Mary Manley worked for another week. On her last day, a Friday in August, the people at the R.W. Brown Cummunity Center gave her a going-away party. They made her a poster that said, above a picture of her desk, "Good Luck -- Best Wishes -- Mary Manley." Mrs. Manley took the poster home and put it up in her living room.

On Monday, she paid $1,100 to the mortgage company so it would stop the foreclosure proceedings. The date was arrived at only after pleading with the mortgage company until the absolute outer bound of its tolerance was reached. Mrs. Manley agreed that she would pay another $988 a week later in order to keep her house on Marshall Place.

On the same day, somewhat to Mrs. Manley's surprise, her daughter Michelle went back to work at the truck-loading plant. So, in the course of the summer, Michelle's status had really not changed at all.

It was Mrs. Manley who was in a new situation. As the summer began, she had been marginally solvent and employed. Now she was broke and without a job.

In the course of making that transition, she had broken every rule that people in Washington presume governs the behavior of welfare mothers.

When Michelle had gone to work and thereby doubled the family's income, the government cut off the welfare check with which it had supplemented Mrs. Manley's small earnings for a decade, assuming she would no longer need it. Mrs. Manley panicked. She tried to persuade Michelle actually to quit work and go on welfare. When that did not work, and when she needed money fast to save her house, Mrs. Manley quit her own job in order to collect severance pay, then go on the dole.

All of these moves, which made no sense in the aggregate, did make sense individually, for reasons having to do with the way it really is to be on welfare, not the way it is supposed to be. In the real world of welfare, a government check may be less remunerative than most private employment, but it is more secure, and that is often more important. That was Mrs. Manley's rationale. Unfortunately, it would prove wrong.

Mrs. Manley's boss was kind enough to write a letter saying that she had been laid off from work (in fact, she had quit) in order to qualify her for a year of unemployment benefits, which are more generous than welfare.

Still, she planned to go down to the welfare office, partly out of force of habit, partly to fish for grant money over and above what unemployment would pay, and partly to try to get an immediate emergency check. That was her task for the week; it was a simple and manageable one. Only she couldn't quite bring herself to do it; like its critics, welfare's beneficiaries are ambivalent about the system.

She didn't go to the welfare office on Monday because she had to take care of the mortgage.

On Tuesday, her 20-year-old retarded son Earl had diarrhea, and she didn't want to risk taking him anywhere. Michelle was back at work and Michelle's twin, Michael, was at his summer job; Mrs. Manley had no choice but to stay home with Earl. So she didn't go again.

It was just as well that she didn't, because a man from the electric company came by and said he would cut off the electricity unless Mrs. Manley paid $80 she owed. She wrote him a check for $80, then went to the bank to see how much money was in her account. She had $11. She put it in her mind to deposit more, but it was not an immediate worry. She knew the process of check bouncing, the company dunning her again, and her paying again was certain to take several days, days in which she would still have electricity.

When she got home from the bank, Mrs. Manley got out her ironing board and set furiously to work, as if to prove that although she was out of a job, she was anything but lazy. Earl -- short, solidly built, jutjawed -- wandered around the house in intricate patterns understandable only to him, grinning, waving his arms, hissing like a cat.

Mrs. Manley called the welfare office to make an appointment, because she didn't want just to go in and wait all day. The line was busy. She called again. The line was still busy. She called again and asked to speak to Mrs. Vasquez, her old caseworker, whom she liked. The man who answered the phone told her that her caseworker was now Mrs. Clay, not Mrs. Vasquez. Then he put her on hold, and she got cut off.

In the afternoon Michael came home. He said he had gotten in a quarrel with his boss at his summer job and quit.

This was a piece of bad news that didn't much worry Mrs. Manley. She was, for one thing, absolute confident that Michael was the one of her children who was certain to do well in life. He was tall, thin, handsome, and intelligent. He had a steady girlfriend who was, like him, a college student. Also he had a special guardian angel in the world: SmithKline Corp., the Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm.

In the wake of the riots of the 1960s, SmithKline, which is right on the southern edge of North Philadelphia, set up a program for young people called The Potentials, which trains 50 kids every summer in remedial reading, math, and Dale Carnegie-style self-inprovement. SmithKline pays the summer students, encourages them to save some of their earnings, and then matches their savings with grants for a period of several years.

Michael got into the Potentials while he was still in high school, through the good offices of his mother's former employer, the R.W.Brown Community Center, and now the company is helping him through college. There are also nice fringe benefits: While his mother was struggling to make ends meet, Michael had taken vacation trips to Bermuda and New Orleans courtesy of SmithKline. As Mrs. Manley was preparing to go to the welfare office, Michael was preparing to go to Mexico on still another SmithKline trip.

Although he has the record of a model child, Michael is also an almost sullen young man. He keeps his own counsel, and doesn't talk to his family with much candor. His mother didn't know exactly why he quit his job, because he didn't tell her.

To be upwardly mobile in North Philadelphia, like Michael, is to be in a strange position. Everyone who lives there is a failure by the usual standards of society. So people make peace with themselves by ascribing their failures to the system, not themselves.

Thus anyone who is upwardly mobile is viewed with jealousy and suspicion, and ambition brings with it deeper internal conflicts in North Philadelphia than it does in most places. When Michael Manley's family starts to discuss welfare or unwed motherhood, he usually leaves the room."He hates that," says his mother. "He don't want to hear it."

And although Michael is now majoring in engineering at Temple, he is thinking of switching to social work, where the employment prospects are far worse, because the idea that to be successful means leaving home and friends makes him uncomfortable.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Manley overslept and so was unable to get Michelle's son Bryant off to his day care center on time. That meant she had Bryant and Earl at home and so again could not go to the welfare office. She was in a bad mood. She was mad at herself for having overslept, and generally mad at the world.

In her working days Mrs. Manley had worn a dress or slacks every day. Now she was wearing old shorts, slippers, a T-shirt, and curlers in her hair. She spent the morning ironing. Michael went out and then came back and sat slouched in the living room watching soap operas on television.

One of the neighborhood girls ran in and said Bryant was outside getting wet. Sure enough, when Mrs. Manley went to the door to look, there was three-year-old Bryant standing in front of the block's fire hydrant, which, like most fire hydrants in North Philadelphia on hot summer afternoons, was spraying out a flume of water.

Mrs. Manley called Bryant but he pretended not to hear. She grabbed a strip of plstic that was lying out on the kitchen table, marched out to the hydrant, grabbed Bryant by the arm, and gave him a couple of whacks with theplastic strip."Get in the house!" she said. "I got to clean you up now!"

Then Earl walked downstairs with his shorts hanging around his hips. "Pull your pants up," said Mrs. Manley. Earl giggled. "Ain't funny. Pull 'em up!"

On Thursday morning Mrs. Manley got Bryant off to the day care center and then called the welfare office again. She asked for Mrs. Clay, her new caseworker. "Hi," she said in a polite voice, "I had Mrs. Vasquez and my DPA got discontinued and I got laid off last week and now I don't know who to see. That's Manley, Mary Manley." Mrs. Clay told her she needed to talk to Miss Ellis, another caseworker. She would put Mrs. Manley on hold and go find her. Then the connection got cut off.

Mrs. Manely called back and asked for Miss Ellis, who came on the line. "My name is Mary Manley," said Mrs. Manley. "They just gave me you." Miss Ellis said to hold on for a minute, and then came back and said she wasn't Mrs. Manley's caseworker, Mrs. Vasquez was. Mrs. Vasquez was out just then, but she'd back in the morning.

"Now I'm back to the one I started with in the first place," said Mrs. Manley. "Who wants to be bothered with this here?" Earl grinned at her, uncomprehending. Michael sat at the kitchen table and didn't say anything. Mrs. Manley, lacking her family's sympathy as well as money, was getting to the end of her rope.

She made some pancakes for herself and Michael and Earl, and everyone sat around the table eating in silence.

Earl started to push his pancakes off his plate and onto the table. "Earl," his mother said, "you make a mess, you clean it up." She pushed the pancakes back onto his plate. Michael stared at his pancakes. Something in his air of complete removal set his mother off.

"Mike, when you get paid, buy some milk and stuff," she said. "Buy some food. You see what it costs. Maybe you won't be eating every five minutes like you do. And since you hates washing dishes so much. I'm gonna just cook for myself and Bryant and Earl."

Michael didn't look up.

"I'm not gonna keep going through all this aggravation," said Mrs. Manley. "I raised y'all up and its too bad. I sacrificed everything for y'all. More than I had done for me. When I came along you worked for yourself. That's the way it was. You got no encouragement or nothing. And Michelle, she gonna get on the ball tonight. She gonna put Bryant to bed and feed him. It's gonna be a way of life."

His pancakes half eaten, Michael edged out of his seat and into the living room. He began watching "The Price Is Right."

"Just waste up food," his mother called after him. "That's all you do. Y'all start buying your own food and you'll see what it's like. Then if you want more you'll go back and get it."

Michael walked upstairs to his room and shut the door.

First thing Friday morning, Mrs. Manley called Mrs. Vasquez, who said to come in to the welfare office at 3 that afternoon.

At 3, Mrs. Manley was still deciding what to wear. Finally she picked out a pair of white slacks and a black nylon top. She ironed them with great care, smoothing out every hint of a wrinkle. She put on a pair of high-heeled sandals and one earring.

Michael had gone out, so Earl would have to come too. She ironed a shirt and a pair of shorts for him and dressed him. Then she decided the shirt didn't go with the shorts, so she ironed a new shirt and put that on him instead.

She went upstairs to get her purse and came down again. She went upstairs to get an umbrella in case it rained and came down again. She made sure all the windows were closed.

Finally she turned to Earl. "Okay, son" she said. "We got to get going. We got no other choice."

All Philadelphia is divided into 17 welfare districts. Right in the middle of all of them, in a drab three-story building just six blocks north of City Hall, is Mrs. Manley's district office -- Center District.

Outside of Center District, there is a hot-dog vendor on duty every day; a welfare office is the best place in the neighborhood to do business. Inside, in the second-story waiting room, at any time of day several dozen people sit in worn wooden chairs set in rows on a scarred gray linoleum floor.

Somebody is usually playing a radio. Nobody ever reads while waiting there and hardly anyone talks. Mainly, the people -- most of them black, some white, some alone, some in couples, some with children -- just stare into space.

Mrs. Manley and Earl waited for an hour, and then Mrs. Vasquez motioned them into a small bare cubicle on the edge of the waiting room. When they went into the cubicle, they left, in a sense, the world of North Philadelphia and entered the world of Washington.

"Now you're applying for who?" said Mrs. Valquez.

"I'm applying for me and my son Michael and for Bryant," Mrs. Manley said.

"Who's Bryant?"

"He's Michelle's son. My daughter's son. 'Cause she can't support Bryant on what she makes."

Mrs. Valquez began filling out a form. Earl sat in a chair smiling and twirling his fingers in small intricate circular patterns.

"Can you put Michelle on there?" said Mrs. Manley.

Mrs. Valquez looked up from her writing. "If you want her to be on assistance, she'll have to come in."

"What I'm saying is, she ain't worked a month steady and I'm supporting her," said Mrs. Manley.

"So, right now, do you want her to be included or not?"

"I guess she better."

"So she's the only one working, right?" said Mrs. Valquez.

"Mm Hm."

"Um, your husband, is he around?"

Mrs. Manley frowned. "I don't know."

"He's living?"

"In California."

"Do you know his source of income?"

"I don't know nothing about nothing."

"Are you divorced?"

"No."

"How long have you been separated?"

"A long time."

"Now, what's Bryant's father's name?"

"Herman Pierce."

"Do you know where he is?"

"No," said Mrs. Manley. "He's in school."

"Is he supporting the child?"

"No."

"How much money do you have on hand?"

"None."

"You have a bank or savings account?"

"No."

"Savings bonds, stocks?"

"I wish I did," said Mrs. Manley. "Then I wouldn't be down here."

The questions went on and on -- questions about birth and death, about food stamps and jobs programs, about relatives and friends. What was Mrs. Manley's social security number? How big was Earl's diability check? How long had Mrs. Manley lived on Marshall Place? Could she prove it? Mrs. Manley began signing forms. Earl got up and walked around the caseworker's cubicle, scowling.

He hadn't made a sound the whole time -- in fact he hardly ever made a sound -- but now he walked around to a point directly behind Mrs. Valquez and let forth a loud, strange bellow. Mrs. Valquez jumped out of her chair.

"Okay, Earl," said Mrs. Manley. "Okay. We going. We going."

Thus did Mary Manley solve her problems with the welfare system -- for the moment, anyway. And thus did she make a series of decisions that apparently doomed her to a meager life on welfare -- decisions that, rationally, a diligent proud, employed woman like her is not supposed to make. The welfare philosophers in Washington tend to discuss this vast, complicated system in the abstract. They pronounce learnedly on the great questions: What kind of people go on welfare, how long do they stay, what leads them to move onto the rolls and off. Their generalizations tend to reflect their places on the political spectrum; there is no more sensitive political subject than welfare, which in the final analysis is simple income redistribution.

Mary Manley suggests the reality is more complicated than these experts tell us.

What went wrong for Mrs. Manley? You could say she messed up her own life: she should have forced Michelle to give her money; she should have been more forward-thinking about finding another program for Earl; she should have made her choices with more foresight. You could also say that the government messed her life up for her: having in effect encouraged her to depend on welfare, it should have realized the devastating effects that taking welfare away at the first hint of progress would have on her.

Or you could say that in a world where there are few real, steady jobs and little in life that is as secure as a government check, people will always make bad choices, and a woman like Mary Manley will never get out of the welfare system.

Mrs. Manley's life is a mess because her marriage broke up -- a pattern her daughters have repeated -- and because she refuses to plan ahead. There is a reason for that. The reason is that North Philadelphia is a place where a dozen forms of disaster lurk behind every corner and where people's experiences have given them no faith that sobriety or diligence will bring them any rewards. So people lost their self-respect. They grasp as immediate pleasures. The women grasp as the simple joy of having a child. The men leave. And people gamble and take drugs and drink and feel hostile and surly. And to the extent that most of them plan their lives, they plan with this afternoon in mind, not next week or next year; next year is not a pleasant subject on which to dwell.

On a Saturday in mid-August, Mrs. Manley got a letter from the mortgage company demanding $988 more in house payments by the following Monday.

On Monday, Mrs. Manley called themortgage company and talked them into giving her another week to come up with the money.

On the following Monday, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Assistance gave Mrs. Manley a welfare check for $198, and $240 worth of food stamps.

She didn't make the payment to the mortgage company, and the following Monday, a letter arrived from the company.

"Enclosed please find our check in the amount of $1,100.00," the letter said. "Please be advised that this money is being returned to you due to the fact that you failed to remit the balance as due in our office on the date that was specified to you.

"Foreclosure action is once again being taken on your account and it should be listed for sheriff sale shortly."

Mrs. Manley intended to hang on the the $1,100 check, but within a few weeks she had spent it all, on clothes for the family, on things for the house she was about to lose. Quitting her job to save the house seemed now to have been in vain.

Would Mray Manley lose her house? Would she ever work again? For that matter, would her son Michael eventually escape from the North Philadelphia ghetto? Would her daughter Michelle manage to stay on welfare?

The melodramatic questions continue. The saga of Mary Manley is a soap opera without an ending.

It is also a soap opera about a government program. When most people hear those words -- goverment program -- they think of interminable debates in Congress, of lobbyists and speeches and White House conferences, of bureaucrats and lawyers and judges. They shouldn't. They should think about Mary Manley. Her life is where what goes on in this city really matters.