On Welfare Reform, Let Downstairs Talk, Let Upstairs Listen

IT has been 20 years since ``Upstairs, Downstairs'' first captivated TV audiences with stories about the intertwined lives of two social classes - the wealthy and their servants - in Edwardian England. Both groups had enormous appeal. But ask American viewers today what they remember most vividly about the series and the answer often comes: the ``Downstairs'' characters - their dreams and disappointments, their struggles and small triumphs.

Those memories become relevant in the context of a radically different two-class drama now playing in Washington and various state capitals. Called ``Welfare Reform,'' this real-life American story also stars the privileged and the humble. But this time only the Upstairs cast, made up of powerful, mostly male politicians, appears on camera. Downstairs, the impoverished women who are the object of their concern remain invisible, their life stories seldom told firsthand.

The Upstairs attitude seems to be: ``Who needs autobiographies of the Downstairs group when stereotypes will do? We know what's good for welfare recipients without asking them.''

But dependency has many causes. Without hearing the voices of individual recipients, legislators risk settling for a one-size-fits-all approach that could further swell the ranks of poor families.

One welfare mother who wants to tell her story to a politician is Ann Cokley, a Boston resident in her late 20s. Since September Ms. Cokley has been enrolled in the Child Care Careers Program at Boston's Wheelock College, a state-funded job-training program that prepares welfare recipients for careers as certified child-care teachers.

Cokley, a mother of three, has been anticipating graduation in June and a job that will make her self-sufficient again. But now Republican Gov. William Weld is threatening to cut funds for job- training programs after February. If that happens, the Wheelock program could end, leaving 22 poor women with no certification.

Such a disruption would be ``catastrophic,'' says Patricia Hnatuik, program director. Citing the program's ``excellent track record'' in placing graduates in better paying jobs, she adds that without it, any jobs the women find will be at a much lower wage.

When Cokley was laid off as an assistant working with blind children, she did ``everything possible,'' she says, to stay off welfare. But her modest rainy-day funds ran dry, and, as she puts it, ``I've been on welfare for two embarrassing years. Welfare does need to be overhauled. But they're doing it at too fast a pace. Maybe it will take 10 years to do it right.''

Not all recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children share her determination to become independent. But by refuting stereotypes that portray all recipients as passive, she and other poor women could help to shape a more intelligent debate.

This week Cokley and her classmates are making telephone calls to the governor and state legislators, inviting them to visit their classroom and the child-care centers where they are interns.

``Before he cuts any funds, the governor should come out and talk to some of the mothers in this program,'' Cokley says. ``He would understand what it means to us and how it's helping us. I need this certificate to better my life and my children's life. It will help me fulfill my all-time dream of becoming a teacher.''

What would happen if Governor Weld and others accepted the invitation of these students?

And what would happen if, even for a single afternoon, the occupants of gilded legislative chambers everywhere listened respectfully as the occupants of rundown public housing told their stories - their hopes, their problems, their needs? Would the fast-track approach to welfare reform slow? Would politicians exhibit a little more compassion?

Maybe, maybe not. But perhaps it's time to try.

Perhaps it's also time to rerun ``Upstairs, Downstairs'' as a reminder that the rich and famous are not the only ones with voices - and dreams.

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