Single, working mothers' agonizing choice Poverty on welfare or the struggle of a low-paying job.

March 31, 1992|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Milagros Reyes took her baby boy to the hospital for a hernia operation, but had to rush away a few hours after surgery to get back to work. Her 6-month-old son, bandaged and scared, was crying as she left, but she feared that a missed day might get her fired from her $7.79-an-hour factory job.

The same anxiety has also driven Ms. Reyes to ignore the advice of her baby's pediatrician who says she should quit her job. Her son, Juan Carlos, cared for by a series of poorly paid sitters, is severely underweight, the doctor told her. But Ms. Reyes feels she cannot afford to stop working.

"I have to pay the rent," she explained with a shrug.

As do a growing number of single women raising children alone, Ms. Reyes faces an agonizing choice between the dead-end certainty of poverty on welfare and the grinding struggle to not only survive but to get ahead in a low-paying job.

The number of single working mothers has grown dramatically in recent decades, from 2.1 million in 1971, to 4.4 million in 1981, to 5.8 million in 1991, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Two million of them had incomes of only $10,000 to $20,000 in 1990.

These women often cannot afford housing, health insurance or quality day care, and most of them get no child support from their children's fathers, say researchers and government statisticians.

"The system is totally stacked against single working moms," said David T. Ellwood, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It's very difficult for them to survive, and the only alternative is welfare. The current welfare system only helps women when they've failed and reduces the support for them as they move forward in the workplace."

Ms. Reyes, who came to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was 14 and has worked full time in the same garment factory in the 19 years since, feels that, despite the difficulties she has had finding decent child care for her son, welfare would lead her nowhere. "People take the money and don't do anything," she said.

This year, the federal government has modestly expanded a program to help low-income working families. Parents who make up to $21,000 will get as much as $2,020 back in an earned income tax credit. Some mothers interviewed recently said they were unaware that they were entitled to the credit. Others said it had slightly eased their pinched circumstances.

Working mothers living in New York City on the cusp of poverty --just above a sharp line drawn by the government that starts at $9,388 for a woman and one child -- say their path is treacherous because the high cost of housing often forces them to live in poor neighborhoods.

And they resent their status as invisible women, going unnoticed in neighborhoods most often portrayed as havens for crime, drugs and welfare dependency, rarely for workaday striving.

"They can tell you about the black man who raped and killed someone," said Deborah Barton, a teacher's assistant who supports her two daughters on $12,000 a year, "but you don't hear about the single black mothers doing positive things to survive."

Ms. Barton's 10-year-old daughter, Serina, influenced by a barrage of negative images of blacks, at one point wished she were white. Her mother was appalled. "That day, I almost lost my mind." Serina recalled, "I wanted long hair and money and a Ford Taurus."

For many of these women, working does not pay great dividends, at least in the short run. Ms. Barton has have about the same amount of money to spend as she would have if she were on welfare -- and even less when her expenses for transportation, clothing and child care are deducted. After taxes, she takes home about $10,000 a year. A family of three on welfare would get about about $9,300 in grants and food stamps, as well as free medical care through Medicaid.

Ms. Barton says working is worth it anyway. She loves her job. And she knows she must work and go to school on weekends to achieve her goal of becoming a full-fledged teacher.

Ms. Barton also dreams of a better life for her daughters. She spends $3,000 of her $12,000 income as a teacher's assistant on tuition so Serina and her younger sister, Stephanie, 7, can attend the private school where she works, St. Paul Community Christian School, in Brooklyn.

The school's fence is topped by concertina wire in an effort to keep the violence of East New York at bay, but inside its classrooms her daughters are learning and thriving. Serina wants to go to Spelman College, in Atlanta.

The family lives in a public housing project in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the rent is only $285 a month. The elevator reeks of urine, and gunfire erupts most nights. Ms. Barton has pulled the couch away from the windows so the girls will not get shot in the back of the head while they study or watch television.

They live so close to the financial edge that Ms. Barton cannot afford to go to the doctor, even though she has health insurance. Under the rules of her policy, she must have at least $100 in charges to file a claim, but she cannot afford to pay the money out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed.

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