Diane Pennock

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This essay is written by a former welfare mother who became a college-educated social worker. Now disabled, she relies on her $512 per month disability payments, plus the $10 per week she is paid to tutor the women the others call doozies.

It is a late winter Thursday afternoon in Ross County, in the northern edge of Ohio’s Appalachian hills.

I’m sitting in a lunch meeting eating pizza and downing Pepsi with the staff and volunteer mentors of Project Uplift, discussing a “doozie” (the label the caseworkers have assigned to mothers with “special” problems). Soon, according to federal welfare regulations, the doozies will lose their benefits because they’ve not yet found jobs.

Funded by a Human Services grant, the project’s mission is to somehow build bridges to employment for these mothers. Everyone involved in the project is thoroughly dedicated to the cause, stirred by the challenge to do the seemingly impossible, and sincerely wanting to help these women who are “less fortunate than themselves.” My job is to tutor four doozies, to prepare for their high school equivalency exam or other education.

The “doozie” in question suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Divorced, she has four children. Her two older sons live with their father. She’s allowed no contact with them. Her daughter, in the fourth grade, and her pre-school son are with her. The mother, usually distrustful, is beginning to trust the project’s staff members. She had told them that she cannot look for work because she too fearful of leaving her youngest son with strangers.

A therapist once had her mental state evaluated, but so much time has passed since that evaluation, she cannot use it to apply for Social Security disability assistance. She is no longer in therapy, possibly because she fears it will result in the loss of her remaining children. The mental health center doesn’t evaluate people solely to help them apply for disability, because “it’s not their place to facilitate SSI.” Human Services doesn’t arrange for psychological evaluations. My project lacks funding to pay for a private evaluation.

Everyone agrees that she isn’t facing the reality of her situation.

“It sounds like she doesn’t believe her benefits are really ending,” observes one volunteer. “I guess she’s going to have to suffer some consequences before she can believe it.”

“Her son’s the albatross around her neck,” says another. “How can we get him away from her?”

“How do we break this dependency she has on welfare?” asks someone else.

“It’s going to be hard,” replies a staff member. “She thinks she should just be taken care of.”

“You know what?” I say. “She’s right.”

There’s a moment of silence while everyone stares at me.

The people with whom I’m sharing lunch are caring, concerned–the sort of people who make good neighbors and friends. Their kindness does not extend to advocacy. Being practically minded, they settle for doing the best they can to make the system as it is work for the women and children they’re trying to serve. It’s the role they play. The system comes first. It’s neither the enemies of welfare mothers nor the people who have no interest in them that the activists have to reach. It’s the friends.