History Books

Up From Welfare

Before writing about Them, I wanted to read a few reviews, so I turned to Metacritic. One of the cited reviews, Kate Bolick's in The Boston Globe, paired Them with a book called Welfare Brat (Bloomsbury 2005), by Mary Childers. I had not heard of this, but I was so intrigued by Ms Bolick's write-up that I ordered it on the spot. Shortly after its arrival, I read it all in one afternoon.

I began, as always, with the author's photo on the dust jacket. Mary Childers looks like an attractive happy, centered, and possibly privileged child of Westchester or Fairfield County. I would soon learn that there is no trace of Webster Avenue or Highbridge in her voice, either. Welfare Brat is all about the pressures behind this almost miraculous transformation.

Welfare Brat is a sequence of recollected events from the writer's life between the ages of ten and seventeen. At the start, in 1962, she is the third of six surviving children of an unmarried woman who is dependent on welfare. (By the end of the book, Mary is the third of seven.) Welfare Brat is above all a story of the author's unabashed "welfare cheating" - taking after-school jobs (at Altman's, eventually) in order to pay for good clothes, dental care, extras, and the occasional bus fare. She almost never spends money on food, even when she's hungry. By the time the book starts, Mary has realized that she must escape her mother's world, and she has figured out that the only way to do this is to resist sex and pursue and education. Renouncing sex at ten is easy, so her only serious goal is to graduate from high school, which neither of her older half-sisters managed to do. After fourth grade, teachers usually take to her, and help her to take advantage of various welfare programs for students. She is in honors classes; she will graduate at the age of sixteen. She misses the cut for Bronx Science, but she has a hard enough time being a welfare kid at a regular high school - and it's important to remember that New York's public schools were just beginning their slide into inadequacy during the years covered here. White flight has not yet strip-mined the Bronx. This doesn't mean that the Bronx is suburban, however. The hazards of daily life are sufficient to keep Mary focused on getting into college.

And on getting out of home. Her mother is an emotional, inconsistent woman, not unintelligent but buffeted by wishful thinking and delusions of hopelessness. She stops at bars on the way home from her off-the-books waitressing  jobs. drinks. She brings strange men home. She goads her two oldest daughters into picking fights with each other. Her failure as a housekeeper makes for domestic chaos. The families three apartments become progressively more spacious, but they are always crowded and always hardscrabble. It is a disgrace to live on welfare, and Mary longs to leave it behind. This is what distinguishes from her mother and her older sisters. She does not feel sorry for herself. She has internalized the social stigma, and wants to put herself as far from it as any taxpaying citizen does. But as a reader, she naturally craves peace. Perhaps the saddest moment in the book comes when Mary discovers, in the middle of the college-application process, that she will probably have to suffer roommates - something that had never occurred to her.

For years I have imagined my own narrow room, spare and serious as a monk's, where no one can intrude without knocking. Solitude is part of the appeal of the College of Mount Saint Vincent, a tiny colony of churchy buildings in Riverdale which I walked to and from at the cost of the soles of a pair of shoes. The sight of quiet girls behind glass panes on the second floor of the library reminded me of a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was drawn to a room of Dutch women framed by mirrors and windows.

The Met's Vermeers, most likely. The appeal of such images to the inmate of a precarious and noisy home must be overwhelming.

Welfare Brat is written in the present tense, and passages in which the writer stands back for a bit of narrative perspective are infrequent and never very long. This has the effect of pushing the reader right into the writer's childhood environment, and the result can be somewhat confusing for a reader such as myself who always likes to know where he is. It also intensifies the sense of struggle surrounding Mary's attempt to lead an organized life in an extremely disorganized home. The only place where Mary seems to feel less calm than at home is the Bronx sidewalk at night. Nevertheless, Welfare Brat has the curious flavor of having been written by someone who does not write general non-fiction as a matter of course. It's story is very unusual, yes, but beneath that there is a discernible uneasiness, as if telling her story were somehow the wrong thing to do. Certainly we're told much less than we might have been. Social workers make occasional appearances, but the welfare system is never described in any objective way; although it couldn't have been anything but a remote abstraction to Mary, it would have put the story on firmer ground. Instead, welfare itself seems as sporadic as everything else in Welfare Brat. Intentional? I'm not sure.

But this reluctance to give the book narrative depth, whether or not it is a flaw, doesn't dampen its impact. The final paragraph locates Mary Childers's judgment on the tangle of issues that make welfare so controversial.

All lives are launched or derailed by circumstances, as well as by temperamental inclinations. Most of us experience a competition between the call of our best resolve and the sovereignty of our automatic selves. Nonetheless, economic and social class fundamentally influence the ways we cultivate our moments of inspiration and aspiration. In the absence of education, resources and evidence that effort pays, many poor people, such as those I love, are sustained primarily by delusion and lottery optimism. Worldviews fostered by devastating disappointments and compensatory fantasies then operate to the detriment of the poor and often at considerable cost to the society that rigidly conserves compassion. I am intimately acquainted with how lack of opportunity and personal irresponsibility can become intertwined and strangle a life. It's clear to me that I could develop from welfare brat to chip-on-the-shoulder chick to contributing, dissident citizen because I had the good luck to come of age when many people in the United States approved of a war on poverty rather than what Herbert J. Gans calls "the war against the poor."

Braving the occasional resentment of her family and friends, Mary Childers's climb out of welfare was nothing short of heroic. We meet such heroes from time to time, generally as successful young people starting off on promising careers. They are unlikely, however, to tell us, as Mary Childers does here, about the numberless calculations that they must have made to escape the pull of convivial, indulgent self-pity. Welfare Brat is proof that our old welfare system could help some people, and clear evidence that, if improved, it could help a great many more. Ours remains a disgracefully selfish society. (June 2005)

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