For Sandra Mayberry, 30 years old and on welfare with her six children, the issue of increased government support breaks down to a very basic question. Can she feed and clothe her children?
Mayberry and two other adults live in a dingy, one-bedroom apartment less than a mile from the main site of the farmers' protest.
She gets $585 a month in welfare payments and food stamps for herself and her children. When that runs out, as it does most months, she scours the streets for privately run free-food and clothing outlets.
"I know they (the farmers) are protesting," Mayberry said. "I think they should, too. They need it. That's where we get our farm products from."
But except for that support, the grievances that brought the farmers and their tractors and campers to Washington remain remote from her.
Mayberry has never been to Kansas. She does not own any land or tractors, or a car for that matter. Mayberry said she does not own anything.
Mayberry and the 93,837 other District residents receiving Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) payments each month, the 6,419 on general public assistance and the 22,827 additional residents who receive food stamps monthly not only must juggle their government-supplied budgets but tread a tightrope between survival and destitution.
In national terms Mayberry's children are only six of 10.7 million who last year received $6.6 billion in federal welfare funds in the AFDCprogram, and she is one of 17 million who received $5.4 billion in food stamps last year. Another $3.6 billion was spent on federal housing assistance programs which Mayberry said she knows nothing about.
"Some months it lasts, some months it doesn't," Mayberry said about her $7,020 annual welfare income.
Every month, Mayberry receives $426.60 in AFDC funds, from which she pays rent, utilities, clothing and other expenses. Payments are based on the family size, need and deprivation.
In addition, Mayberry receives $159 a month in food stamps under a revised program started Jan. 1. Under previous food stamp rules, recipients paid for stamps. Last year, Mayberry paid $115 for $262 in food stamps monthly, she said.
The food stamps "don't last no time at all," Mayberry said. "My children, they love to eat.It lasts about two weeks and the money I get from my check lasts from then to the end of the month."
When she doesn't have enough for food or clothing, Mayberry said she goes to the Bread for the City, a privately run program where she can pick up free clothes and canned goods but she is only allowed to go there once a month. "I've been there many times," Mayberry said.
Mayberry is also eligible for two bags of groceries a month from a locally run federal program for pregnant mothers or those with children under age 6. Welfare families are eligible if they visit a doctor every six months. The bags include infant formula, dehydrated and canned fruits, vegetables, milk, cereal, peanut butter, canned beef and chicken and other goods.
Mayberry, a native Washingtonian, says she lived in a two-bedroom apartment for $146 a month until she was evicted three weeks ago. The landlord sold the building, and the new owners are converting it into a luxury townhouse, Mayberry said.
Mayberry has since moved in with relatives in a one-bedroom apartment. She, her six children and two other adults sleep on three twin-size cots and an old sofa.
"It's hard to find a place that's big enough," Mayberry said. "There are hardly any three or four-bedroom apartments available."
Under a federal program, poor residents can receive subsidies of up to 75 percent of their rent if they can find a landlord willing to take them, if the rent is at approved levels and if the person has a low income, according to Alphonso Walker, a housing program specialist.
In 1977 and 1978, $1 million was allotted to subsidize rent for 370 District families, but 1,500 applications were received. The main obstacle to the program is not only lack of appropriate housing, but high rents asked by landlords, Walker said.
For instance, there are few four-bedroom apartments or houses for a family like Mayberry's that would rent at or below the program's monthly ceiling of $445. The conventional rent for such housing in the District is $556, and up, Walker said.
Although Mayberry was not aware of the housing program, she does use Medicaid, which pays for all medical costs for her family. She pays only 50 cents for medications, she said. About 147,000 District residents use medicaid monthly at an annual cost to the federal government of $119.4 million.
Mayberry said she could work as a receptionist or a file clerk if she didn't have her three-month-old son Hashim, but a job at minimum wage pays less than welfare. As an AFDC recipient, she would be eligible for free day care services.
Mayberry said she doesn't collect child support from her children's fathers because "I don't know where half of them are." She said she continues to have children because "I guess I love them."