Rita H. Jensen

(WOMENSENEWS)–This holiday season, in bed with the flu and buying my family presents via telephone, a memory came flooding back of a gift a stranger gave me that permitted me to finish graduate school.

In March of 1976, I stood on a chair in my dining room in Columbus, Ohio, and held the letter from Columbia up to the light, ascertaining that the water mark on the stationery was authentic. I had just finished upmy bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University.Now I was being accepted by an Ivy League graduate school for a year-long program in my chosen field. My girls, ages 9 and 5, and I would be moving to New York City.

A Stronger Safety Net

It was in the spring of 1971, during an era of the expanding social services safety net, that I had applied and received federal assistance: Aid to Dependent Children, food stamps and Medicaid, after leaving a marriage to a violent man. By January, I started college with my tuition paid by a special program that aided students who were poor but who could pass a series of qualifying tests.

All these types of assistance, along with child care subsidies, were conceived and created in an era in which a majority in the United States supported the premise that the government should help people who were poor and that many–not all, but many–would then become self-sustaining and better citizens.

And my caseworker in the Franklin County Welfare Department blessed my use of these resources to improve my family’s fate. In fact, she once told me her supervisor had told her that she, the boss, thought going to college really paid off because I was the only client at the center who was able to fill out the 16-page Redetermination of Need form–which had to be completed in person at the welfare office every six months–without an error.

All these programs were, in fact, gifts from strangers to my family and I remain forever thankful.

The gift I am referring to, however, was a signature on a piece paper that allowed me to slip between the cracks of the New York City welfare bureaucracy.

Moving to New York

We arrived in New York City in a rented moving van–financed by selling most of our furniture–on an outstanding summer day with azure skies and summer air cooled by the breezes off the Hudson River. Driving north along the west side of Manhattan with my children beside me in the cab, I passed for the first time the colonnades of majestic trees and winding sidewalks of Riverside Park on the left and the palatial apartment buildings on the right. Nearly overcome with joy, I was sure I had brought my children to a place where beauty reigned and civil society was virtuous.

We moved into a Columbia-owned one-bedroom apartment–I would sleep in the living room–and I quickly enrolled the girls in a local, highly regarded elementary school.

With classes starting in a week, I brought the girls with me to apply for welfare in my new jurisdiction. Columbia had awarded me scholarships and loans to pay for the school’s tuition and my books, but I had counted on welfare payments to pay for housing, food and medical care just as I had for undergraduate school.

I had made a terrible miscalculation. My children had gotten older. The younger one would turn 6 in October, at which point regulations required me to enroll in the Work Incentive Program. (Current rules have lowered the age to 1 or even less.) As my WIP interviewer made clear, New York City’s welfare department, abiding by federal rules, would require me to take a job–any job–within a month of my daughter’s birthday.

“You will be given a job right here,” he said, pointing to his tan metal desk in a sea of other tan and gray metal desks made even dingier by the flickering fluorescent lighting. “Right here, interviewing welfare clients.” He said it in a tone of voice similar to that of a judge sentencing a convicted criminal.

I left the office with my head spinning, overwhelmed with the failure, the dead-end I had reached with no fall-back plan. No Columbia, no future in journalism. No Columbia, no housing. Where would we live? I grabbed my children’s hands as we entered the subway, holding onto them to avoid my toppling down the stairs.

Succumbing to the Flu

I began classes, unsure what else to do, and waited for the dreaded WIP program letter to arrive in my mailbox. In mid-October, I became ill. My temperature was above 101 degrees every day for a week. I was unable to eat. I went to the student health center and was assured it was the flu and I would feel better soon. The following week, my temperature remained over 101 every day. I still couldn’t eat.

Back to student health center. Same assurances. The week after that. Temperature over 101 every day; unable to eat. Back to student health center.

This time, the chief physician for the center, a man in his mid-60s, tall, with white hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a friendly countenance came to examine me. He decided to hospitalize me and my sole friend in the city agreed to care for my children while I was gone.

He came to see me soon after my admission and announced: “Good news! You have pneumonia. We know how to treat pneumonia.” He then grabbed a chair and placed it next to my bed and began to chat, about what I don’t recall, as he held my hand. And, on each of the four days I was in the hospital, he stopped by again to chat, about my children, their ages, my hopes for them. And each time, he held my hand, for just a little while.

Reporting to the Welfare Office

Upon my release, I dutifully reported to the welfare department that I had been ill and received a letter in return asking for my physician to complete the form stating when I would be available for work.

Back at the clinic for the routine post-hospital check-up, I waited outside the chief’s office to see him, my lungs clear, my energy returning, with the letter in my hand.

I explained only that I needed his signature on this form and a date when I would be ready to return to work. He stood, turned his back to me, folded his hands behind him and looked out his tall office window to the campus quad, now gray in the early winter light. He said nothing for minutes as I sat with the letter in my hand–unmoving.

“Well, I don’t think you can both work and go to school,” he said.

“There is no place on this form for you to say that,” I replied.

“That’s right,” he said, and turned to take the letter from my hand.

He wrote that I would be available for work in July 1977, a full month after my graduate studies would be completed.

This holiday season, I want to express my thanks to the Columbia physician who saved my life and my future and all the strangers who give so freely to others, from the Three Magi who traveled on camels to Bethlehem, to the folks in Maine who decided to support welfare mothers who go to college and all those who work and lobby every day for a better life for the poor, for women and for all of us. Thanks to all of you who make all of our lives better.

Rita Henley Jensen graduated from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1977 and has won numerous journalism awards since. In 1999, she became the founding editor of Women’s eNews and remains its editor in chief.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–“Maine Supports Welfare Moms Going to College”:

Women’s eNews–“Women’s Enews Delivers Crucial Information Daily”: