If we are to end 'welfare as we know it,' first we must know it as poor families do

January 30, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

IN HIS State of the Union speech last week, President Clinton repeated his promise to end welfare as we know it. I hope he is successful, because welfare as I know it is a dreadful life for any family.

I don't know welfare firsthand. I don't even know it secondhand. My friends and family have managed to keep their heads above water in this shrinking economy, though we all know that we are one corporate downsizing away from disaster.

But I live in a city and my children go to school with children whose families are on welfare or who live in subsidized housing. Most of what I know about such poverty I have learned as only a spectator, but what I see is depressing beyond words.

I listen to politicians, and even some of my well-meaning friends, talk about these families as if they were comfortable and content at the expense of the rest of us, as if someone would connive and maneuver to live the kind of life welfare families live.

And I have often thought about these politicians and my well-meaning friends and how long they would last on welfare, in poverty. How long they would continue to be hopeful and optimistic. How long it would be before their spirits were crushed. I know I would not last 10 minutes.

Just the logistics of poverty would defeat me and, quite frankly, it would defeat most of the men and women I know.

Imagine if you did not have a checking account because you could not afford all the banking fees and so every time you cashed a check, someone took a piece of it for their trouble. That would also mean that you had to pay all of your bills in cash, and that would mean, of course, that you had to travel to the store or utility to do so.

Then imagine that you did not have a car. Not just for a day while it is being tuned, but forever.

No car means grocery shopping is even more of a hassle. No car means sick children in the middle of a school day or trips to the emergency room are even more frightening. No car means after-school activities for your kids or volunteering in the classroom or night meetings or band concerts at school are beyond even an honest effort.

Now put no car together with no washer or dryer and see what kind of mood you are in.

How about unresponsive landlords? Or suspicious social workers? Or slow-moving bureaucrats? What if these are the people with whom you must negotiate daily?

What if they would not deliver pizza to your neighborhood? What if you had no phone to call them in any case because you did not have the cash for the large security deposit the phone company requires?

This is just the minor stuff, the annoying logistics of poverty There are other things about welfare that I hope never to know.

My husband works so late so often that I have said to him that when he is not part of the solution, he is part of the problem. What if he never came home at all?

No paycheck. No dad to coach my daughter or to teach my son to draw and paint. No one to take over the role of taskmaster when I am weary. No shoulder on which to spill my tears.

How would I feel if the same people who praise a middle-class woman for staying home to raise her children considered me lazy and irresponsible when I did?

For welfare families, there is often no money for such basics as food or medical attention. What if there was no money for the extras that families such as mine take for granted? For dance lessons, soccer camps or Christmas?

What if my children chose to go hungry at school rather than accept the free lunch that would identify them to all their friends as poor?

Worse by far: What if the world had already given up on my children? Doomed my son to drugs and crime, my daughter to early pregnancy and single- motherhood. What if people crossed the street when they saw my son coming instead of stopping me to tell me what a beautiful child he is?

And what if the Republican Congress had its way and ordered me to work but did not provide me with medical insurance? How would I pay for my son's asthma medicine without the coverage I had when I was jobless and on welfare?

What if the Republican Congress had its way and ordered me to work but did not provide any money for decent child care so that I spent my 3-to-11 p.m. shift worrying about my kids, home alone or with someone I could not trust?

What if I could not convince my children that four years of college and thousands of dollars in student loans was the right path, and the easy, dangerous money of the streets was not?

And what if I had no hope to make all my children's dreams come true, from video games and American Girl dolls to art school or graduate school?

What if teachers or shopkeepers or neighbors or social workers or the politicians in Washington looked at my children and simply assumed that I did not love them the way they love their children? That I was an inattentive or undisciplined parent, that I had no values to teach them, no control over their behavior, no care for their future.

I hope President Clinton and the Republican Congress can find some way to end welfare as I know it. I know little enough. I am sure the women who live this life could paint a more detailed and unpleasant picture.

How can the politicians and my well-meaning friends believe that any woman would choose this life for her children? How can they judge and argue and stubbornly refuse to help her?

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