For more than 30 years, Ernestine Scott cooked and cleaned and laundered in other people's homes with a kind of joy and dedication that seems remarkable in her line of work.
She has done "every type of domestic work," from managing the "mansions" and caring for the children of wealthy suburbanites to serving as a hotel chambermaid and cleaning World War II boarding houses, by her articulate and unboastful account.
"I used to do it hard and I like my job and I know I did it well . . . with a song in my heart and a prayer in my soul," Scott said.
Now 52, Scott lives on $33.85 a month in federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and says, she finds her near destitute condition insupportable in light of her long years of service. The also receives $52 a month in food stamps, which she is eligible to purchase for $1.
It was the sheer intensity of her labors, along with the recent break-up of her 27-year marriage and paradoxes in federal assistance regulations, that brought about her plight, Scott said.
She separated from her husband in June and left the apartment they shared at a city-operated housing complex for the elderly. She also left the benefits of his montly Veterans Administration check and his half of the SII aid that augmented their income.
Under regulations governing SSI, which is the federal support program for aged, blind and disabled persons, when a married couple separates they continue to be treated as a couple for benefits until six months have passed.
"We can't treat a member of a couple as an individual until we are sure the separation will last. The Secretary (of Health, Education and Welfare) has determined that six months is a reasonable time" to establish the permanency of separation, an SSI official explained yesterday.
After six months, Scott may begin receiving the $177 SSI payment for individuals, the Social Security Administration has said.
The rule is unfair, because she "was paying Social Security under my own number" during her working years, Scott contends.
Social Security officials have termed her situation "unfortunate," and have asisted with letters her unsuccessful attempts to get financial help elsewhere.
Scott said that, if she could, she would go back to work - to the work she began at age 8 in King and Queen County, Va., and took up full-time after completing seventh grade.
"Now don't fool yourself. I love to work. If I had the money, I would leave this city and get a start somewhere else," she said.
However, the examinations that found her eligible for SSI found Scott disabled by chronic back pain, arthritis, arteriovascular disease and hypochondria.
"I'm 52 years old, but I worked so hard I'm older than that in body," she said, "I'm an old soul."
Because of another quirk in the regulations, Scott's SSI check will be further reduced, to $22.57, for September, she has been informed.
The reason given is that she is living in the household of another (a niece's home on T Street NW) and has failed to supply proof that she is paying her fair share of the expenses, as SSI rules require.
Scott said her niece "only charges me $75 a month and I can't pay that because I only got $33 for June, July and August." Thus she has no rent receipts to turn in, she said.
She has gone daily to every potential source of help, but appeals to the City Council, the D.C. Department of human Resources and Pride, Inc., have been fruitless. Scott said she did get "a little meal check" from the Salvation Army, and the United Planning Organization has continued efforts in
"I wanted to be a school teacher," Scott said, reflecting on her work history. "Teaching was in me, but it must have been the work of the Almighty that I didn't get much education."
Instead, she said, she used her energies "to help raise many a child," on the job as well as stepchildren.
"I taught them to walk, talk, read.And I loved them," Scott said. "Now I need somebody to love me."