Hope and Strife in Arkansas
A single mother struggling to better herself is a window on the plight of the `working poor'
DRIVING out of the Arkansas state capital to Yolonda Bluford's house in Jacksonville, it's easy to see the problems Gov. Bill Clinton has faced. "This place is full of poor folks," says Ms. Bluford, steering her old American sedan.Skip to next paragraph
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Bluford drives into Little Rock every day to work as a hotel housekeeper. She takes the scenic route. For miles, the landscape is remarkably unchanged. Throughout Central Arkansas, it's much the same: liquor stores, auto-repair lots, thrift and pawn shops, wholesale outlets, discount grocers. All of them take food stamps or credit, she says. "That's all people can afford."
Front lawns are littered with discarded appliances, broken toilets, old clothing. "People will set up all their own junk in front of their own house," she says, shaking her head and laughing. "They're just trying to sell whatever they can to each other."
Putting in a steady 40-hour week, Bluford earns about $7,200 a year, with no benefits and no way to pay for health insurance. She earns too much to qualify for housing assistance. She is a young woman, a single mother, a member of the much-discussed "working poor" class, and she struggles to raise her child in an environment dominated by the welfare system, crime, and drugs.
Will she vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election? Bluford smiles. "Oh, yes," she says. "A lot of what they're talkin' about seems to be about folks like me."
If there is one campaign issue that gets her worked up, it's the great debate about "family values." "I don't like the way Dan Quayle lashed out at [TV-sitcom character] Murphy Brown. You don't have to be married to have a good family," she says. "And I know plenty of wives who, because of `family values,' stay with their husbands and wind up abused or dead."
Plenty of single male parents are also trying to bring up their children in a stable environment, she says. More often than not, says Bluford, these men hand over the children to their grandparents, who offer better care. "I know a lot of guys who have kids because the mother is a drug addict or an alcoholic."
Against tough odds, "you have some single parents who do more for their children than couples do," says Bluford. She proudly counts herself as one of them. "Not everyone in my situation has to be on welfare. I want to earn money, not depend on the government."
Bluford had a child when she was 18, as did all of her sisters. She never married, but she lives with her fiance, Leonard. He's been home during the day ever since he was fired from a food-prep job at a local fast-food joint. Bluford isn't too sure when she's going to get married, or if she will. "Life is so hectic," she says, "keeping an eye on my daughter, Alexis, making sure we have enough money to pay the rent, buy food, and stay out of trouble." She's not too interested in pursuing the topic of marr iage.
Moving closer to her neighborhood, Bluford slows down and points to the long stretch of mostly beat-up wooden "matchbox" houses, with one, maybe two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a bath. Many are home to seven or eight people.
"Around here, there are three to four kids to every black female," she says. Almost everyone gets government assistance. Bluford says she is an exception among her closest seven girlhood friends. "I'm the only one with one kid. Most of them have three." But like every one of those women, now in their mid-20s, Bluford is unmarried. "My mother never told me about birth control," she says.