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.

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.

United States Census Bureau reports show that Bluford has plenty of company. Last year, less than half of the black families in America were headed by married couples, and some 46 percent were headed by single women.

Bluford grew up in a chaotic household, she says. Her mother bore eight children by three different fathers. There wasn't much to eat for Bluford and her seven brothers and sisters growing up. They got some food assistance from the federal government, such as rice and powdered milk.

Her father drank and gambled away his earnings, she says. "My dad didn't like my mom going out and getting a job. He got angry, but welfare wasn't enough. We were eating mostly syrup, mustard, and jelly sandwiches. Spam was w-a-a-y too expensive," she says. To supplement her income, Yolonda's mother worked as a waitress, a bartender, and played neighborhood bingo games.

We pass the Full Gospel Temple, mobile home parks, a haphazard collection of car parts and a sign that reads "Used Tires, $6 Dollars And Up." Looming large over a hill near the white, concrete-block Church of Christ is a billboard advertising the John Birch Society. Bluford has never heard of this group, which preaches, among other things, white supremacy, but she's not surprised by the sign. "A lot of folks around here think that blacks are stealing their jobs," she says.

Seven-year-old Alexis steps out on Bluford's small front porch to greet us. Clutching her homework, she asks her mother for help. Bluford participates in a state-sponsored, community-based program that encourages parents to take a more active role in early-childhood education. Governor Clinton is proposing a similar program nationally. Bluford thinks the one in Arkansas helps foster better parenting.

STARTED Alexis when she was two. By the time she went to school, she was way ahead of everybody," Bluford says, beaming. We're back in the car and Alexis is sitting quietly in the back seat.

When Alexis got to first grade, a classmate brought a knife to school. "They say the highest number of killers are disobedient children," Bluford says.

Alexis hasn't been in trouble - "yet," Bluford emphasizes. The only time she went to see Alexis's teacher was when Bluford called her to make an appointment. "I was concerned because she'd come home and wouldn't have any homework."

We pass another striking billboard, this one with bold red letters on a stark white background. A message from the area's prosecuting attorney: "Do you want one less gang member in your neighborhood? Call...." In Little Rock, which has a population of 400,000 including its environs, there are 30 gangs.

Bluford says there is so much gang violence today because parents are on drugs.

"A lot of kids are easily influenced. Their parents are on crack, and they're raising themselves." Bluford's 24-year-old sister, mother of two, is in the Eight Ball gang.

People need hope, Bluford says, running down a list of what the next president should do: offer more educational opportunities and better training, and push people off welfare and into higher-paying jobs. "We need to know we can work toward a better life and a better future for our children."

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