOW in May, spent years struggling to get out of a broken marriage and clear the barriers to economic independence. She said she returned to Washington County nearly 12 years ago without a husband, a job or a high school degree.

Kipe, who now lives in Ringgold northeast of Hagerstown with her three children, left home with her boyfriend when she was 18. She said she married him six months later and then spent several years living out of a bus as they went from place to place. But when the marriage broke down she had three children and little education or skills.

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"I suffered from what I call the `Cinderella Syndrome,'" she said. "I really though I would get married and live happily ever after."

But when that did not happen, Kipe said she worked hard to put her life back together again. She lived briefly with her parents before moving to her own place. Living on welfare, she got her GED, then her college degree and left the welfare rolls for good.

On paper, she is the kind of success story that state and federal legislators hope to create with recent reforms. But Kipe said she succeeded precisely because there was a safety net to catch her when she was most vulnerable.

With legislation signed by President Clinton last summer, Kipe said she is not sure that same help would be there for her today.

"It's going to have devastating effects on women - and children," she said. "That's the biggest thing that people tend to forget about."

Linda Smith, vice president of the county NOW chapter, said Kipe's presidency is particularly relevant for the times.

"It seemed that it was so timely because welfare reform is such a big issue for the National Organization for Women," she said. "She can speak to those issues very clearly and from the heart because she knows what she's talking about."

Kipe said she rose quickly, but added that a supportive family - and help from the government - made it possible.

After earning her GED, Kipe went to Hagerstown Junior College. Kipe went to Hood College on a scholarship after HJC. She graduated sum cum laude from Hood and landed a job as a budget analyst with the Energy Department, where she still works.

In addition to the National Organization for Women, Kipe served two years as president of the Community Action Council and two years as vice president of the board of the Department of Social Services. She is the first former client serve on the agency's board.

While she was going to school, Kipe got help from welfare. Without housing subsidies, she said she would not have been able to provide a home for her children. Without Aid to Families with Dependent Children, she said she would not have been able to go to school.

Now the AFDC program has been reorganized as Temporary Cash Assistance. Kipe said it gives money only to women who are working, not going to school.

Kipe said she realizes the current political climate probably prohibits drastic changes to the new laws. But she said she will push hard to educate the public about the downside of welfare reform. The first step, she said, is convincing people that the poor are not down and out by choice.

"It's so easy to look at the poor and blame them for being poor," she said.

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