In the apartment Jasmine Huggins shares with her fiancé and 7-year-old daughter, a wedding dress hangs in a plastic sheath, unworn, in the hallway.

The wedding was postponed last year when Huggins was fired from a call center after hanging up on a customer she said swore at her.

For months, the apartment had no hot water because the family couldn't afford the gas bill on one paycheck of $9 an hour.

"We don't make enough money to put enough food in the refrigerator," says Huggins, a mother of three who has taken out loans to attend culinary classes at The Art Institute of Tucson. "I'd rather have more food in the refrigerator than a hot shower."

With an income well below the poverty line, the family is one of a growing number of Tucson households with children that receives no direct government income or nutritional assistance despite being theoretically eligible for it.

One obstacle, Huggins says, is that she cannot afford to pay $50 for a copy of her California birth certificate, a requirement for government help.

Her fiancé, a landscaper, would have to submit income information online or take the day off work to wait in line for an appointment at the Department of Economic Security.

They can't afford the lost income that comes with a day off, even if it would mean a boost later.

Thousands of poor children do not receive income supports. The most recent Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that 20,000 Pima County kids live in households with incomes of less than half of the poverty level. Yet only 4,000 were receiving cash assistance as recently as May.

A net without a bottom

Since the campaign to "end welfare as we know it" began in the mid-1990s, many states have seen plunging cash-assistance caseloads.

Arizona's drop-off has been the steepest. Since mid-2010, its rolls have been halved.

Many longtime welfare recipients left the rolls for paid work. But Arizona is also among the states that most shrunk its candidate pool by increasing the stringency of requirements during the recession.

The changes affected the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable, primarily single mothers with young children.

In 2011, fewer than 1 in 7 Arizona children living in poverty received cash assistance. Before welfare reform, it was more than half, and as recently as 2007, the ratio was 1 in 4.

At the same time, the pool of Pima County families with extremely low incomes has been growing. From 2009 to 2011, the number living in extreme poverty - with household incomes of less than half the poverty level - nearly doubled. One in 10 Tucson families was extremely poor in 2011. For a family of three, that was a maximum income of $8,958 a year.

Paying for the net

Before welfare-to-work reform, cash assistance was an entitlement, with no enrollment or funding caps.

Afterward, the federal government - which funds welfare - fixed the amount it gave each state but gave them more leeway to decide how it was spent.

In the early years, Arizona expanded job training and support programs, and began to refurbish vehicles for poor families to get to work. But more recently, officials diverted money intended for cash assistance and job training to plug other budget holes.

As the number of children in foster care due to abuse or neglect doubled since 2000, more was diverted to Child Protective Services. Federal block-grant funding now makes up about 60 percent of CPS' budget, analysis from the Arizona Children's Action Alliance shows. Only one-third of the grant money goes to cash assistance and work supports.

The total amount of grant-block money is also on the decline. In June 2011, Congress ended the supplemental grants Arizona and other fast-growing states had received to bolster safety-net programs. That cost the state $24 million a year.

Its Temporary Aid for Needy Families grants dropped from more than $350 million in fiscal year 2002 to an anticipated $200 million in fiscal 2014.

In contrast, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, expanded dramatically during the recession and its aftermath. That program was not switched to a fixed annual grant, though it's now being discussed.

About 1 in 6 Pima County residents receives food stamps. Even more people are eligible but either can't handle, or aren't willing, to navigate the application process.

A new class of forsaken

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution helped draft the welfare reform law. Overall, he says, the changes worked well.

But Haskins and other researchers point out that despite a better set of incentives, there is still a big problem at the bottom.

Studies from the Urban Institute show that, at any point after leaving cash assistance rolls, between one-third and one-half of mothers have no work income.

"When you put mandatory requirements to try to require people to engage in certain activities, there are some people who are unable to fulfill those," says Pamela Loprest, an Urban Institute researcher and labor economist. "That has the unintended consequence of some people being kicked off the rolls."

Yvette Lara, 21, is one of those people. She received cash assistance until a paperwork mix-up last year. When she lost the grant, she was also kicked off the waiting list for a child-care subsidy for her 5-year-old son.

Lara works 16 hours every two weeks as a caregiver. It's the only job she can get, she says, because she's pregnant. Her second child is due in October.

Lara's boyfriend had a job cleaning construction sites. But when the company stopped paying its workers a month ago, he quit, leaving the family with an income largely of food stamps. The three live with Lara's father and his girlfriend and pay no rent.

The transformation project

The director of Arizona's Department of Economic Security, Clarence Carter, has a grand vision to help people reach their highest level of functioning and ultimately reduce dependency on government.

"We don't create a path toward self-sufficiency," he says. "Individuals who are trying to take steps forward have the rug pulled out from under them long before they're able to stand on their own."

Right now, a program is judged to be effective if it gets a benefit to a person entitled to it on time and in the right amount. "What we measure is inputs. We don't measure outputs or outcomes," Carter says.

But to measure how well people stack up to their potential is infinitely more complicated.

Wendy Pride, an Arizona State University researcher, has been reviewing studies on poverty outcomes. The metrics she recommends, to be set by the end of the year, will include physical and mental health and insurance; employment and income; education; nutrition; housing and homelessness; safety; transportation; social connections; children; and legal status.

People whose food stamps are up for renewal beginning this fall will learn about the project, and 1,000 will be allowed to opt in.

"It doesn't matter how good our system is if the person is not a 50-50 partner in growing their capacity," Carter says.

The reform debate is also happening at the federal level. Cash assistance is getting special scrutiny now, a month before a reauthorization vote.

It's unclear so far how the proposed changes will affect the very poorest Arizonans, who are generally least able to meet program requirements.

Carter envisions a safety net serving people in three tiers: those ready to be moved into jobs that relieve their dependency, those who can be prepared to move into that position and those who need continuous assistance.

He suggests the Legislature will have to resolve policy questions about the bottom group, who will likely face lifetime benefit cutoffs. "That's above my pay grade," he says.

The response

The transformation project has received cautious support from advocates for children and the poor.

"Arizona will be more successful and more prosperous if we are able to weave together a safety net with various services to keep families out of crisis," says Dana Naimark, executive director of the state's Children's Action Alliance. "Crisis is traumatic and expensive."

Patti Caldwell, executive director of Our Family Services, is less optimistic. "Not only are we not providing a good safety net for the poorest of the poor, but we're not helping bridge the gap," she says.

Caldwell likes the idea of increased work supports but is skeptical whether DES can pull off its director's vision because of its recent problems funding existing contracts for poverty-related services.

Loprest, of the Urban Institute, also supports a holistic approach, but she worries that attaching stipulations to receiving food stamps could disqualify some of the poorest families. About half of those families receive food stamps, and many have no other income.

The Open Table

Carter's vision of "wraparound" services includes a partnership with faith communities.

"We believe that a good life-sustaining job is the principal route to a person being able to stand on their own without state supports," he says. "Government is not the only answer. It's not even the primary answer."

Carter has suggested referring people to The Open Table, a Phoenix nonprofit with a model intended for religious congregations to help people get out of poverty.

The model is already used in 47 cities, including Tucson, says Judith Fritsch, who handles the group's communications.

The idea is that instead of giving a blanket or a can of soup to a poor family, community members draw on their experiences and personal networks to help people find their own way.

For example, table members might call their dentist to ask about free or discounted care for a participant.

About 10 to 12 people usually serve on a table, which functions as a board of directors that meets once a week for one year to talk about everything from job searching to child care. Participants serve as the CEO, with veto power.

While table members often see their work as an urban mission, it is against the group's rules to proselytize.

The nonprofit is about to launch a faith community recruitment effort. Pantano Christian Church is so far the only Tucson house of worship participating.

Government the answer?

Reducing government reliance is the state's goal, but there's no guarantee that will lift incomes of the poorest Arizonans.

Lane Kenworthy, a University of Arizona sociologist, recently studied the incomes of people in the bottom 10 percent.

"In virtually all rich countries since the 1970s, when incomes went up at the bottom of the distribution, it's virtually all because government benefits went up," he says. "Skills and education are important, but even in countries with free college, good early-childhood education and better pay for teachers, you still have a segment of the economy with people who have trouble getting jobs."

Cities, in particular, attract that group, and Tucson is among those struggling, partly because of its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, Kenworthy says.

He cautions against viewing poverty purely as a matter of income. Quality of life in the U.S. has risen in recent decades even if wages at the bottom haven't.

Those improvements came in the form of reduced crime and better access to health care, among other things. Further non-income improvements could include expanded access to affordable child care, he says. "That doesn't put money in their pocket, but it does improve their lives."

Finding a way

At 33, Huggins, the culinary student, is proud of the progress she has made.

She escaped life in a tent, drugs and physical abuse. Her eldest daughter, whom she left with her mother 14 years ago, can now visit.

"I used to steal and lie and manipulate people," she says. "I feel like a better person now."

Huggins is reconsidering finding a way to get a copy of her birth certificate so she can get food stamps. She wants to provide healthful food for her daughter, she says.

She feels closer to her dream of owning a food truck and may soon start a part-time job brokered by her school.

Her wedding has been rescheduled for April.

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at or 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau