Reluctant welfare mother: 'I am not the type of woman who will give up'

''I am not the type of woman who will give up.''

She sits at her metal-topped kitchen table in the late afternoon, a slender black woman wearing a red jersey and a thin gold necklace. She speaks quietly, without rancor, and with an intelligence that shines through her many grammatical lapses. In the corner of her federally subsidized apartment on Boston's busy Cambridge Street, the television babbles incessantly -- although her son, Haron, is more interested in drinking apple juice, drawing pictures for his visitor, and thrusting a book into his mother's lap.

She disciplines him with an easy balance of firmness and affection. He is ''learning his ABCs,'' she tells me. If he could comprehend the chatter of adults, this solidly built, inquisitive three-year-old would also be learning the history of his family.

It is not a pleasant story: a tale of antagonisms, failed affections, financial pressure, and near poverty. It is the story of Cheryl Langford, who reluctantly describes herself as a ''welfare mother.''

''I never thought I'd say this -- you don't know how it kills me,'' she says vehemently, adding: ''I hate assistance; I love to be independent.'' But now, living alone with her son, she has no other recourse. Her support comes from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program -- a monthly check for $314.20 -- and from a food-stamp grant of $70 a month.

What has brought her to this pass?

She starts her story 11 years ago, when she was 15. Living in her family home in Dorchester, Mass., she attended Girls' High School (later Roxbury High). She was in with a rough crowd, she recalls, and found herself cutting classes and paying little attention to her schooling. ''I discovered I was not learning a thing,'' she says, ''and I said to myself, 'I've got to get away from my friends.' '' So her parents enrolled her in a private parochial school in nearby Jamaica Plain -- a school which later folded. Two years later, at 17, she decided she wanted to return to public high school to graduate with her class. That's when she learned for the first time that her private school was not accredited; if she wished to graduate from public school, she was told, she would have to repeat the previous two years.

If things had been better at home, perhaps she would have seen it through. But her father and mother, who both worked, had an unhappy and sometimes violent relationship and little love to spare for their children. ''My parents wanted to encourage me to move,'' Cheryl says with obvious understatement. ''It took me a long time to realize that my family didn't care for me.'' Faced with that atmosphere at home and the setback at school, she says, ''I just gave up.''

She found her own apartment in the run-down Grove Hall section of Roxbury, and began working without a diploma: by day in a nonpaying volunteer job at the Martha Eliot Health Center in Jamaica Plain; at night, for pay, as a clerk in the Boston Municipal Court. And she began living with the man who would later become Haron's father. ''It didn't work out for us, as you can see,'' she says. That's also an understatement: Since she left him, she says, he has become increasingly violent, knocking all the windows out of her apartment and kidnapping her son for a month. She finally went to court and obtained a restraining order to keep him away from her home. But according to her neighbor , Mary Ann Martorana, who is also a welfare mother, the police don't bother to enforce it. ''They call it 'domestic violence,' '' she says, ''and they don't take it seriously.''

When Cheryl found herself pregnant in 1979, she says, she refused to move back to her parent's house. Talking about raising her child, she said, ''I basically didn't know what to do,'' adding: ''My mother didn't tell me anything about it.'' At the time, she was working in a factory in Somerville, packing ice cream cones. She knew she did not want an abortion. Yet she was determined not to go on welfare, for she felt strongly that she did not want to burden others with the results of her own problems. ''I had this baby,'' she says, ''and it's my responsibility.'' Her son, who was born two months early and has asthma, spent his first four months in a hospital. Half the cost was paid by insurance through her employer; the other half she bore herself.

So she continued working. Soon after the child was born, her current boyfriend (not the child's father) arranged for her to get a job as clerk with an engineering firm where he worked as a part-time computer programmer. Even without a high school diploma, she was hired: She had taught herself to type in high school, was working toward her general education diploma, and was obviously bright and teachable. From that job she took home $110 a week.

After Haron came home, the next step was to find day care for him. By then she was living at her present Cambridge Street address - close to downtown and to her work. She called around the city until she found a licensed day-care facility that had a ''Title XX'' opening -- a federally-assisted slot for the child of a low-income mother. The one she finally found was out in Jamaica Plain -- two subway trains and a bus ride each way, and costing her $100 a month.

Thus the working began: leaving the house at about 6:00 each morning to deliver her son and get to work at 8:45, then leaving work at 4:45 for the return journey. Even that, she felt, was better than welfare. She felt she was progressing. The engineering firm was impressed enough with her work that they offered to send her to electronics school.

Then her son's father, she says, began ''hassling me,'' calling her up at work and demanding her paycheck. But the worst blow, she says, came from the Reagan administration. Last October, after the nation's new budget came into effect, she got a call from the day-care center. The Title XX funds had been cut. Her son was welcome to continue at the center, but she would have to bear the full cost: $75 a week, $300 a month. She had two days to decide.

It was that, along with her former boyfriend's hassling her at work, that finally precipitated her into welfare, she says. She could have found a cheaper slot for Haron in family day care (where mothers take a few children into their own homes), but she felt his health required something better.

Even on AFDC, however, Cheryl has not given up. She recently enrolled in Wilfred Academy, studying to be a hairdresser. Her tuition of $55 a week is paid for by the federally funded Basic Education Opportunity Grant. But recent government budget cuts have removed all the extras from the program, leaving her with no money for books, transportation to and from school, or lunch.

So how do her family finances look today?

On the income side, aside from the tuition grant, is her AFDC payment ($314. 20) and her food stamps ($70).

On the other side are some items that pile up pretty fast each month:

* Food. In total, Cheryl spends about $100 a month at the grocery store -- since food stamps do not cover such things as household paper goods. ''I eat oats constantly,'' she says with a smile, adding, ''I don't eat meat -- I can't afford it more than once a week.''

* Day care. Cheryl has chosen to attend school, rather than stay home with Haron -- a move she sees as an investment in her future, allowing her to get off welfare perhaps as soon as next December, when she will finish her hairdressing course. So she still pays for day care. She has found her son a place that costs her less than $75 a week. But the price - $220 a month -- soaks up the bulk of her monthly AFDC payment.

* Housing. In many ways it is her low housing costs that keep Cheryl's finances afloat. According to the local nonprofit community organization, the Coalition for Basic Human Needs (CBHN), the state in its AFDC budget allows only reports that, although AFDC allows only $27.90 a month for heat and $18.60 a month for other utilities, the average cost of energy in 1981 for low-income Massachusetts families that heat with oil was $1,696 -- nearly $100 a month more than AFDC allows.

But Cheryl is one of the 22 percent of welfare mothers in Massachusetts who live in subsidized housing. For her clean two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a building converted from a parking garage, she now pays $27 a month. Her electricity bill (including heat) adds another $75 -- and as we talk, she is careful to turn off all lights except the one closest to us. She does, however, have two new-looking television sets; and although her apartment is small, she has two phones, for which she pays between $25 and $30 a month.

* Miscellaneous. Under this heading come the costs of getting to school, as well as such things as laundry. Although her floor has a laundry room, it costs quickly.

Where does Cheryl go from here?

''I'm not a woman who wants to stay like this,'' she says simply. What especially hurts her, she says, is the presumption that all women on welfare are lazy, promiscuous, and dishonest. ''We're always presumed to be guilty of something,'' she says. She is particularly upset with Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King. His attitude, she says, seems to be that ''we are all profligate'' and that ''we aren't any good as mothers.''

Mary Ann Martorana, a vivacious white woman who by now is an active participant in the kitchen-table discussion, takes it a step further. ''With the climate that Reagan and King have created, they want to take our kids away,'' she says. Pressed to explain, both she and Cheryl cite cases of ''good'' mothers whose children were legally taken from them and put into foster care.

Foster care, says Mary Ann, costs the state only $180 a month per child. So, if some legal means could be found to separate Haron from his mother, the state would cut the $384.20 it now pays Cheryl for AFDC and food stamps by more than half. It would also remove another name from the welfare rolls -- which, with welfare fraud coming under such scrutiny recently, would be a popular political move.

Against this background, what would these women say to President Reagan? Some of it they have already said. Under the auspices of CBHN, which strongly resists the Reagan administration's social programs, Mary Ann went to Washington to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee on April 21, carrying with her a statement from Cheryl. ''I want to go into a skilled trade,'' Cheryl wrote, ''but job training programs have been taken away. If they were available , I would soon have a good job which would support me and my son and take us off welfare for good.''

''I would tell the President,'' says Mary Ann, ''that bringing up children and taking good care of them is not a luxury, it is a social responsibility.''

Cheryl puts it less formally. ''Everybody was a child once,'' she says. ''Why treat our poor kids so badly? Children don't grow up to hate, unless you teach them to hate.''

Most of the beneficiaries of welfare, she notes, are children. ''They're talking about welfare cheats?'' she says, gesturing toward Haron, who is scribbling peacefully on a sheaf of papers at the kitchen table. ''That's what they're talking about,'' she says.

Then, taking her Bible from the shelf across the room, she opens it to Proverbs. ''Whoso mocketh the poor,'' she reads, ''reproacheth his Maker.''

Next: Five American Families in Perspective -- An Overview

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