October 1, 1995 in Nation/World

Image Of Welfare Far From Reality

Diana Griego Erwin Mcclatchy New

Melodie Stevens was pouring milk over her 3-1/2-year-old son’s generic Cheerios Monday morning when she heard a welfare-reform story on the radio.

She pulled her thinning, beige robe tighter around her tall frame and leaned against the counter to listen. A chorus of voices with that intelligent, arrogant edge were each giving their spin on the subject.

One said the American people are tired of footing the bill “for irresponsibility.” Another fancied the term “welfare queens.” Yet another carried on about people using food stamps to buy liquor and cigarettes.

At that moment, her son’s faded red tennis shoes caught her eye. The right toe is threadbare on one shoe, but she found the faded Keds quite the deal when she bought them at a thrift store for 75 cents some months ago.

“I started to get mad - something about seeing that little worn-out shoe,” said Stevens, 26. “Here they were talking about welfare mothers this, welfare queens that, get these lazy women off their butts, and I wondered, ‘Hey, what about the fathers here?’ I wouldn’t be in this mess if (her ex) took some responsibility. … Besides what do (they) know about my world? Have they ever worn used shoes?”

So there at the counter she began hatching a plan. She picked up her boy and held him in her arms, swaying back and forth slightly, and thought about it. Putting on her mascara later in the chipped bathroom mirror, she thought about it some more. She dressed for the day in thrift-store blue jeans and a men’s T-shirt, and thought about it again.

All day long, she thought. And what she decided was to head down to the state capitol and tell it like it is. “Give those representatives a dose of my reality,” she said. Yes, that’s what she’d do.

I do not know what Stevens planned to tell those representatives, but I wanted to go with her and listen. State lawmakers don’t boss their federal counterparts around, and right now the welfare debate is at the federal level.

But if they took the time to know her, the legislators might learn something of welfare. They would learn that Stevens is more like the average mother receiving aid than the stereotypical image of the “welfare queen.” While they do exist, recipients who freeload off the taxpayers, have scads of children and laugh while popping bonbons in their mouths are more a product of our angry cynicism than a picture of reality.

The reality is this:

Most women supporting children on AFDC have been deserted, divorced, abused, have lost jobs or are unable to collect child support.

The ratio of children born to women on welfare to those born to non-welfare women is 1:1. Only one in 10 single-parent families receiving AFDC have more than three children.

Political opportunists blame welfare for rising out-of-wedlock births, but that doesn’t explain why non-welfare illegitimate births also are rising. Twothirds of unwed mothers are not poor. Illegitimacy is occurring at all socio-economic levels.

Forcing mothers from welfare to work disregards the fact that 9 million of AFDC’s 14 million recipients are children and two-thirds of AFDC families include a child 4 or younger. The family-values corps advocates sending young mothers out into low-paid jobs that don’t cover rent AND child-care costs.

We hear a lot about teen mothers, but the increase of babies born to them is less than the increase among unmarried mothers in every other age category.

Stevens was not armed with any of these statistics as she started up the capitol steps with a determined look on her face, wearing a flowered polyester-blend dress and matching spring-green flats, her son perched on one hip. All she had was her anger and her pride.

But as she walked through the heavy front doors, the determination slid off her face. She walked through the rotunda where her son looked up, gasped and proclaimed in a small voice, “Wow.”

Bright young men fresh out of college hurried past, but she was a ghost to them. Down a long hallway, she paused outside massive doors where gold letters announced the occupant: GOVERNOR.

She looked for state Senator Leroy Greene’s name on the directory because that was the only name she knew. Outside his door, which bears a curious image of the grinning senator welcoming visitors in, she decided to swing by the restroom first. From there, she went downstairs. Couldn’t do it. She’d lost her nerve. “People don’t understand how sometimes you’re caught until they’re caught themselves,” she said.

I wished she had tried, but she didn’t know how. I watched from a window as she left the building. She limped a little, favoring her right side. Those green shoes, bright and sunny, never were quite right.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service

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