Carrying a bag of groceries she had just bought with borrowed money, Mary Manley trudged slowly through the late afternoon heat, her mind filled with troubles.

In the grocery bag was a couple of days' worth of food for her family, and its contents would have horrified the federal officials whose programs had largely supported Mrs. Manley for years. She had some hot dogs, some smoked sausages, a box of pancake mix, a box of Sugar Smacks, a dozen eggs, and a can of pork and beans. That was what the Manleys ate. It was fast and easy and cheap and good.

Mrs. Manley turned off Girard Avenue -- the major thoroughfare of her neighborhood in North Philadelphia, a shopping street where all the stores are fortresses of brick and heavy wire mesh -- and onto the street where she lives, Marshall Place.

Mary Manley is a proud woman, anxious to invest her life with dignity; and when she fixes on something that puts her in a good light she clings to it, often past the point of truth. So it is that she insists, when asked, that she lives in "a nice, quiet neighborhood."

But the truth is that everything in her life that has been good has also been precarious. She is 56. For years, she has lived on the brink, in two ways.

In her own eyes, she is on the brink between utter poverty and the kind of decent, comfortable life in which one can own a home, pay the bills, live in safety, and not begin every day facing some sort of disaster.

In the eyes of the government, she is on the brink between welfare dependency and economic self-sufficiency -- a brink inhabited by perhaps seven million of the 10 million Americans on welfare.

From the standpoint of federal welfare policy and of Mrs. Manley herself, the course of her life in the summer of 1980 was crucially important because it was a kind of test: would she get off the brink, and on which side of it would she land, if she did?

Of course, Mrs. Manley did not see the summer in such grand terms. Her life is defined by a series of tiny handholds on security and material comfort, and it is these, not the overall course of her life, that absorb her. One of the handholds was a job. Another was a welfare check. And yet another was Marshall Place, her nice, quiet neighborhood, which can serve as a metaphor for all the others because it is really far less than what she would like it to be.

Marshall Place is one of the few islands of stability in North Philadelphia, a large, poor, black ghetto. It is a cul-de-sac, one block long. Not a single house on Marshall Place is boarded, which makes it special in North Philadelphia.

Mary Manley's house is shabby by the standards of Marshall Place. A rusted car with four flat tires sits in the driveway; the front awning is missing a support post and sags; the front door doesn't close properly.

But -- this is the part Mrs. Manley doesn't like to talk about -- just a stone's throw to the west of Marshall Place are the Richard Allen Homes, a housing project where Mrs. Manley once lived. There, the courtyards are strewn with broken glass and the tiny manila envelopes that drug dealers use. When a group of mothers there posted a list of the names of the main drug dealers at Richard Allen, the dealers let it be known that they would pay $3,500 to anyone who killed one of the mothers.

A stone's throw to the north of Mrs. Manley's house, at Eighth and Columbia, there are blocks with only one or two houses out of 15 occupied. Little boys amuse themselves by lying in the street and then robbing the drivers of cars who have stopped to avoid running them over.

In July, a white policeman was murdered in North Philadelphia; people said it was an intentional ambush. In August a white policeman accidentally killed a black youth while pistol whipping him on purpose, and for three nights teen-age boys thronged the streets of North Philadelphia, sporadically looting and throwing bottles at cops. Mrs. Manley stayed home. "I'm not going near those crazy lunatics," she said. When the point is pressed, she slightly amends her description of where she lives: "I live in a nice quiet neighborhood that's near a project that has a lot of narcotics."

It is Mrs. Manley's fondest dream to get herself and her children out of North Philadelphia, her home for 54 years, which she hates. "In Philly you got to fight for everything you want," she says. "You got to live fighting every day. And you still don't get it."

Mrs. Manley shifted her grocery bag to one hand, climbed her front steps, and pushed open the front door. She walked through her living room -- it had a bare, spotless wooden floor, a factory-outlet sofa and easy chair, and family pictures and framed diplomas on its walls. In the kitchen, she laid her bag down on the table, under a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She emptied the grocery bag onto the kitchen table. She opened a copy of the Philadelphia Daily News she had bought on the way home and began scanning the food ads.

Mrs. Manley had been on welfare for a long time now, and on the record she hated it. "I tell you the truth," she would tell anyone who asked. "It ain't even worth it. It's a mess. You don't even get enough money to live." aWelfare meant nosy caseworkers. It meant waiting in line. It meant a lot of crazy rules. It was a particularly complicated and bothersome form of begging.

Beyond that, in the class system of North Philadelphia, welfare is taken as a sign of inferiority. Most people on welfare in North Philadelphia see themselves, individually, as hapless victims of fate; but they see the mass of welfare recipients they don't know personally as lazy bums. Michelle Manley often talks derisively about her friends who went on welfare. Mrs. Manley herself hoots with scorn when she sees a young man standing on the corner smoking marijuana or a girl wearing a comb in her hair. "That's welfare," she says.

But a welfare check is, indisputably, reliable money. A job can end, and in North Philadelphia, unless it's government work, it usually does; a welfare check always comes. It is this point that the people who make welfare policy in Washington don't understand. When they talk about there being a tradeoff between welfare and working, they mean it as a weighing of greed against laziness. In real life, it's usually a little money that's secure versus a little bit more money that's not.

As Mrs. Manley read the paper, Michelle came bounding downstairs holding Bryant. She spotted the Sugar Smacks on the table, got two bowls from a shelf, and poured one bowl of Sugar Smacks for her dinner and one for Bryant's.

Mrs. Manley looked up from the paper. "The main thing I needed at the store," she said, "I didn't get."

"What?" said Michelle.


"Salt." Michelle was not especially interested, but she was taking pains to be polite, knowing her mother was irritated with her for bringing about the cutoff of the family welfare check.

"And three cans of pork and beans for 89 cents," said Mrs. Manley. Sometimes she belabored the details of grocery shopping in conversations with Michelle, in order subtly to call attention to Michelle's shirking of the shopping duties. "I just bought one can. And no salt either."

Michelle poured some milk in her bowl and some in Bryant's.

"Ma! Ma!" said Bryant. "I'm Sugar Smack and I smack you back!"

"What he saying?" said Mrs. manley.

"He saying the Sugar Smack commercial," said Michelle.

Mrs. Manley nodded and went back to the grocery ads, frowning at the prices. The truth was that she had come to depend on her welfare check, and to her it seemed that without it she couldn't possibly get by.

It was that frightened side of Mrs. Manley that automatically turned to Michelle -- as an unwed mother of an infant, eligible for a welfare check -- to get her back in the system. It was Mrs. Manley's other side -- the side that had complained bitterly about welfare, night after night, for nearly 20 years -- that led Michelle, just as automatically, to resist.

Until the summer of 1980, Mrs. Manley seemed to be moving steadily toward her goal, and the goal of the federal government: Getting out of and getting off welfare.She owned a house. Two of her four children were high school graduates, and one of the two was in college and the other working. Mrs. Manley herself had a steady job.

But in the real world of welfare -- the world where all choices are bad choices -- things are not always the way they seem on the surface. Mrs. Manley's life was falling apart, in part precisely because she was doing so well. She was broke. She was in danger of losing her house. It was a sign of her distress that she was trying to persuade her daughter Michelle to quit her job and go on welfare.

None of these misfortunes were part of the government's intentions toward Mrs. Manley; but as far as she was concerned, her troubles were probably the government's fault. She certainly didn't think they were her fault.

Her current round of troubles began a year ago. When the cold weather came her pipes broke; and she had to buy new plumbing and a set of storm doors. That so set her back that by November 1979 she stopped making payments on her house.

Then there were a couple of deaths in the family, and a few friends and relatives leaned on her for loans, as she had often leaned on friends and relatives herself in the past. That put her further in the hole. As soon as spring came in sight, she stopped paying her gas bill.

Then her 18-year-old younger daughter, Michelle, got a job as a truck loader, a job that brought home $99.96 a week. Michelle had been out of high school and job hunting for eight months, and Mrs. Manley should have been overjoyed when she went to work in February.

But because Michelle lives at home, in the government's eyes her wages counted as household income and so raised the Manleys above the ceiling of welfare eligibility.

The family continued to receive a welfare check of $48.50 twice a month because Mrs. Manley didn't immediately tell her caseworker about their new prosperity. To her this was perfectly just, for two reasons: Michelle, as an unskilled laborer at the bottom of the employment world, was often laid off, and Michelle spent her wages on herself. Mrs. Manley didn't know what she did with them, but she knew they didn't go for groceries or rent.

But that wasn't the way the welfare office saw it.

When Michelle turned 18, she registered, in accordance with federal law, with the Work Incentives Program, known as WIN.

WIN found her the trucking loading job, and WIN told the Pennsylvania Department of Public Assistance that it had done so.

When the department looked at the Manley family records, it saw a family taking in more than $13,000 a year in wages and welfare benefits -- in other words, a family of welfare cheaters. In March it informed Mrs. Manley that it was cutting off her check. She appealed the decision and lost.

In May, Mrs. Manley's mentally retarded older son, Earl, 20, graduated from a special school and went to a special summer camp. During Earl's school days Michelle had been able to look after him when he got home, and before Michelle graduated from high school Mrs. Manley's older daughter, Debbie, 22, had done that. This had freed Mrs. Manley to work a full-time job, as a receptionist at a community center, that brought her $221 twice a month in take-home pay.

But in 1979 Debbie had a child out of wedlock, moved out of the house, and went on welfare. Now Michelle was working. That left nobody to take care of Earl when he got home from camp, and Mrs. Manley didn't know about any new programs in which to enroll him.

In the spring the gas company cut Mrs. Manley off for nonpayment of bills. She figured she could make it through the warm months without gas by cooking on an electric hot plate, and would worry about coming up with the gas money when it got cold. Long years of insolvency had taught her never to pay any bill, or even to worry about how to pay it, until absolutely necessary.

But in May the mortgage company began foreclosure proceedings on Mrs. Manley's house. This worried her more than the gas bill because her house -- sturdy, a bit bare, starting to crumble a little only eight years after it was built, defiantly clean, hers -- was an immense source of pride to her. But, again, she didn't do anything immediately, because she knew foreclosure proceedings took time.

In June, for the first time in two decades, her welfare check stopped coming, and that, curiously, evoked in Mary Manley an emotion very close to panic.

Like most welfare mothers in North Philadelphia, Mary Manley has a pretty good idea how her life got messed up in the first place: through love gone awry.

She was born Mary Tucker in 1924 in Gadsden, S.C. In 1926 her father, a farm hand, moved the family to Philadelphia because, Mrs. Manley says, "things was supposed to be better up there."

The Tuckers were in an advance party of the greatest internal migration in American history, the migration of rural Southern blacks to cities in the North and West. From 1940 to 1970, the peak years of the migration, 4 1/2 million blacks left the South -- more, for instance, than the number of Italians who came to America in the three peak decades of Italian immigration. In North Philadelphia, almost everybody is one or two generations removed from Southern farms.

David Tucker worked in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, had eight children who slept two and three to a bed, and by the end of his life owned his house. In 1948, when Mary Tucker was 22, she decided to get out of Philadelphia and took a train to Chicago. She got a job as a nurse in the suburbs, met a young auto mechanic named Nathanael Manley, and married him in 1950.

In 1952 the Manleys decided, in Mrs. Manley's words, "to look around for some better living." They drove north until they got to Grand Rapids, Mich., where they decided to settle. Nathanael worked days in a repair shop; Mary worked nights as a baby nurse in a hospital. They got a nice apartment. Their first child, Debbie, was born in 1958.

Nathanael Manley always drank, and as the years passed he drank more and more, until it was clear at least in Mrs. Manley's mind that he was an alcoholic and that her life with him had become intolerable. In 1959, pregnant with her second child, she moved back to North Philadelphia. "Where else do you go," she says, "if you're pregnant and you have nothing? You go back to your family."

When she moved, she rejoined a community in which her new kind of household -- the female-headed family -- was fast becoming the dominant social unit. In the United States, 49 percent of black families are headed by a single parent, almost always a woman; in North Philadelphia, the percentage is certainly much higher.

To be part of a female-headed black family is, almost inevitably, to be poor. Fifty-eight percent of black single-parent families in America are below the poverty line. Knock on the door of the most obviously affluent household on a block in North Philadelphia -- the house with fresh paint and flower boxes -- and you'll find a husband and wife at home; knock at the seedy apartment down the street and you'll find the husband long gone.

Why do the men leave? People in North Philadelphia have a variety of theories. Some think men who aren't working lose their pride and can't stand being around the house. Some think they are just no good.

As for the women, sometimes they get pregnant by accident -- not as strange as it sounds in a community where most people over 30 are intensely religious and often simply will not discuss with their daughters the subject of birth control, much less abortion. Sometimes girls get pregnant in hopes of keeping their boyfriends. And quite often, in the bleak lives they lead, a baby is the only readily available source of uncritical love, of maturity, and of power.

In 1960, Earl Manley was born and Mrs. Manley, having fulfilled the one-year residency requirement then in force, went on welfare. She moved her family into the Richard Allen Homes, then the brand-newest housing project in the neighborhood where she grew up.

In 1968 Mary Manley moved out of the Richard Allen Homes into a subsidized apartment. In 1969 she got a job as a receptionist at the R. W. Brown Community Center, a few blocks from her home, and was allowed to stay on welfare at a reduced rate. In 1972 she bought her house, with the help of a federal subsidy, for $750 down and $125.50 a month.

In 1977 Michelle, then 15, had her son, Bryant. Bryant's father, Herman Pierce, a handsome young man who, like Michelle, doesn't have a father, is a high school dropout in the Army National Guard. He has not proposed marriage to Michelle, but Mrs. Manley keeps his picture on her mantel.

In 1979 Debbie, who dropped out of high school, had a daughter, Nikki, out of wedlock, moved out of the house, and went on welfare. Michelle, younger and working, stayed home.

"If my husband had turned out all right," Mary Manley says defiantly, "I would have paid for two houses by now." Without a husband, her life was effectively ruined. She became a part of the bottom class that lives in housing projects and supports itself with welfare checks. It once seemed that she was on her way out of that. Now the cutoff of her welfare check put her in dire peril of slipping back down again.

After Bryant finished his Sugar Smacks, Michelle sat him on her lap. "Hey Brant," she said. "What you want to be?"

Bryant smiled coyly. He was used to this ritual, and he enjoyed it.

"Come on," Michelle prodded. "Who you want to play for?"

"The Rams."

Michelle clapped her hands delightedly. "He gonna do it, too," she said. "He gonna be quarterback."

Mrs. Manley smiled tolerantly, but Michelle's endless optimism -- her confidence that she could keep advancing, that she wouldn't need welfare, that her fatherless son was destined for fame and glory -- struck her as naive.

The real state of affairs was that by the middle of the summer, Mary Manley's whole family was poised on the brink of deep financial trouble.

Late in July, Michelle Manley went on vacation. At least, Michelle said it was a vacation. But Mary Manley, accustomed to expecting the worst from life, saw "vacation" as another word for "layoff." She decided this would be an ideal time for Michelle to face reality and get on welfare. Mrs. Manley wanted her to go, and even designated the appointed day -- Monday, July 28.

The day came. Michelle didn't go.

"I'm not going down there and go on no welfare," was all she would say about it.

Her mother took it surprisingly well and moved on to other questions. Now that Michelle has said no to welfare, where will she find the money to pay the bills and save their home?