Is There Life After Welfare?

Desperately seeking a new story on $5.50 an hour

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I am a single mother of two children, each with a different father. I am a hussy, a welfare rider -- burden to everyone and everything. I am anything you want me to be -- a faceless number who has no story.

My daughter's father has a job and makes over two grand a month; my son's father owns blue-chip stock in AT&T, Disney, and Campbell's. I call the welfare office, gather old bills, look for day care, write for my degree project, graduate with my son slung on my hip, breast-feeding.

At the welfare office they tell me to follow one of the caseworkers into a small room without windows. The caseworker hands me a packet and a pencil. There is an older woman with graying hair and polyester pants with the same pencil and packet. I glance at her, she looks at me, we are both ashamed. I try hard to fill out the packet correctly, answering all the questions. I am nervous. There are so many questions that near the end I start to get careless. I just want to leave. I hand the caseworker the packet in an envelope; she asks for my pencil, does not look at me. I exit unnoticed. For five years I've exited unnoticed. I can't imagine how to get a job. I ride the bus home.

After a few weeks a letter arrives assigning me to 'Group 3.' I don't even finish reading it. I put my son in his stroller and walk to the food shelf.

My grandmother calls later to tell me that I confuse sex with love. I tell her that I am getting a job. She asks what kind. I say, 'Any job.'

'Oh, Annie,' she says. 'Don't do that. You have a degree. Wait.'

I say, 'I can't, Gram, I've got to feed my kids, I have no one to fall back on.' She is silent. I grasp the cord. I know I cannot ask for help.

It is 5 a.m. My alarm wakes up my kids. I try nursing my son back to sleep, but my daughter keeps him up with her questions: 'Don't go out without telling me. Who's going to take care of us when you leave? What time is it?' I want to cry. It is still dark and I am exhausted. I've had three hours of sleep. I get ready for work, put some laundry in the washer, make breakfast, set out clothes for the kids, make lunches. I carry my son; my daughter follows. They cling to me. They cry when I leave. I see their faces pressed against the porch window and the sitter trying to get them inside.

I slice meat for $5.50 an hour for nine hours five days a week. I barely feed my kids, I barely pay the bills.

I struggle against welfare. I struggle against this faceless number I have become. I want my story. I want my life. But without welfare I would have nothing. On welfare I went from teen mom to woman with an education. I published two magazines, became an editor, a teacher. Welfare, along with Section 8 housing grants and Reach Up, gave my children a life. My daughter loves and does well in school. My son is round, and at 20 months speaks wondrous sentences about the moon and stars. Welfare gave me what was necessary to be a mother.

Still, I cannot claim it. There is too much shame in me. The disgusted looks in the grocery lines, the angry voices of Oprah panelists, the unmitigated rage of the blue and white collar. I never buy expensive ice cream in pints. I don't do drugs. I don't own a hot tub. But the voices won't be stilled.

I am one of 12 million who are 1 percent of the federal budget. I am one of the 26 percent of AFDC recipients who are mothers and the 36.6 percent who are white. I am one of the 68 percent of teen mothers who were sexually abused. I am $600 a month below the poverty level for a family of three. I am a hot political issue. I am 145-65-8563. Group 3.

I have brown hair and eyes. I write prose. My mother has been married and divorced twice. I have never been married. I love Pablo Neruda's poetry, Louise Gluck's essays. I love my stepfather but not my real father. My favorite book is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garc?a M?rquez. My favorite movie, The Color Purple.

I miss my son's father. I love jazz. I've always wanted to learn how to ballroom dance. I am not a number. I have a story, I have a life, I have a face.From the zine Hip Mama (Autumn 1997). Subscriptions: $12?20/yr. (4 issues), based on what subscribers can afford, from Box 9097, Oakland, CA 94613.

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