Last year Maryland raised the benefits for its welfare recipients by 11 percent, putting them just over the federal subsistence standard set in 1969. But prices have doubled since that year, according to Welfare Advocates, a coalition of nonprofit, charitable organizations. No immediate relief is in sight for the 211,000 public assistance recipients in the state, including 7,689 in Prince George's County and 2,831 in Montgomery. Gov. Harry Hughes says there are no funds available for an increase this year unless savings can be made in other areas of the state budget.
In 1981 Carol Payne is making it on an income considered just enough to get by on -- in 1969. Payne, a soft-featured, handsome woman of 36, gets $377 a month to support herself and her four children, far below the $696 a month the state Department of Human Resources says that a family of four now needs to cover the basic necessities of life. Twelve years ago the federal government set $302 as the subsistence standard for a family of four.
"Welfare . . . doesn't even pay the rent," said Payne, sitting in her spotless apartment. "It just keeps you right here, getting harder and harder every day." The rent for her three-bedroom apartment in Landover, where she lives with her children, a boarder and two of his children, is $83 more than her monthly welfare check. She receives $224 a month in food stamps -- or $11.20 a week per person for her family of five -- and her boarder pays $200 a month rent.
The poor on welfare live on margins so tight that if the first of the month falls on a weekend, they may not eat for a day or two because their checks cannot be mailed until Monday. The welfare belt has no notches to take in when inflation squeezes; there is only the charity of relatives or cheating on the system. If you pick up $100 a month babysitting, you are a welfare cheater.
When Payne first applied for public assistance in 1973, wearing clean clothes and runless stockings, the interviewer told her she looked too good to be on welfare. Within two years, after struggling to make ends meet on the meager income, she knew what they meant.
One starless, rainy night, clad only in a navy blue nightgown, she went out to the steps of her apartment near the dark dead end of Dodge Park Road, sat down and cried.
"It just didn't seem like there was no answer," she said. "I felt if I had caught pneumonia and died, at least someone would come and take care of my kids. While I was outside, my baby came out and laid next to me. He caught pneumonia instead." Her son Carlos, now 5, has had brochitis ever since.
Payne's apartment was quiet, except for the sound of a basketball game on a small portable television. Her boarder, Elmer Pegues, finished dinner at the card table in front of the television while his 18-year-old son and a friend played cards in an anteroom called a den by the apartment managers. In the kitchen, Brenda Payne, 15, washed dishes.
Payne moved the card game to the kitchen, borrowed the light bulb from the anteroom for a living room lamp, and sat down to describe the events that led her to want to end it all after two years on welfare in Maryland.
Back in 1975, she said, she discovered that "When welfare makes a mistake, you pay for it." Her "recon papers," the 10 pages of forms that must be completed twice a year to get welfare, were lost at the local office. She had to carry her six-month-old son from Washington to Prince George's to Baltimore and back again on public buses and trains to replace the documents.
Because the apartment managers refused to repair her broken mailbox, the mailman would not deliver her checks or food stamps. Although she met him at the door with identification and pleaded, he would not give the envelopes to her. Three months of checks and food stamps were returned for 15 days of reprocessing, and her family depended on canned food from Catholic charities to eat during that period.
Payne and her daughters wear the same clothes, handed down from relatives, kept clean and in good repair. She has learned the economy of buying in volume from food warehouse stores to ensure having enough food to last the month, even though the sight of a woman buying $200 worth of groceries with food stamps brings cold stares from other shoppers. A few months ago when there was a sale, she made a killing on beans, buying $30 worth.
"We eat whatever's cheap. My kids have learned to like beans," said Payne.
Yet she clings to one luxury that she hopes will free her children from poverty -- their private school educations. The children of her former husband's family went to Catholic schools under an economical "family plan." Today, with the aid of grandparents and godparents her children, A and B students, are attending the schools and hanging onto their hopes for a better life.
Payne grew up in the housing projects of Southeast Washington, and although she did not complete high school, she worked at a number of jobs, saving money, having fun and planning for the day she would be married.
"When I married my husband, I had a hope chest that was full with enough stuff to fill a living room, bathroom, kitchen . . . everything," she said.
But her husband was so jealous that he would not let her work, and he physically abused her. The marriage broke up. Payne moved to a two-bedroom unit in the Kings Squire apartments in Landover in 1973, and applied for welfare.
"He was taking good care of me and the kids. But I was also taking all of these beatings. I had to leave." she said.
She did not seek work when she first left her husband because she was pregnant with her third child and was also caring for a stepdaughter, who is now on her own. Payne's third child Vasco, now 9, was born asthmatic, and spent much of his early years in hospitals. Her last son Carlos has been hospitalized often with brochitis. Payne said her sons' illnesses kept her at home. Now that her 5-year-old is in school, she will be required to seek training and work by this summer, and Payne said she is eager to do so.
In 1977 she applied for a three-bedroom apartment for her growing family in the same complex. She also applied for a rent subsidy under the federal Section 8 program, because her rent was beginning to exceed her welfare check. She got the new apartment in 1979, but was told that because it had a "den" and two bathrooms, it was a "luxury apartment" and could not be covered by a subsidy.
She took in Pegues and his children as boarders to make ends meet. Pegues, her boyfriend of several years, had been helping her out of his meager income and was "going down" under the strain, she said.
Looking back on the years on welfare and the lives of her friends, Payne said there are innumerable other ways that mothers on welfare really make it -- baby-sitting, odd jobs and the sometime boyfriends who may deal drugs to make a comfortable but dangerous living. Recipients sometimes must abuse the system to survive, she says, although Payne feels that flagrant abusers harm the cause of the neediest.
Payne speaks often of loving her boyfriend, but says she cannot think of marrying him because his income could make her ineligible for welfare without providing enough to support the combined families.
"If this man was to up and find another place for himself and his kids I don't know what I would do" without the rent he pays, said Payne.
"I'm not trying to get over on anybody, I'm just trying to get space for me and the kids. They say that all these young girls are making it on public assistance. It's not public assistance. You cannot make it on welfare. It's something else you have to do . . . but you can't print it."