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Born Into the System

A lifelong welfare recipient asks, 'What if you let one door close behind you but the one in front of you closes, too?'

By Traci Hukill

'MY MOM WAS WHITE AND MY DAD WAS BLACK. They called her white trash for having a black man." Lorraine pauses and stares out the window. Her eyes, fringed with thick lashes and tilted up at the ends like a fairy's, remain blank. "I was raised by my auntie," she continues. "I ended up on welfare because my uncle told me I should get on it. I was pregnant with my second baby and working two jobs. I was 20 years old at the time."

That's how Lorraine, who despite assurances so fears government reprisal that she refuses to give her last name or be photographed, begins her life story. Her tale meanders through a landscape marked with heroin-addicted guardians, criminal boyfriends (one of whom left her when their daughter was two weeks old) and bad apartments.

Lorraine, 27, is slim and elegant even in a plain blue T-shirt and print leggings--and even after five children. She's been on AFDC and food stamps for seven years. She's been without a home since June and has no idea how she's going to get into one.

She can't work, she says, because she can't afford child care. Even if she did find work, the Temporary Child Care program requires payment up front which is then reimbursed. And the $860 she receives each month from AFDC isn't enough to get her into a place or cover a first month's worth of child care, which could run to as much as $2,000 a month for her five children.

Lorraine has been enrolled in GAIN (Greater Avenues to Independence) but she hasn't found a mother lode of opportunity in it. In the three years she's participated--the only years of her adult life in which she hasn't had a child under age three--she has completed her GED, but hasn't accomplished much else that could help her find work.

Even though Lorraine cautiously approves of the welfare-to-work concept that lies at the heart of California's new welfare reform proposal, she has doubts about what's really going to happen when the two-year limit is reached.

"What are they going to do when they reach the end of two years and all these people still don't have jobs?" she asks hesitantly, voicing with utter candor the same argument opponents of welfare reform have been sputtering at legislators since last August.

She fears that if she attempts to return to the workforce now, she'll find herself stranded in the no man's land between welfare and a livable wage.

"What if you let one door close behind you but the one in front of you closes, too? Then you have nowhere to go." She adds under her breath, "I already have nowhere to go," and shakes herself the way people do when they hear ghost stories.

In spite of the severity of her situation, Lorraine still clings to what she calls "majority dreams"--aspirations to be a part of corporate America and to someday send her grandchildren, if not her children, to private school. She's also a writer--having kept journals since she was 11 years old--and would like someday to write for a living.

As far as she's concerned, where she comes from doesn't determine who she is. "Even though I was born in the ghetto, it wasn't born in me," she says. "I don't feed it. I could have been a hooker, a real bad thief, a drug abuser. I am an alcoholic and an addict, but I'm not active. I choose to be dry. I choose to be clear-minded."

Her exquisite face is glowing as she says these words, but the most poignant thing happens when I ask her the next question.

Statistically, the welfare stereotype of a single woman with a large family doesn't hold water. The average Santa Clara County family receiving AFDC has only 1.9 children--two-tenths of a child fewer than the overall American average of 2.1. But statistics won't help Lorraine feed and clothe her kids, so in the kindest way I know how, I pose the question that's always on people's minds when they read about women like Lorraine: "Why do you keep having children when you can't afford to raise them?"

Something like a veil drops over her shining eyes, and the blank look returns.

"Since I was young I always wanted a big family," she replies. "Three boys and three girls."

And that, somehow, brings our conversation to a close.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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