Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino

Zucchino is a journalist who in this extremely well-written book sets out to explode the stereotype of the welfare queen that Ronald Reagan promulgated to persuade the public that all welfare recipients were cheating the system and driving around in gold Cadillacs collecting checks to which they were not entitled.

This was also the motive that drove me to write a memoir of my time on welfare, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. I closed it with an epigraph from George Herbert: “Poverty is no sin.” I wrote not just about myself, but also about many of the other people I knew. The Writer's Almanac recently had a quote from Frank Capra: “I wanted to glorify the average man, not the guy at the top, not the politician, not the banker, just the ordinary guy whose strength I admire, whose survivability I admire.” I, too, admired the strength and survivability of the people around me who were bravely trying to get out of poverty despite overwhelming odds.

I also wanted to show that we were just parents and, like any other parent, only trying to do the best for our children. Zucchino does this as well by focusing his story on two Philadelphia women: Odessa Williams and Cheri Honkala. Despite ill health Odessa is the bulwark of her large extended family, the person everyone turns to for help. After taking in some of her grandchildren, she was forced to go back on welfare after many years of supporting herself and her family. Cheri is a activist for the homeless. She herself is able to rent a place for her son and herself out of her welfare check, but is dedicated to finding new ways to shame the city into providing help for the city's most vulnerable citizens.

Although the story takes place 15 years after I went off of welfare, there is much that I recognise. Odessa's daughter Elaine has tried repeatedly to get the training that would give her the credentials necessary to securing a job. When her latest training program is cancelled due to budget cuts the day before it is due to start, she says: “‘Seems like just when I start to rise up, . . . something comes along and—bam!—it knocks me back down.'”

When Odessa tells her grandson's therapist that she sometimes feels like giving up, the woman reminds her of what a good job she is doing of caring for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She says, “‘There's something good inside you—a big heart.'”

Rebecca's kind words had warmed her. It occurred to her that what she needed was acknowledgment, from someone in the world beyond Allegheny Avenue, of her deprivations and sacrifices. She did not expect it from her family; she took care of them because she loved them and because it was her duty. But to receive such reassurance from an outsider afforded her a sort of absolution for all her dark thoughts about abandoning her responsibilities.

This incident reminded me of how important my contacts with the world outside of other welfare moms were to me in my struggle to get out of poverty.

Cheri starts a tent city on the city of a former lace factory that has been burned and bulldozed. As winter falls she moves them into an abandoned church. We get to know several of the homeless folks, particularly two women with young children. Cheri's outrage reminds me of my own, especially when she is given some posters about corporate welfare, with photos of men from Disney, McDonald's and Lockheed Martin and the taxpayer money, ranging from $300,000 to $850 million, they received. “Below each man's photo were two paragraphs pointing out that AFDC accounted for less than 1 percent of the federal budget. The $14.4 billion spent on all social welfare programs in 1994, the message said, was dwarfed by the $104.3 billion spent on corporate welfare.” I especially liked the other message on the poster, which expresses a point I've often tried to make:

Everyone who drives on a toll-free highway, attends a public school or university, deducts mortgage interest payments from their income tax, or enjoys a national park is getting the equivalent of welfare from the federal government. In one way or another, we are all welfare recipients.

The truly sad part of the book is that Zucchino's portrait of the two women is just before Clinton signed the welfare reform act in 1996 that effectively removed the safety net; it “revoked the federal guarantee of welfare cash to low-income families with dependent children.” So as hard as the lives are of those portrayed in this book, we know they are about to get a lot harder.

It is almost impossible, unless you are a highly paid professional or a trust fund baby, for a single parent to make enough money to pay for even the barest living expenses plus child care. The way this country has turned its back on its children continues to shock me. Investing in our children is investing in the country's future.

What book have you read that helped you understand another way of life?

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