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PETER H. KING

Welfare As We Know It

August 28, 1996|PETER H. KING

CHICAGO — Welfare As We Know It, or at least welfare as we think we know it, occupies a squat, brick building just five blocks west of the shining arena where the Democrats have convened. It shares corner space with a McDonald's, a Popeye's chicken franchise, two liquor stores and a 24-hour check-cashing outlet.

This is not one of Chicago's classier neighborhoods, although along certain of its streets--the ones traveled by delegates bound for the United Center--many slum buildings have been razed and many pretty flowers have been planted and many signs erected promising new construction to come. This is one of those neighborhoods where fast food franchises pass for local industry, where check-cashing outlets are referred to as "the bank." In other words, it is one more impoverished inner-city neighborhood, and, therefore, a good place to go hunting that great American demon, the one our president calls "welfare as we know it."

Welfare.

As we know it.

The words suggest an inherent contradiction. Welfare is a complicated collection of social programs. Most Americans--present company included--understand it about as thoroughly as they understand how the Pentagon spends their tax dollars. Which is to say, they don't understand it at all. Welfare as we know it refers to something else, to the horror stories swapped across talk radio and in bars, stories of baby breeders and food stamps traded for dope. It is, as Ishmael Reed acidly put it this week in the Washington Post, "Wilhelmina Horton. She has a house full of illegitimate kids, watches soap operas all day, smokes crack and hides her Cadillac when the case worker visits."

*

Well, there were no Cadillacs parked outside the brick building at 100 N. Western. The doors to the welfare office were unlocked at 8 a.m. Tuesday. A couple dozen "clients" filed past a guard post, climbed a flight of stairs and settled into plastic chairs, where they would wait for a caseworker to call their name.

It was a mixed bag of humanity: confused-looking street people packing plastic bags filled with cans; a mother bouncing a small baby on her knee; older men who seemed to have dressed up for the occasion, and who conversed in low voices about jobs their fathers held at factories that fled the neighborhood long ago. Most were black, but then this is a predominately black part of Chicago.

Word of a new day coming had breached the brick walls. "Get a Job--Welfare Reform," urged one of the many posters that adorn the beige walls. "It pays to work," announced another. A caseworker up front had decorated her desk with a sign of her own: "I don't mind GOING TO WORK--it's just the long wait to go home!" If the clients found this amusing, they did not let on. If it angered them, they didn't show that, either. Docility appeared to be preferred demeanor.

"The people in there treat you like you are somebody off the street," fumed 22-year-old Shanda Lambert after she had finished her appointment and left the building. "They don't treat you like a human being. They treat you like you are dumb, and don't know anything."

*

Lambert held a squirming 18-month-old. It is her only child, she said, "and I am doing my best not to have more." Lambert has worked since she was 11. Her father owned a grocery store. She finished high school, attended college for three semesters. She went on public assistance only after falling ill in pregnancy. The young woman said she looks continually for work, and cannot wait to "to get off welfare." She lives in a small apartment that pretty much devours her monthly check. She cannot afford a Cadillac.

Lambert and other clients who stopped outside told stories of welfare as they know it. They have seen firsthand where the stereotypes hold together, and also where they fall apart. Not surprisingly, most wanted to believe the rhetoric that embroiders the drive to dismantle welfare: that, somehow, by cutting aid to the poor, gangs will go away, drugs will disappear, families will reunite, factories will return and with them jobs, good jobs.

"It would be good, getting people off welfare," said Lambert, "if they can find a job. That," she then added, "is a pretty big if around here."

A pretty big if--a remarkably succinct analysis of what Clinton has decided to do with "welfare as we know it." The Democrats convened here don't want to talk much about the bill he signed last week. They say it makes for better politics to keep quiet and hope it all works out. They missed a chance to see a personification of that hope on Tuesday. They could have seen Shanda Lambert headed into the McDonald's across the street. She wanted to ask, again, if they were hiring.

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