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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Squarely in the Center of the Welfare Storm

June 25, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

To say that the last two years have been tough for 18-year-old Jessica Mrowczynski is like saying a swim across the English Channel is a middling athletic feat.

One month after her 16th birthday, on a visit to the doctor for birth control pills, she learned she was nine weeks pregnant.

"I just went hysterical," Jessica said. "They couldn't calm me down. I kept asking myself, 'Why?' I mean, I could understand it, but I just didn't understand why me. I'm too young. I had to miss school just to come to the doctor. I knew I had to complete high school."

Jessica's mother, Dianne Norwood, a mother of six who has struggled financially after three divorces, urged her daughter to consider an abortion.

"When she came up pregnant, I died a thousand deaths," said Norwood, 40. "Jessica is my best child, every mother's dream, quiet, a good student. Never in my wildest dreams did I think she would come home pregnant."

Not that Jessica's life had been without ripples. She was raped at 15 by a friend of her mother's boyfriend. And the summer before she became pregnant, she was hanging out with a young gangbanger who was jobless and prone to trouble.

"What the attraction was, I don't know," Norwood said. "I tolerated it because I thought it would pass."

Despite her own unhappiness with the pregnancy, Norwood told Jessica that she would respect whatever decision her daughter made. So when Jessica announced, after several days of intense introspection, that she would keep the baby, Norwood "swallowed everything and backed her up."

Ten days ago, with her toddler, Tianna, looking on, Jessica graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena.

"I was so happy at her graduation," Norwood said, "because the girl came through. And Jessica has given up so much."

Indeed, Jessica might have been another teen mom dropout but for the support of her family, her ability to grasp the importance of education and a monthly check from the taxpayers of California.

The money has made a big difference.

But it comes with a price that should give the reform-minded heart: Jessica is sometimes ashamed to be on welfare.

"I guess it's because I am young and I have a child and a lot of people are expressing that it's my responsibility, that I shouldn't be asking the state for money when it was my fault that I was pregnant," she said. "But without it, I would have no way of supporting Tianna."

For Jessica, who dreams of a four-year college degree and a career in trauma nursing, welfare is a steppingstone.

She cannot be on welfare, she knows, and buy that Lexus she wants to drive one day.

*

The cacophonous national debate over welfare reform, teen mothers, and the effects of fatherlessness on children has not completely bypassed the cramped three-bedroom house in Altadena where Jessica and her family live.

It is the kind of family, in some ways, that the debate has targeted.

For one thing, the home is full of kids and fatherless.

Besides her mother and daughter Tianna, Jessica lives with her older sister Nicole, 21, who became a single mother on Monday with the birth of a baby girl named Aisia.

And there are younger siblings from a different father: Nigel, 11, and Janaya, 9. Janaya has cerebral palsy (the result, Norwood said regretfully, of a brief addiction to methamphetamines during her pregnancy) and has been in physical therapy since she was a baby. (Two brothers, 14 and 16, live with their father in Oregon.)

As if the resources of the family were not strained enough, Jessica and her family also care for twin 4 1/2-year-old boys, the children of a drug-addicted mother of nine. The arrangement is informal; the family simply took the twins off the mother's hands to help.

Family members receive various kinds of public assistance. Norwood spent three years on AFDC while she attended school. A year ago, she began work as a secretary in an insurance agency and earns about $2,200 a month. Rent on the little house, which would normally be $800, is federally subsidized, so Norwood pays only about $200.

Nicole is employed as a free-lance bookkeeper but qualified for state aid to cover the cost of childbirth.

Janaya receives about $500 a month in SSI for her disability.

Jessica receives $490 a month in welfare for Tianna, who from the age of five weeks attended on-campus, subsidized day care at John Muir High School.

Not exactly an "Ozzie and Harriet" scenario.

In some ways, however, this complicated clan is a "model" family.

It is a model of how welfare is used by single mothers as a safety net; a model of questionable choices tempered by ambitiousness and optimism; a model of a family who--for all its dysfunction or pathology--squarely faces the consequences of its decisions.

With taxpayer help.

"I don't want my kids stuck, having babies, living on the county," Norwood said, "but the system is wonderful if you use it as a medium to get off your butt and find employment."

*

In the next few months, Jessica's family may experience yet another upheaval, since Norwood has decided to move to Washington.

This is good and bad news for Jessica, who yearns to be free of the family obligations imposed by her mother, who expects Jessica to care not just for Tianna, but for her younger siblings, the "adopted" twins and to help out with household chores.

"I'm not ready to move out, but I need to," Jessica said. "I'm under too much stress in this house. My mom depends too much on me and my sister. My mom doesn't want me to work a full-time job, but I am not going to not work because she needs child care."

Jessica had hoped to start Pasadena City College in the fall, but will probably have to put that off for a semester at least.

Before she can contemplate school, she will have to get a job and figure out new living arrangements, day care for Tianna and transportation, since she has no car.

"I am scared," she said, "but I don't have a choice."

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