Is There Life After Welfare?

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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