Cliff Effect: Rachel Contizano

Rachel Contizano, a Denver native, moved to New York and finished community college there with highest distinction. She was employed by an apparel manufacturer, living independently in New York City, just as she wanted.

Then she went on maternity leave before Christmas in 2009 and was soon notified that her job had been eliminated. She applied for unemployment benefits and received them for the full 99 weeks allowed, her job search fruitless month after month.

“I got up the courage that I needed to move back home,” she said of those dark days. “It was just getting too difficult to survive.”

Surviving didn’t turn out to be a picnic back in Colorado, even though her family helped. As she began to apply for work support benefits for herself and her son, Kingston, to try to get back on her feet, she encountered what she described as a very difficult process with Denver Human Services.

Denver City Council member Robin Kneich, left, and Denver Welfare Reform Board chair Fran Coleman talk to fellow board member Rachel Contizano after a meeting in Denver on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Contizano, a single mother who lost her job in 2009, receives work support and public assistance. She was named to the board after her own struggles with navigating the social services system.

Joe Mahoney / The I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS

Denver City Council member Robin Kneich, left, and Denver Welfare Reform Board chair Fran Coleman talk to fellow board member Rachel Contizano after a meeting in Denver on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Contizano, a single mother who lost her job in 2009, receives work support and public assistance. She was named to the board after her own struggles with navigating the social services system.

“I did everything I was supposed to do. I followed all the rules,” she said. “If I did what I was responsible for, then they were responsible to help me. And that wasn’t the case.”

She determined that she needed to learn more about advocating for herself.

Her eventual mastery of work support benefit rules led to her appointment to the Denver Welfare Reform Board. She was named a “Woman to Watch” by the League of Women Voters. She just graduated magna cum laude from the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver with a degree in business administration.

Now 32, she wants a career in public policy to help others. She dreams of running for public office.

But first there is a matter of finding a job. She has calculated she needs to earn about $43,000 to make up for the loss of food stamps, child care assistance for her son, now four, Medicaid and rental subsidies she receives. Even for all of her accomplishments, avoiding the cliff effect is daunting.

“It’s very hard to find a job in 30 days, something that is going to keep my head above water,” she said. “So that is something I’m really struggling with right now and that is really scary.”

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