It was incorrectly reported in yesterday's Washington Post that there are 124,000 women on Welfare in Washington. That figure, which is for the total number of people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, includes men and women with children.
Inside the city's welfare office in Anacostia, supervisor Velma Johnson and social worker Silvia Watkins huddle over the case file of a 19-year-old woman who has five children, no job, no husband and no idea how to handle her problems.
Confused by her role as an adult, the young woman seeks the help of counselors at the welfare office before making simple decisions such as purchasing households furniture or taking trips out of town. Inside her welfare file, a stack of receipts, pink slips and blue cards says she gets $426.60 a month in welfare payments, but she is prone to buying snacks such as ice cream and cookies for her children before purchasing food stamps for groceries.
The young woman is one of more than 7,000 people served by the Anocostia welfare office where the majority of recipients are other childlike, yet child-worn mothers.
In recent years the average age of women in Washington seeking welfare aid has dropped to under 30 and the average length of stay on public assistance has increased to four years.
The average women on welfare here has about three children and is finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs, according to Albert P. Russo, director of the city's Department of Human Resources.
Some of the new welfare mothers are the third and fourth generations of families on public assistance.
Because welfare mothers now tend to be younger, conselors say, the problems in the already chaotic and troubled welfare system have become more severe. Younger women tend to be more volatile and emotionally unprepared for the often sudden burdens of raising a family according to counselors.
The 19-year old woman, in her precarious role as head of the household had come to the welfare office for a raise in her welfare check to help cover a rent increase.
The file constaining the young woman's life story was spread out over supervisor Johnson's desk top. Mrs. Johnson made scratch pad notations to determine how each cent of the woman's welfare check was spent.
The ailing bureaucratic process that began months ago with the woman's application for an increase finally churned out a solution.
Rather than giving her an increase in her welfare grant, the supervisors give the young woman advice.
"This furniture payment is too high," Mrs. Johnson noted. "It's too high. Tell her to get it reduced. These bargain basement furniture places. A dollar down and payments the rest of your life."
This welfare office, one of 10 run by the city's Department of Human Resources, is located at 1418 Good Hope Rd. SE, and operates on the outskirts of the Parklands, a public housing complex of row after row of brown brick buildings filled with welfare mothers and their children.
For many welfare mothers entering such an office begins a frantic and confusing journey for what their counselors say should be the beginning of the road to a "total and independent life." In the end though, most stay on public assistance.
Inside the welfare office waiting room, where a wait can take four to five hours, people sit appearing pained and nauseous, empty-eyed and ill.
The sounds of daytime soap operas on the waiting room television muffle the constant buzz of static chatter by women who talk of their babies and the men who fathered them and split.
"He was just no good . . .," Brenda Pearson, 26, is telling a group of women about the fathers of her child.
"Your baby eat eggs?" a woman interrupts.
You try to be nice to these dudes and all they want is (sex)," Pearson say bitterly.
"Ain't none of my babies took to eating eggs," the woman continues.
"Use dried eggs," Pearson says.
"My man's in Lorton," says Cynthia Dobson, 20. "But I got friends who help me out."
"Sure, you got to have a man," says Wanda Phillips.
"Like hall," said Pearson, "Otherwise why you here?"
There are about 124,000 women in Washington who receive assistance though the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. (AFDC). The Anocostia office is one of the busiest.
Russo, the DHR director, said most women on welfare want to work but they are trapped in their situations because of the unavailability of unskilled jobs here and the rising costs of food, housing and utilities.
"There is no question that severe economic conditions impacting upon the poor of this city is the overriding factor in terms of their applying for AFDC." Russo recently told a City Council hearing on budget requests for the human resource agency.
Anacostia welfare supervisor Johnson said, "The younger girls (now on welfare) are pretty much overwhelmed by it all. They are very immature and need constant reassuring. Most of them have low images of themselves and that poses a problem as far as motivation is concerned . . .
"Washington is unique," Mrs. Johnson added, "because what we are dealing with are third and fourth generation welfare mothers - girls who have been raised on welfare and don't know any other way."
TO the clients and administrators, it is often amazing that the welfare office can operate at all. The most minuscule tasks - such as changes of address and telephone numbers - cause the system. There were about 7,000 such changes made by the city's welfare recipients each month.
"The mail," said one staffer, "takes three days to get from the center to the main headquarters."
The Anacostia office opens at 8:15 a.m. to a steady stream of women seeking solutions to lost or stolen welfare checks, misplaced food stamps and Medicaid cards. About 29 new applicants come to the office each month. Twice that number make periodic requests for increases in grants they already receive.
"The first two weeks of the month are the worst," said T. W. Briggs, the Anacostia office manager. "If we could spread things out evenly over the month, it would really cut down on stress and strains."
Rent, utilities and most other bills as well as the welfare checks that will pay them - are due the first of the months, so the welfare office staff of 20 prepares psychologically each month for the increase in traffic.
At the same time, the employees are under a federal court order to process within 45 days each welfare application. To do this at the Anacostia office, some employees who used to check for welfare eligibility now process applications.
The welfare system in Washington currently has the highest error rate of any state in the nation. Between $14 million and $16 million is lost here each year either in overpayments to legitimate welfare recipients or to persons ineligible to recieve any aid.
The city is under pressure to reduce that error rate. But it is also under the firm court order to process applications in 45 days.
"The error rate will undoubtably be higher," said one staff employee. "What you find is that it is really impossible to process all of them in that amount of time. Say, at the end of 44 days, if you haven't finished, you simply terminate the application."
"If I had known welfare was like this," said Gladys, who is 23 and has two children, "I never would have gotten on it. I never would have had these kids.
"I was 16 when I first got pregnant just trying it out," she said, striking the side of her head as if she'd been dumb. "My mother, was on welfare, too, say to me, "Girl, it's finally time for you to get out on your own. She sent me down to the welfare office and moved away."
"Don't ask me why I had another child. God. I ask myself that right now. I can't take the pill because I swell all up and get sick to my stomack . . ."
Glady is a slender woman with her hair pulled back into a bun. Here boyfriend, an independent trucker, bought the boots she's wearing. She bought the knit, kneelength dress with money saved as a result of sending her children to stay with her mother in South Caroline for a month.
This is the dress-up outfit she wears when she gotes out - which is rare. Her boyfriend invariably visits her when he is in town. The two will spend the evening watching television or dancing to the tin sound of her variety store record player. Her third floor Parkland apartment is all but bare, save two beds, two dressers, a stereo and the kitchen table, stove and refreigerator.
Gladys was at the welfare office because she had not recieved her welfare check. A federal judge found last May that it takes the D.C. Department of Human Resources an average of 100 days to replace a lost, stoken or multilated check.
Gladys' check amounted to $257.40, which is standard for a family of three. She uses $70 to buy $134 worth of food stamps, $100 for rent. The other money, plus money she earns as a baby-sitter but does not tell her welfare counselor, goes for utility and phone bills, clothing, transportation and record albums. She gets free medical care for herself and children.
"The last time they lost my checks, I got evicted before they found it," Glayds said. "It's rough. It's so hard to keep anything you almost stop earning. You can't even keep a man and your dignity in this kind of shape.
When the doors of the welfare office close at the end of the day.Glayds strolls home without having seen a counselor to help her get another check. Other people have come first, and that is how it is at the welfare office.
"I don't sleep good after I come doen (to the welfare office)" Glayds said. "I might not come down tomorrow. You feel like a beggar and you get treated like dirt. I'm working on a plan so one day I can get off, one day just had them their money back and say I don't need your funny money.
"I'm working on it. I don't have one yet."