Cheryl Reese is all for Ronald Reagan. She likes his idea that poor people should get off welfare by getting to work. She agrees that it's too easy for poor people to live on welfare.
What is remarkable about this is that Cheryl Reese is on welfare. She and her two children live on $285.65 per month -- $3,427.80 a year -- in Washington, where the mean family income in the metropolitan area in 1979 was $32,667. For her family of three, she gets less than the federal government's 1980 poverty level for one American, $4,190.
But that small welfare income is supplemented by $123 a month in food stamps, Medicaid and an apartment in the Kenilworth Parkside addition public housing, which costs her only $50 a month. That is why Reese agrees with Ronald Reagan's position that, in America, being poor is no incentive to get working. In Reese's opinion, she is comfortable and poor. Her children do not go begging for food; she is warm, clothed, healthy and well fed.
But instead of singing tributes to the compassion of a nation that cares for its poor, Reese, like Reagan, speaks of hate of welfare. It's for a different reason though. Her dislike of welfare comes from the way it controls her life, limits her choices, makes her most private decisions open to control by public policy.
"Like to get a tubal ligation," she says, sitting in her ground floor apartment -- a TV, an old stereo, a kitchen table and a large, torn chair are all she has in her living room. "To get one of those you got to go through all kinds of red tape.You tell them you want one, and they give you a form. You got to come back home and read a booklet and form into DHS [the District's Department of Human Services] to get it approved. Then you've got to wait. Then they want to talk to you about it.... If I could afford the insurance wouldn't nobody have to know my business."
Even to help get Christmas gifts for Antonio, 11, and Ahoto, 5, she can't go out and get a part-time job. She has to weigh the value of getting a part-time job, which is likely to be back-breaking menial labor, against the risk that welfare officials would subtract her earnings from her welfare check.
Reese wants to work, not only for the holidays but all year long. She wants a job that is not sweat-shop work and not baby-sitting. She wants a job she can take some pride in and stay with. But, by her account, all efforts by the welfare bureaucracy to get her off welfare have been a sham. The Work Incentive program (WIN) was a lot of classes and talk, she says, that got her a $30-a-week baby-sitting job. When she asked for something better, she got a job packing boxes, standing on her feet for eight hours with a slave-driving boss standing over her asking her to work faster and faster.
"Reagan's got the right idea about all of welfare, from what I've seen him say," the thin woman says. "It just don't help people to do nothing but get more welfare and get in your way when you're trying to get off."
Reese's prescription for getting herself off welfare has been to get a high school equivalency diploma at the University of the District of Columbia and begin college courses there, majoring in accounting. She says she was motivated to get a college degree and a job when it dawned on her that while welfare is a helping hand, in some aspects it is also a hand holding her down, limiting her options.
"You want to know what it's like to be poor, to be on welfare?" she asks, reaching back to rap on the wall behind her. "If the housing authority didn't give me this wallpaper for Christmas last year, I wouldn't have none. I can't stand the plain white walls, but I can't buy nothing to cover them. I'd like a couch. I see the couches in the better stores -- Hecht's and Woodies -- but I could never get that."
She was happy growing up on welfare. Her mother still is on welfare. When she had her first child at 14, he came onto the welfare rolls at birth. The father of her first child was on welfare, too.
"Welfare makes you slow to take control of your life, your responsibilities," she says, her eyes closing as she speaks and smokes a cigarette. "Because you've got some kind of money coming in and you get into living that much, you get comfortable, you know. You get used to having it, and everyone around you only got the same, so you know, it becomes like normal. I wasn't thinking, hey, I'm poor, something's wrong.... I don't blame my mother. She had some hard times and she did the best for us. I should have listened to her and not had a kid so young and gone on and finished Spingarn [High School]. She told me right. I feel bad about that...."
While Reese blames herself for getting into the welfare cycle, she says the government seems pleased to keep her there. When she was attending classes to get her equivalency diploma, she was getting a stipend for books and other expenses of going to school. She says that, when she got the degree, she still had serious problems with reading and math and couldn't get any job that had to do with numbers or reading. She didn't see herself getting a job that she couldn't stay with and leave welfare behind. She decided she needed to learn to read well and to handle math -- even if just to make a budget for her home. Remedial classes at UDC have helped. But the government stipend is gone; it is only for people working toward a high school diploma. Consequently, there are days when she does not have the $2 it costs her to take Metro to school.
Now as she struggles to go to school -- paying $182 a semester in tuition -- so she can get a job she can feel good about, Reese says Reagan and the anti-welfare philosophy she agrees with are becoming part of the bureaucratic conspiracy to keep her on welfare.
"When they start cutting the welfare, the food stamps, the Medicaid," she says, "there won't be anything for me to work up from. I'll be so busy just trying to survive that I won't be able to leave this apartment. What would I be leaving it for? There'd be nothing out three for me. Some days as it is I can't even get the bus fare to get out there and try to make something of myself. I'm leaving my children with friends.
"I go along with Reagan when he says welfare can be too good. I go along with that. But if you're working to get out of it, then he can't be cutting away at it and expect anybody to make it out."