Karen Perry is about $25 a week away from total reliance on welfare.
The 29-year-old, single mother of four lives on about $147 a week, a combination of her 120-a-week salary and a $97.41 a month govrnment check to help her support her children. Meeting her budget also depends on benefits from five other government programs -- all of which, along with the $97.41, would be cut back or changed in President Ronald Reagan's proposed economic package.
If those proposals translate into $25 a week less in Karen Perry's income, she will have to think about quitting her job and living totally off the government. At that point, she would be able to make more money off welfare than at her job.
Perry is one of the working poor who will feel the direct sting of Reagan's cuts. She is a $7,000-a-year receptionist at Capitol Head Start in Northwest Washington. She has had the job for a year, and it is an integral part of her sense of self esteem. She is proud to work.
"When i got the job, i knew it would change my [wefare] benefits," Perry said, "but it didn't make a difference because I felt like I could hold my hed up -- like I was something better than the kind of woman who'll just sit home and watch the stories because she can. And it's very important to me that the kids see me go to work each day.
"Now I'm worried," she said. "if I could tell the president anything, it would be to come and live like I do for a month. Then if he had some ideas, I would listen, I would think that he knew what he was talking about." i
Perry just doesn't believe Ronald Reagan really understands what her life is like, how precarious she balances between the pride of working for a living and the humiliation of staying home and waiting for a welfare check in the mail.
Besides her salary, Perry gets $58 in food stamps each month, $97.41 in supplemental Aid to Families with Dependent Children.Medicaid, subsidized day care for her two youngest children ages 3 and 4, and free school lunches for her 11-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old son lives in a government-funded residential center designed to help children with behavior problems.
How much the proposed cutbacks would actually cost Perry will not be clear until Congress acts. But she is more than likely to lose something. For instance, under one proposal she might get fewer food stamps because the proposed policy changes would subtract at least some of the cost of her children's free shcool meals from her food stamp allotment.
"I use those meals when I plan what I'm going to feed the kids," Perry said. "If they count against us, it'll be like saying, 'Okay, have a good lunch but starve at dinner.' I can't believe he [Reagan] would do something like that to us. Maybe he's never been hungry."
Under another proposal, her $97.41 a month also could be reduced by as much as a third, said a Department of Human Services spokesman, until the government could determine that her four childrens' three fathers and their step-parents were unable to pay that amount.
Day care for her preschool children and psychological treatment for her son may also be affected, costing her a few dollars each instead of being free. sAlthough she will remain eligible for Medicaid, the fee paid to health care providerfs such as doctors and hospitals would decrease under Reagan's proposals, possibly causing cutbacks in available services.
Perry now makes ends meet by careful budgeting. She makes a list of her fixed expenses and "just juggles" the rest. The $200 a month in rent and the $150 a month in food come first. Other decisions about how the remaining $227 a month is spent are based on urgency. She must pay utilities, travel back and forth to work, do laundry and buy clothes, shoes and incidentals for the children. It is an existence she has grown used to over the years.
"If you worry about tomorrow," she said, "you'll be too upset to keep it together today."
Because of the large size of her family, Perry hasn't been able to find an affordable apartment. She and three of her children have been living in a two-bedroom house with her mother, their landlord and another tenant. Her $200 montly contribution to the rent is roughly half of Perry's monthly take-home pay. It is the biggest unchanging item in her budget, and she says she would have to move out if her ability to contribute to the rent deceased.
But as tight as Karen Perry's budget is, a Department of Human Services source said that compared to many others Perry is in good shape.
"Food stamps were never meant to take the place of a person spending their own available money for food," she said. "I know there are a lot of people who just figure the food stamps into their budget, but it's like anything else -- if you loose an extra source of income, you find another place to tighten up."
But Karen Perry doesn't see how things could get much tigher.
"It's incredibly difficult to buy just the necessities" she said. "You know, the $58 I get in food stamps doesn't sound like much, and I suppose it isn't. But without it I don't know what would happen. I guess we'd have a couple of weeks at the end of each month where we just didn't have any food. We'd have to rely on the goodness of friends or relatives, I guess. Children have to eat, and as it is I spend more than $150 a month to feed them. I cut out all the coupons I can get my hands on, and seldom buy any kind of meat. As far as luxuries like ice cream go -- forget it. I tell the kids it's just something we're not going to have.
"I realize that there are a lot of people who try to get over on the system all the time," Perry acknowledges, "but I don't think they're in the majority because welfare is one of the most degrading things that can happen to a person. You know, it's like being on a plantation and going to ask master for a little more of this and that. And believe me, a little more is all you ever get. If there's any other choice, I think most people on welfare would rather get by some other way.
"I won't give up my job. I just won't," she said stubbornly. Her spine stiffened and her lips formed a thin, determined line. But the numbers that control her life are at odds with what she said.
If Perry had less money to contribute to the rent, for example, she would have to look for another place to live. But even a family with money is hard put to find decent rental housing when there are four children to consider. Perry said her best alternative would be to look for subsidized public housing, a task which is often fruitless even for welfare recipients because there is usually is a two to three year wait. Perry already has been rejected for public housing because she is "too well off."
Despite her doubts about Ronald Reagan, Perry thought it was "only fair" to give him a chance after he was elected. Now she says he's had that chance.
"As it is," she said, "I just don't think Ronald Reagan cares about people like me."