When Laura Wallace first learned that Ronald Reagan's new welfare policy would take away her monthly government check, she was angry. But two weeks later, her anger had turned into a curious sort of pride. The loss of her welfare check had become a sign of accomplishment. It showed, she said, just how far she had come since she first applied for public assistance 10 years ago.
"When I first started getting welfare they paid me $285 each month," the 34-year-old Laurel housekeeper explained. "They was only giving me $25 per month when they kicked me off and that ain't much at all. I was using that money to pay the phone bill. . . . I'll get by without it."
Wallace's friend and coworker, Angela Wilson, sees it differently. She is furious that the government cut her welfare check, furious that someone like her who is working to get ahead will suffer, while others who don't work are untouched by the new policies.
Wallace and Wilson work on the cleaning crew at the South Laurel garden apartment complex just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Three months ago, The Post chose these apartments as a place to observe the impact of the Reagan administration's welfare policy, which will cut or eliminate benefits for nearly 700,000 families nationwide -- about two million people. As these two women's comments demonstrate, the impact cannot be described simply.
South Laurel Apartments is home for 85 families, mostly single women with children. Nearly 80 percent of the tenants work. Their average income is $11,000 per year. None of the residents pays more than 25 percent of those earnings to rent the federally subsidized apartments, and more than half of them receive additional welfare aid from the government.
Interviews with tenants, social workers, welfare administrators, school officials and managers of South Laurel Apartments suggest that while the Reagan changes threaten to make life for these working poor people even more difficult, the cuts have not caused substantial changes immediately.
Life at South Laurel, economically grim before the Reagan cuts, is still economically grim. Most of South Laurel's tenants dropped from welfare are surviving much as they did before the cuts, surviving in ways that make sense to the poor but often are jarringly unfamiliar to more prosperous Americans.
As a 35 year-old Maryland mother who has been living on welfare for five years explained: "If you ain't been poor before, then you don't understand them that is." Laura Wallace and Angela Wilson both know what it means to be poor. In order to understand why the Reagan cuts haven't had any visible impact yet on their lives, the world must be seen through their eyes.
Laura Wallace is irritated. The short, thin woman has not spoken for 10 minutes. She is standing silently in the bleak entryway of one of the South Laurel Apartments that she cleans. It is cold. Upstairs in the hallway, a window is open. A group of children using it the day before for a basketball goal did not close it.
A reporter's question has caused Wallace's silence. Why, when she only earns $500 a month, does she spend $15.80 each month for three $1,000 life insurance policies for her sons?
The question has offended her. "It's cold in here," she says after a long silence, sucking the last puff from a Winston. Another pause. Finally she answers the question:
"I don't want nobody burying my kids but me," she says. "They didn't ask to be born. They didn't ask to be poor and I ain't asking anybody to bury them if they die young."
Wallace often hides her pride, but it always has been there. The 12th of 13 children, she grew up nearby. Her father worked at the Laurel racetrack. Her mother stayed at home. At 17, she had to leave high school because she was pregnant. She tried living with her boyfriend, then moved back with her parents, then when she was pregnant a second time, she and the father set up housekeeping together. Three years and another child later, she decided to go out on her own with her three boys, ages 1 to 6.
Wallace got her first job, she recalls, when she had just turned 15. She washed dishes in a Laurel restaurant, and kept washing them for five years before becoming a maid at the local Howard Johnson Motel.
Those jobs taught her something about work that the middle class -- with its work-hard-and-you-get-ahead ethic -- may not understand. In a low-paying job, she explains, you only work hard enough to avoid getting fired. There are no promotions for maids, so there is no reason to try to sparkle on the job. The reward for getting the job done quickly is only going to be more work.
"You got two maids," Wallace says. "One, she works hard all the time and the other, she do just enough to get by. When payday come they get the same." The only difference, she says, is that the hard-working maid goes home tired.
She first heard about welfare from a nurse who helped her apply and schooled her in what to say. The key question, she remembers, was whether she would be willing to demand child support from the father of her children and take him into court if necessary. "You have to say yes or they won't give you any money," Wallace explains.
Wallace said she was willing to take the father to court. Then, disregarding the advice of her friends, she also gave the social worker the man's name and address. Her friends had told her to say she didn't know where the father was or who he was, but she was too proud to do that.
A few weeks later, the father of her children was hauled into court and ordered to pay $61.80 per month in child support or face a jail term. He was angry, Wallace remembers. After the hearing, she learned that any money he paid would go directly to the welfare department, not her. It did not matter that the government would use his payments to cut its cost of supporting Wallace and her boys. Whether or not he paid, she would get her monthly check. In her mind, all she had accomplished was making the father of her children angry.
Wallace now earns $4 per hour as a housekeeping superviser at South Laurel Apartments. It is the highest salary she has ever earned. After taxes her monthly income of $508 and $93 worth of food stamps provide her $601. Her three-bedroom subsidized apartment costs $154, the telephone is $17, food $200 (including the $93 worth of food stamps), life insurance $15.80, $37 for car insurance, and $30 per month for credit payments at a furniture store. That leaves $147.20 per month for clothing, gasoline and repairs for her 11-year old car, cigarettes, beer or any emergencies.
The loss of her $25 AFDC check did not bother her as much as the loss of her Medicaid card, which is given to all AFDC recipients. Wallace is covered by her employer's medical plan, but she cannot afford extra coverage for her three boys. She is haunted by the fear of being unable to get them good medical and dental care.
She survives by knowing which bills she must pay. If she runs out of money, she can delay the rent for a few days, but the furniture store must be paid. It was the first store ever to give her credit. She doesn't want to lose that valuable tool. That's the only way she could buy her television and a stereo record player.
Wallace also has learned how to cut her food costs. Her allocation of food stamps is based on her income, and on the assumption that she and the boys will eat three well-balanced meals every day. But Wallace's sons eat their main meals at school. The youngest gets a free breakfast and free lunch at Montpelier Elementary School. The two older boys eat free lunches at South Laurel High. At home the boys fend for themselves, usually eating something they can fix quickly themselves. Wallace says the family almost never sits down to a meal together.
Her days blend together. Her job consists of mopping hallways, cleaning the laundry room and picking up litter on the grounds of the apartment complex. Only the afternoon soap operas break the boredom. "General Hospital" is her crew's favorite. Wallace prefers "Texas." "This job gets boring, boring, boring," she explained one day. "It's the best job I have had, though."
Change frightens her. She is afraid to try for a better job because she might not get it. When her old apartment house was condemned several years ago, she was reluctant to move for fear that a new place would be worse. She admits that she doesn't ask her children much about their lives because of what they might tell her.
When discussing Reagan's budget cuts, it doesn't cross Wallace's mind that the president might have cut defense or raised taxes instead of cutting welfare. Instead, she sees cuts in terms of her everyday world. "Them mothers with babies, not real small babies, but 2 years old. They could go out and get themselves a job just like me rather than sit home and watch TV all day," says Wallace, who never has voted in an election. "Why not cut them?"
Outwardly her life has not changed much since her AFDC payments were dropped two months ago. She still has money for cigarettes. She still has her telephone. She had a 17-pound turkey for Thanksgiving and is thinking about buying a $139 electronic video game for her boys for Christmas.
But now she is afraid -- afraid especially that her food stamps will be stopped, something she feels helpless to prevent. That is what upsets her the most, she finally decides. It is not that Reagan cost her $25, but that he changed the rules. In the past, her AFDC check was the only reliable crutch she could count on. It always came.
"Everything is changing," she says, "you don't know who to trust, what to believe in. You just got to believe in yourself."
Angela Wilson is sitting on the dusty wooden floor of a vacant apartment that she is supposed to clean in the South Laurel complex. An old refrigerator is in the center of the room. Broken glass, reflecting the afternoon sunshine, sparkles in one corner. Outside, a gang of giggling girls is skipping rope.
"Kids, they got it so good," Wilson says, pausing a second to hear the girls chanting a jump-rope cadence. "But it sure as hell don't last long."
Wilson says that she cannot remember anyone ever asking her what she would be when she grew up, but she always knew. She would be poor.
At 17 she was pregnant and had to leave high school. She worked as a hotel maid for awhile and lived in a mobile home provided by her relatives. She hated her job. "We each had to do 16 rooms and you should have seen how dirty people left them." Her only fond memory is the day she got to clean the penthouse and received a $5 tip.
She quit and lived on public assistance. Sometimes she would make extra money cleaning private homes in Laurel. More often she stayed at home, she says, watching television. A boyfriend moved in, Wilson got pregnant and he moved out. "He'd buy new shoes for the girl or give me 35 or 40 bucks, but nothing regular." The welfare department recently took him to court to get child support payments.
Now 23 and the mother of 1- and 6-year-old daughters, Wilson says she was hit hard by Reagan's cuts. She lost $165 in monthly AFDC benefits and even though her food stamps were raised by $37 to $105 per month, she says she is living one step ahead of financial disaster.
By her own account, she earns $3.35 per hour, the minimum wage, and takes home $480 each month. Rent for her one-bedroom apartment not far from the South Laurel complex where she works is $195. Her utilities average $35, she pays $100 per month to a relative for babysitting and $60 per month for transportation to her job. She has $105 in food stamps to buy food, and $90 in cash left over for clothing, medical bills and miscellaneous expenses.
Wilson was dropped from the system because she earned $75 a month more than the $405 that the state of Maryland has set as the cut-off for a family of three. Her income is the same as it was before Oct. 1, but all the rules have changed. "It just don't make any sense," she complains. "Every time you start pulling yourself up the ladder, they cut a leg off so you never get no higher." she says. "The people just fill out forms. They don't really care about us."
At one time, she qualified for low-income housing. "I thought they'd help me," she says. Instead, she was told the county had a three-year waiting list. (In February, Prince George's County officials announced 300 openings in its low-income housing program, the first such openings since 1978. More than 3,000 persons were in line at 6 a.m. the next day at the housing department's headquarters. Fights broke out and police had to be called to control the crowd.)
Disgusted, Wilson decided not to bother asking the county's help for day care for her children. If she had, she would have discovered that the county program doesn't have any openings, although it receives 30 calls per day from poor parents seeking help.
"You pay for the help they give you" on welfare, she says.
The price is self-respect. "They ask you personal questions in front of the kids and don't care about nothing, like, 'Is you sleeping with someone now?' They make you take a day off from work without pay and then you sit down there for four, five maybe six hours every six months just to tell them the same thing you told them six months ago and they treat you like you is some kind of animal.
"The only time they do anything fast," she says, "is when they cut off your check."
When you are poor, Wilson says, even routine matters can be difficult. Finding an apartment was nearly impossible, she says. "They said I didn't earn enough so they wouldn't rent." She never has had a checking account, nor a savings account, nor a credit card. And if something goes wrong, her only recourse is to pester a social worker until she does something to help.
Wilson is thinking about finding a second job even though it would take her away from her children. She would like to find some Laurel couple's home to clean. She does have another option, however. She could quit working and reapply for welfare, but she says she doesn't want to do that.
Mostly, she tries not to think about the future.
One Tuesday in October, she said she only had $2 to last the rest of the week. She spent it all that afternoon.