Better Work Than Welfare. But What if There's Neither?

By Jason DeParle
The New York Times Magazine
December 18, 1994

Mary Ann Moore surrenders her short night of sleep at 3:30 on a Thursday morning and lifts herself, already dressed, from the dining-room couch she uses as a bed. She rubs her face, groans and moves toward the bathroom, but lands on one of the three small children sharing a mattress at her feet. "Ooo-wee, sor-ree," she says, then creaks down a dark hallway.

For a moment, the night is still. The Chicago wind rattles the loose tenement windows, and a grumbling muffler echoes down an otherwise-silent street. Then Moore slips a Kenny G disc into her oversize player, and a struggle ensues between his soothing sounds and her early-morning flurry. She flicks on the bare bulbs that glare from the ceiling and marches into the room of her 14-year-old son, Marchello. "Get your butt up," she says.

By 4, Moore has slopped a bowl of Fruity Pebbles before her 5-year-old son, Tunde, on a table he shares with scurrying roaches. By 4:15 she is pulling fresh outfits over the rubbery limbs of her 2-year-old twins, who are still asleep. By 4:45 the phone has rung a second time: it is the twins' father, calling to say that he misses the girls. Moore dismisses him with a grunt; she is running late for work.

"C'mon, let's grab bags and go," she says to Marchello, a handsome, upbeat teen-ager who sometimes seems as much her partner as her son. Then just before 5 A.M., Mary Ann Moore, four children and a bag of Pampers file past six locks and down two flights onto the still-dark streets. By 5:30, her worn Plymouth has carried her 11 miles north, from her home on the far South Side of Chicago to her mother's apartment at Cabrini-Green, the midtown public housing project, where the children wait for the school day to dawn. By 6, Moore has traveled six more miles north, to her job as a cook at a Salvation Army homeless shelter, where she feeds 100 people a day.

Hers is the life of a woman who has left welfare for work, a life at the center of a gathering political storm. Ever since Bill Clinton in his Presidential campaign famously promised "to end welfare as we know it," politicians from both parties have been vowing to move millions of other indigent mothers into the labor force. With the Republican rise to power, there is even talk of building orphanages for the children of those who do not make it. Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who will become the first Republican Speaker of the House in four decades, has said he will begin a radical overhaul of the welfare system within his first 100 days. His proposed legislation calls for whatever is "necessary to help, cajole, lure or force adults off welfare and into paid employment."

It is a fine goal, but for two generations it has also been an elusive one. This is so for a variety of reasons that are rarely explored in a two-dimensional public debate, where a handful of advocates defend welfare recipients as the blameless victims of poverty for whom no jobs exist, while the broader public denounces the high life of the dole.

Meanwhile, researchers now believe that poor women leave welfare for work much more often than was previously thought. In one widely cited study, LaDonna A. Pavetti of the Urban Institute found that 64 percent of the women who join the rolls leave within two years, most often because they find work. Yet three-quarters of the women return to welfare, and 45 percent return within a year. The reasons for leaving work range from the economic -- like low wages or a lack of health insurance -- to the personal -- like fights with supervisors or drug abuse. The women themselves also cite a complication that has rarely surfaced in public debate: jealous interference, or even physical assault, from boyfriends threatened by the prospect of their financial independence. Such a tangle of impediments means that Congress faces a doubly difficult challenge in redesigning the system. The task is not just getting women into the work world, but helping them stay there.

At 33, Mary Ann Moore is a walking catalogue of the problems that can arise after a welfare recipient finds work. She has landed and lost at least 11 jobs in the past five years and gone through perhaps twice that many since receiving her first welfare check at 19. She has driven trucks and peddled nuts, fried eggs and bathed invalids. She has cruised the aisles of a mail-order warehouse on roller skates, pulling merchandise from shelves that stretched to the sky. She has strapped a revolver onto her 6-foot frame to guard the high-rises at Cabrini-Green, where she was raised.

Moore has maintained a breakneck schedule at the Salvation Army for the better part of a year, earning enough so that, in November, she no longer qualified for welfare or food stamps. Yet she remains only a sick child or ailing car away from disaster. A spirited, self-mocking woman, she laughs at the length of her resume. "I always get 'em," she says of her many jobs. "It's keeping 'em that's the thing."

"FEEL IT!" MOORE DEMANDS, THRUSTING A room-temperature milk carton into a co-worker's hands. It is midmorning, and Moore is patrolling the antiquated shelter kitchen. Clearing the breakfast dishes from the dining room, Steve, a food aide, has entered the kitchen with a case of untouched cartons, intending to put them back in the refrigerator. Moore wants the case discarded; she fears the milk has spoiled. "Milk," she insists, "is one of those things you got to be real careful with."

Steve is having none of it. "I'm no follower -- I don't follow nobody," he says, safeguarding his turf with the slam of the refrigerator door. Besides, the cartons have yet to reach their expiration dates. "You s'posed to check the date," he says. "That's the bottom line."

No less than corporate offices or the White House, menial work sites come with their own complex rivalries and power struggles, and the conflict between Moore and her co-workers is typical of welfare recipients, and a reason they so often quit or get fired. As a younger woman, Moore walked away from jobs when she found her supervisor disagreeable or her co-workers assaulting her dignity. Indeed, her continued success on this job rests in large part on her ability to handle the conflicts, which arise virtually without pause.

"O.K., answer this," Moore persists. "If you set a gallon of milk out for an hour, you gonna let your kids drink it?"

"I don't do it like that," Steve says.

"Case closed!" Moore answers.

But the milk remains on ice.

Conflicts aside, Moore has found what, for a woman leaving welfare, is an unusually well paying job. At $8 an hour, she is the highest-paid among the kitchen's eight workers; it's the highest wage of her life. Typically, welfare recipients start at $5 or $6 an hour and move up slowly, if at all. For five months beginning in June, Moore kept a five-day, 52-hour workweek, logging a 13-hour shift (6 A.M. to 7 P.M.) on Saturdays and Sundays until the shelter recruited an extra cook. "She's a self-starter," says the shelter's director, Tyrone Staggers, who ranks her in the top 5 of the 50 or so workers he has supervised.

Moore got her foot in the door when she landed a part-time job as a food aide in a Head Start program housed in the same building. She was earning $5.15 an hour, and the tensions with other employees began at once. Head Start food aides are at the bottom of the building's pecking order, and other workers forbade her to use the break room. Moore has walked away from her stove to find tin can lids floating in her pot of green beans and her grits biding their time on an extinguished burner.

But she also attended a city college course, which earned her a food and sanitation license. She befriended the shelter's longtime cook, gaining stove-side lessons and a chance to fill in during open shifts. When the cook retired, Moore gained the job, along with the lingering resentment of more experienced employees. "They think I'm still the little Head Start food aide," Moore grumbles.

On this, the day of the milk war, she enters the walk-in refrigerator and begins piling a cart with the day's supplies: carrots and cabbages, bags of bread and hamburger buns. One of the bags has been invaded by roaches, and it reminds Moore of yet another intramural struggle.

"One time we had bugs in the oatmeal," she begins. A tone of incredulity overtakes her voice as she recalls a co-worker who insisted he knew how to "run 'em out." "I said, 'I'm not running no bugs outta oatmeal,' " she says, her voice now booming off the refrigerator wall. " 'How you know they all run out?' We had cold cereal that day."

Moore spends the rest of her day heaving caldrons, chopping cabbages and sharing war stories. It soon becomes clear that even the most rudimentary job can require considerable social skills. That is increasingly the case, as the service economy brings more low-skilled workers out of the factory and in touch with the public as cashiers, waitresses or clerks.

This development has brought with it a culture clash, as documented by Linnea Berg, Lynn Olson and Aimee Conrad, researchers with Project Match, an employment program near Cabrini-Green. They interviewed 58 participants, mostly women, and found that 60 percent lost their first jobs within the first six months. But, they concluded, the "factors frequently cited by policy makers" -- a lack of child care or technical skills, for instance -- accounted for "only a small portion of early job loss." A host of other problems arose concerning what the researchers loosely called the "rules of the world of work." These included such things as the ability to get to work on time and get along with co-workers and bosses. Many of the workers took an overly narrow view of their duties, including a cashier who refused to stock shelves and called it "favoritism" when raises went to employees who did the extra work.

Among the work rules that Moore found most upsetting was the ban on incoming phone calls. "I got kids!" she says. "How you gonna tell me I can't get no calls? I can't work no place my kids can't call me."

The management at the shelter relented but the receptionist did not, claiming it as her own prerogative which calls to patch through. When Moore's mother had a heart attack in April, her brother was told "kitchen can't get calls" and no one took a message. Moore, who is still furious over the incident, bought herself a beeper. Then she banned the receptionist from the coffeepot. Now she gets her calls. "Now we have an understanding," she says.

But Moore goes on to complain that a supervisor gives the other cooks easy meals, like hot dogs, while dumping the hard ones on her. "He'll tell me to roast some roasts, make some meat loaf from scratch," she says. "Every time they need something done, they come to me." Parking her hands on her hips, Moore lifts her voice to a mocking squeal and imitates another cook refusing to clean counters. " 'I'm a do what I get paid for: cook -- nothing more, nothing less,' " she says, vowing to seek a meeting that will reapportion duties.

And the milk fight with Steve continues.

"He wun't here when four children got sick," she grumbles, after Steve has closed the refrigerator door. "They don't get mad at him. They get mad at me." She sprinkles the morning with allusions to her cause. "We budget for two cases of milk," she reminds him. "When I set out some milk, I don't want to set out no bad milk."

Moore smiles as she gibes, calling Steve "my buddy," and he smiles back. But Moore smiles widest from the lounge, when, finally sitting at 12:30, she watches Steve hustling back with the lunch milk before it loses its cool. "Oh, you moving that milk now," she says.

IT IS MIDMORNING, SUNDAY, AND GOSPEL radio fills the kitchen where Moore is unbinding pork roasts, elbow deep in gravy and grease. Her legs are alive in electric pink sweats, but her eyes are puffy with fatigue. Slicing an onion, she reaches for the upper register of "Amazing Grace," and laughs as her voice collapses.

With nothing on her schedule that might be considered free time, Moore recounts her past for me during hurried moments like these. The telling is much like the story itself, jagged with interruptions, as she recalls the men, the moves and the many jobs that have left her endlessly starting over.

Though her father walked away from Moore and her five siblings when she was still in grade school, the family's subsequent stint on welfare was brief. Moore's mother, Cora, attended a city college and landed a job with the Chicago Housing Authority as an assistant building manager, a job that initially required her to live in Cabrini-Green. She later chose to remain there, as part of a personal crusade.

Indeed, if there was a government program that damaged Mary Ann in her youth, it was not welfare but public housing. Moore was 8 the first time she saw a playmate killed by gunfire. (Her son Marchello was 7 when he punched an elevator button and watched the opening doors unveil a corpse.) And while Cora Moore was quick to exit the welfare rolls, the family remained surrounded by neighbors receiving monthly checks -- a circumstance that seems to have deeply colored Mary Ann's opinions of public aid.

Though she sometimes voices pride in her mother's work ethic, she sounds more authentically moved when she complains about the Government's response, which was to withdraw benefits and raise the family's rent. "You see somebody on public aid, they be paying $20 or $30 -- my mother never paid less than $300," she says. "We weren't entitled to food stamps or nothing. We was on a neckbone-and-bean diet." Her sense that the family was cheated may help explain the colliding impulses that have shaped Moore's adult life. She seems to have simultaneously absorbed her mother's capacity for grueling work and a corresponding suspicion that work will be punished rather than rewarded.

Eager to flee her mother's house, Moore left high school in the 11th grade, spent six months in the Job Corps in Cleveland and returned, homesick, to Cabrini-Green. A year later, just after turning 19, she learned that she was pregnant. Though most of her friends already had children, she greeted the news with alarm. Her boyfriend was not working; she was earning close to the minimum wage, skating around the cavernous catalogue warehouse a few blocks from Cabrini-Green. Neither had health insurance. "We was kids -- both of us living with our mothers," she says.

Moore gives conflicting responses when asked whether Cabrini girls get pregnant on purpose, in order to gain welfare. "Some of them do think like that," she says, though she argued that it is more common for the pregnancy to result from "an accident." But when I asked Moore if her own pregnancy was an accident, she recoiled from the phrase, saying Marchello was too precious to be accidental; call him "unplanned," she said. She also made clear that she ruled out abortion, an option that more privileged women frequently embrace when faced with unplanned pregnancies. Moore called abortion "killing people."

Though Cora scolded her to stay on the job, Moore quit and sought welfare, a decision for which she gives differing explanations. Sometimes she describes the move as a necessity ("I needed the medical card to take the baby to the doctor"), and sometimes as folly ("I just got tired -- I was still young-minded"). She disputes the idea that welfare in any way caused her to get pregnant, but she confirms that benefit levels were on her mind two years later when, on her 21st birthday, she and Marchello boarded a bus to an aunt's house in California. There, she says, "they give you twice as much."

Moore stayed for five years, in and out of jobs and relationships, but mostly on welfare. Marchello's father came and went, leaving behind so many calls back to Chicago that Moore lost her phone. When her grandmother had a stroke in 1987, Mary Ann and Marchello came home.

WITH THE PORK ROAST UNFETTERED, MOORE leans across her worktable and stares down at her breakfast, a stainless steel bowl of french fries, which she inhales. She frowns as she tries to reconstruct the resume she compiled upon her return to Chicago. "Dag!" she exclaims, between mouthfuls of fries. "I had a lot of jobs."

As Moore describes them, the jobs sound less like a way to support herself than the tales of exotic misadventure that fraternity boys swap after summer vacations. After caring for her ailing grandmother, Moore landed a job as a home health aide to a glamorous young woman paralyzed by a stroke. Moore recalls her astonishment at discovering a closet full of lingerie, with a set of colored light bulbs to match. "She was fast!" Moore says. "She used to tell me, boy, about the sick stuff she used to do!" Shaken by the woman's fits of grief, Moore became "too emotional." One day, she says, "I just didn't go back."

Moore also took up security, first at Cabrini and later at the hearing room where workers who are denied unemployment benefits voice their appeals. Moore found herself expressing more sympathy for the unruly appellants than for the hearing officers she regarded as unfeeling. Years later, she still sounds bitter about the dispute between an agitated, jobless man and the officer who ordered him to sit down and then turned to Moore for help. "She wrote me up, 'cause I didn't go, 'Sir, sit down!' " Moore says. "I told her: 'They pay me five dollars an hour -- they don't pay me to die.' " Moore was soon transferred -- to guard a parking lot in the Chicago winter. "Whooo, I got tired of security," she says. "I quit."

Moore fared no better after landing the 3-to-11 shift at a suburban Arby's. She would pick up Marchello after grade school, and leave him with a friend who lived near the restaurant. Mother and son shared a phobia about the graveyard that bordered the highway, and Moore made a practice of speeding past it. A black woman in a rattletrap car racing through the suburbs at midnight did not amuse the local police, who one night detained her until her mother dispatched someone to pay the fine. Wide-eyed with fear, Marchello asked the officer: "You gonna put us in jail for trying to get past the graveyard?" The engine collapsed a few weeks later, and Moore simply left the old car alongside the highway, abandoning the job as well.

If work didn't prove to be the route off welfare, neither did marriage. Several months pregnant, Moore married a Nigerian cabdriver in 1989. Her second son, Omotunde, was born in June, but by Christmas the couple had split up, and Moore went back to living with her mother. Both of the boys' fathers still appear on occasion. Marchello's father has been homeless and drug-addicted; Tunde's is still driving a cab. But Moore says neither is a source of support. "They want to see 'em, but not do nothin' for 'em," she says.

By the summer of 1991, Moore was adept as ever at landing jobs, but increasingly unlikely to keep them, as a cocaine habit she had once considered under control no longer remained so. She had first smoked the drug in her mid-20's, at the invitation of California relatives. Now, as she neared her 30th birthday, Moore was not above stealing Marchello's Nintendo games to support her habit, and he says his 10-year-old Cabrini friends would taunt him by yelling, 'Your momma do drugs.' " Marchello decorated his room in anti-drug posters, and returned from his grandmother's church quoting the Bible to his mother. "It affected him so bad, he went and got saved so he could help me," she says.

On the night of her 30th birthday, Moore started smoking cocaine in a neighbor's apartment, and didn't come back until the next day. Marchello had skipped school to await her return; she walked past him silently and shut the door. Her boss, a warehouse manager, called to find out where she had been, but Moore shed the job without returning the call. "I was too ashamed," she says.

High again at a party a few months later, Moore became pregnant, and she drifted through the first half of 1992 with a single prenatal visit. Entering the hospital in July for what she thought was a miscarriage, Moore gave birth to twin girls, Roshea and Roshaun. They were two months early and each weighed less than three pounds. Moore went straight from the hospital to a six-month rehabilitation program, where the twins joined her once they gained the strength.

ABOUT THE TIME THAT MARY ANN MOORE WAS succumbing to her cocaine habit in the fall of 1991, Bill Clinton was devising the six words of campaign rhetoric that would reshape, and ultimately help radicalize, the welfare debate -- his famous pledge to "end welfare as we know it."

Clinton promised to expand training and day care for the five million households on Aid to Families With Dependent Children (A.F.D.C.), the main Federal welfare program; but those still unemployed after two years would have to join a work program. The promise quickly became part of the "new Democrat" image that Clinton rode into office. But ever since, it has been riding him.

It sounds so simple: work. But as Clinton's aides devised a plan, the first question was, "Where would the jobs come from?" While Mary Ann Moore has proved proficient at landing jobs, other low-skill workers may have more difficulty, particularly if they live in depressed areas like the Arkansas Delta or Detroit. When planners at the Department of Health and Human Services completed their first estimate of the number of mothers who would pass the two-year deadline, they produced a startling figure: 2.3 million. A jobs program of that size would rival the Works Progress Administration, which employed 3.3 million people at the height of the Depression. While this is what it might take to really replace welfare with work, there is virtually no political support for so huge an enterprise.

A major reason is the cost. Putting recipients to work sounds like a money-savings measure -- but it is far more expensive than mailing checks. The Government has to purchase work materials, hire supervisors and supply day care to families that lack it. While the average welfare grant for a mother with two children is $4,440 a year, it would cost about $11,440 to enroll her in a work program.

A program that employed 2.3 million people, even if it did nothing more than force them to work off their welfare grants, could easily cost an extra $15 billion a year. Many conservatives would attack it as a boondoggle, make-work solution. And public-employee unions, an important Democratic constituency, would fight the competition: what city would pay janitors $9 an hour to sweep the floors, if it could make a woman on welfare do the same for minimum wage?

When their estimate leaked, the Federal planners quickly dismissed it, optimistically predicting that other policy changes (some of them doomed, like universal health insurance) would reduce the number of people who reached the two-year limit down to less than a million. But they also put off the day of reckoning by deciding to phase in the work requirements over a period of more than a decade. Under the Clinton plan, only about 400,000 people, or about 7 percent of the welfare caseload, would be enrolled in work programs by the year 2000. The move cut billions of dollars from the cost of the plan -- and brought the Republican charge that this was no work program at all.

The accusation is unfair. The surprising thing about the Clinton plan is not the loopholes, as critics have charged, but rather the lack of them. And Clinton was personally immersed in many of the crucial decisions, including the plan to completely cut off the families of those who refuse to join the work program. In a confidential memorandum last March, Clinton's aides warned him of the potential consequences: "The danger that in rare circumstances, families will find themselves homeless or unable to care for their children."

The phase-in schedule of his bill aside, Clinton has taken a tougher stance on welfare than any other President -- tougher than Nixon, who had pushed for a guaranteed annual income (an impossibly liberal idea in today's climate); tougher than Reagan, who had settled for a few state experiments, and tougher than Bush, who did nothing. After two years, recipients must join a work program. Those who join the program would be no less poor than they had been on welfare -- just busier. Those like Mary Ann Moore, who keep falling off the job, would have their grants eliminated. Period.

THE ORANGE DASHBOARD light moves Moore to prayer. "Engine check?" she says. "Please don't let there be nothing wrong with this car." She bought the '89 Plymouth with 100,000 miles from Tyrone Staggers at the Salvation Army. She is settling the $1,500 debt in $200-a-month payments. It is her second car of the year; the first, a $1,200 Pontiac, also collapsed. "Dag," she swears, softly at first, then louder. "Dag! That's all I need is car problems."

Darkness falls, the car stalls and Moore stands beside a whizzing highway, feeding it a can of oil. It is Tuesday, the beginning of her weekend.

At 7 the next morning, Moore and her four children are parked in front of a repair shop recommended by her mother. When she phones in at 9, the estimate is $190. Two hours later it has grown to $440. When she returns at dusk to reclaim the vehicle, she receives a bill for $482.31, covering a tune-up, a radiator flush, a heating hose, fuel-injector service and new right and left struts, at $99.95 each.

Moore has no idea what her new struts are supposed to do, only that she needs the car to get to work by 6 the following morning. "We ain't gonna be leaving at 2 in the morning to take the bus," she says. She hands over $250 in cash that she has borrowed from her mother, with a promise to pay the rest. But a week later, the light is glowing again. Moore spends another six hours at the repair shop, and leaves owing another $150.

An unreliable car is only one of the problems that constantly threaten to come between Moore and her work. Unable to afford a market-rate apartment, she lives in a subsidized building on a gang-dominated block of the South Shore. Considering Marchello a prime target, she rarely lets him outside; he spends his weekends dribbling an imaginary basketball down the hallway and shooting fake jump shots at the ceiling. When Moore considered buying him a bicycle for his birthday, he warned her away. "He said don't even do it -- they'll take it," she says.

But it was Tunde who first bore the brunt of the area's violence. A few weeks after moving in, the 5-year-old was looking out the window as a drive-by shooting left a bystander with a bullet in the head. "Tunde was really messed up," says Moore, who learned about the shooting at work, when Marchello beeped her to say "don't come home 'cause they shootin.' " Moore found a United Way therapist to help with the subsequent nightmares and bed-wettings.

Beyond violence, there is also disease. In November, the twins passed on to Moore a flattening case of the stomach flu, causing her to miss seven days without pay. Even on good days, Moore arrives home to a phone that rings so often she bought a caller ID box to screen the calls, most of them from friends and family wanting money. When a troubled teen-age friend arrived at 12:30 A.M. during the week I visited, Moore crawled off the couch to drive her home. "She don't say she goin' to sleep," Marchello explains of his mother. "She say she takin' a little nap."

For all her fatigue, Moore has seen little financial gain. Some of the most disheartening research on the economics of welfare and work comes from Kathryn Edin, a Rutgers sociologist, who wondered how recipients live on allotments of cash and food stamps that (for a family of three) average $7,920 a year. She found that virtually none of them do. Edin studied 214 women in four cities but found only one who did not have additional income, either from an unreported job or the contributions of boyfriends and relatives. And that woman, Edin said, "was probably going to lose custody for neglecting her child," who repeatedly went hungry. "She's definitely the exception that proves the rule: you can't live off welfare benefits."

Even more striking, however, is that Edin found the same pattern among the mothers who went to work. Just as they could not live on welfare, they could not live on their wages either, especially after paying for child care, transportation, clothing and the like. Their earnings accounted for only 62 percent of what they actually spent, with the rest still coming from Government programs, boyfriends, relatives or even illegal activities, like selling drugs. Edin concluded that by going to work, most of the women had simply "substituted one untenable economic system for another." Scrapping one of those systems -- welfare -- won't make the work world any more profitable. In fact, if it forces millions more workers into the job market, it could further depress wages.

"Yeah, I got this little chump change," Moore grumbled one afternoon as she left a bank with two weeks' pay stashed inside her bra. (Her credit history does not permit a checking account.) "I ain't doin' no better than if I was on A.F.D.C."

Indeed, a close look at her finances (box, pages 46 and 47) reveals that a life of hard work leaves Moore with about $225 less in spending money than if she stayed home and collected welfare. The tally includes about $870 in work-related expenses and a $61 monthly payment on a delinquent student loan, which she says the Government would otherwise collect from her tax refunds. And that's with the overtime. Without it, even if Moore worked year-round at $8 an hour, never missing a day, she would earn $16,640 a year. The Federal poverty line for a family her size is $17,439. (At that level, Moore would also qualify for a $1,521 refundable tax credit -- news that took her by surprise.)

"It's a big self-esteem thing for me to be working," she says. But financially, "the struggle is still the same."

As strict as Clinton's welfare proposal is, it has been his curious fate to have his opponents laugh it aside as a fraud, a broken campaign promise -- the perpetuation of welfare as we know it. "Tinkering," said Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin when the bill was unveiled.

In part, this is predictable partisanship; Clinton was threatening to steal an issue that had traditionally won votes for Republicans, and they wanted to steal it back. But Clinton himself was also partly to blame, for he had raised high expectations with his insistently bold language. "You let loose a lot of forces when you say, 'End welfare as we know it,' which is why I never said any such thing," said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan last spring, as the proposals raced to the right. "We may look back and say, 'What in the name of God have we done?' "

Concentrating on his health care plan, Clinton took 17 months to draft a welfare bill, leaving allies and opponents alike to question his commitment. Others, meanwhile, moved to fill the void. In November 1993, Representative Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a welfare plan that on the surface seemed much like Clinton's: it offers recipients two years of training, and puts those unemployed in a work program. But underneath two major differences loom.

One involves financing. The Republican bill would spend $20 billion over five years -- twice as much as Clinton proposes -- but it raises the money by denying Government benefits to virtually all legal immigrants, even though they pay taxes. That includes not just Aid for Families With Dependent Children but 60 other programs, including food stamps, school lunches, disability payments, subsidized housing and migrant health clinics. The extra money allows the Republicans to claim their program would put about a million recipients to work by the year 2000, more than twice as many as the Democrats.

The second difference, which is even more important, concerns the structure of the work program. The Santorum plan would let states drop families from the work rolls after three years, whether they had found private jobs or not. The issue, little understood by the public, cuts to the philosophical core of the welfare debate. While Clinton would punish families that do not comply with the work rules, the Republicans would eventually cut off families whether they comply or not. The move is designed to push people into private jobs, but it risks leaving hundreds of thousands of families with neither welfare nor work.

The President's aides had considered limiting the work program, too. The issue had proved so divisive that the President had been forced to resolve it himself, in a final Oval Office meeting. While Clinton sided with those who would let families stay in the program as long as they are willing to work, a confidential memorandum from his aides acknowledged the downside: to many people, "the rhetoric of 'ending welfare' requires some sort of ultimate end."

But to the surprise of Santorum and his allies, their own proposal soon became an object of ridicule in one faction of the Republican Party. Led by Representative James Talent of Missouri, this faction argued that a $20 billion work program was not the end of welfare but the extension of it; the real goal in their view was not to put single mothers to work but to discourage them from becoming single mothers in the first place. They proposed to end welfare by simply ending welfare: abolishing benefits, and letting poor families then sink or swim. The children of those (like Mary Ann Moore) who sank could be housed in state-sponsored orphanages.

Not long ago, such talk of actually abolishing the system was too radical even for those who embraced the idea. When the social scientist Charles Murray first forwarded the idea in his 1984 book, "Losing Ground," he couched it as "a thought experiment," and no mainstream politician would touch it. But by last spring, Republicans as prominent as William Bennett and Jack Kemp were urging colleagues to support the Talent bill, which would end benefits for any mother younger than 26. They wrote a public memorandum, urging the party to seize "an opportunity in the realm of politics."

The sudden popularity of the literal end of welfare took even a credentialed conservative like Santorum by surprise. "The risk is that you're going to have millions of women and children with absolutely no support out there," he said last spring. Moynihan tartly predicted "scenes of social trauma such as we haven't known since the cholera epidemics." It is certainly an alarming fact that 30 percent of all American children -- and 70 percent of black children -- are born to single mothers, and it is reasonable to assume that abolishing welfare would have some effect on that number. But how much, and at what cost? For her part, Moore scoffed when I asked if ending welfare would bring a significant reduction in the number of single mothers in Cabrini. "Them girls is fast -- thinking they in love," she said. "That ain't gonna stop them babies. You might see 'em killing babies."

The two Republican factions clashed angrily this summer in the back-room battles over the Contract With America. The compromise brokered by Gingrich split the difference. It creates a work program that could expel recipients as quickly as two years; it also allows states to abolish benefits to mothers younger than 21. The ban extends throughout the child's life -- so if Moore, for instance, gave birth to Marchello at age 19, worked at the Salvation Army for a decade and found herself laid off, the family could still get no assistance.

But the Gingrich document did more than broker a compromise; it also proposed a host of new, sweeping cuts -- in welfare and in housing, food and disability programs. All told, they could total more than $50 billion over the next four years. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington advocacy group, estimated the plan would end up denying assistance to about half the adults and five million of the nine million children currently on the rolls. Gingrich, predicting wholesale changes in the behavior of the poor, described it as the dawning of "an opportunity society."

As the new Congress convenes, it remains unclear how far the Republicans really want to go, and how far Clinton is willing to go along. But a few days after the election, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas was making clear that old slogans had taken on new meaning. A Republican bill, he said, would be "in line with much of the President's rhetoric," but "totally at variance with the President's policy." Gramm said it would not "spend more money," and it would not make the Government "the employer of last resort." Clinton, still shell-shocked by the November vote, was careful not to pick a fight. No longer in charge of what it means to end welfare, he defended his plan by weakly calling it "quite similar to one that several Republicans have proposed."

One of Moore's strategies for coping with broken cars and querulous co-workers is to vent, and she has assembled a network of sympathetic social workers. For about a year, Moore's favorite counselor kept dutiful notes each time they talked, and with Moore's permission she let me read them.

Dec. 3, 1993: "Mary Ann mentioned that she hadn't been to work all week, because scarlet fever has been going through the shelter and Mary Ann's face was swollen and had a rash."

Dec. 6, 1993: "Mary Ann mentioned that Marchello was disappointed with his father for having become homeless as a result of a drug problem. Mary Ann says she has fallen off track and needs to regather herself mentally."

Jan. 14, 1994: "Girls had the chicken pox."

March 3, 1994: "Marchello has ringworm."

April 12, 1994: "Her mother had a heart attack. . . . Mary Ann is leaving work early every day this week to spend time with her mother at the hospital."

April 19, 1994: "Mary Ann spoke of her sister's relationship with her boyfriend, who stabbed her 10 times and nearly killed her on Christmas. Mary Ann's sister is back together with this gentleman."

But by then Moore was having her own boyfriend problems as she tried to end her relationship with the twins' father, Michael. "Mary Ann says that he threatened to hurt himself," according to the April 19 entry. "Her mother has said to her to break things off with Michael gradually, because you don't know what he's capable of."

Though rarely discussed in public debate, boyfriends are often part of the burden that poor women carry into the workplace. "It's the untold story," says Toby Herr, the founder of Project Match, the employment program near Cabrini. "The men are not working, and they don't want the women feeling better. They don't want to think they're not needed anymore."

Despite Moore's April vows to free herself from Michael, he was still in the picture in late October, when she arrived home one night with a dozen roses, the latest in a series of his gifts. An accompanying poem read, in part:

Take me, take me, take me

Whoa, ooh, take me.


Take me, take me.

Love, Michael

Moore rolled her eyes and snorted. "This sounds like high school." When Michael called 10 minutes later, she brusquely told him she would call back later. Michael protested that she had said the same thing the previous night, only to fall asleep. "Yeah, I fell asleep," she barked. "What you think? I got to get up and go to work all day."

Though Moore spends much time disavowing Michael, she will sometimes admit that her true feelings are more complex -- otherwise he would not still be in her life. He is a handsome, articulate man in his late 40's who offers attention, gifts and sporadic days of baby-sitting. He held a good job in a steel mill until his drug addiction led to his firing.

They met at a party on the night they conceived the twins; they did not meet again until Moore had finished her drug rehabilitation and moved to the shelter. So, she discovered, had Michael. "I didn't even know these beautiful babies were in the world," he says. "When I looked at them, I just broke out in tears." The couple resumed a relationship, and home life became particularly complicated when Marchello's father wound up moving into the shelter as well.

Michael describes himself as a reason for Moore's subsequent success. "Sometimes she gets tired, but I try to motivate her," he says. "I've driven her to work when she's overslept." But Moore says Michael also blamed her when he had a recent drug relapse, saying she'd been inattentive, and Michael himself says he wants her to work less "so we could have more time together as a family." Even though he remains unemployed, he contributes "food stamps or whatever I can jiggle."

The resolution of this struggle is yet to come. Michael arrived at Moore's apartment the night after the flowers, bearing another present: an engagement ring. Moore, slumped on the couch after a 13-hour day, turned it down, at least for now.

"He be wanting time together -- I don't have no time," she says. "I'm still trying to get out of this rut."

Among the Chicagoans who can claim some expertise on the welfare system is Mary Ann's mother, Cora Moore, who has spent 30 years watching theories about the disadvantaged come and go. She holds court in an office at Cabrini-Green, ringed by metal detectors and armed guards. I asked her what would happen if the country simply ended welfare.

"More crime, more drugs, more apartments broken into," she said. "Because the ones that don't have it gonna prey on the ones that have it."

Mary Ann weighed in. "And the rich people ain't gonna be comfortable, because ain't gonna be nothing keep these people from breakin' into they houses."

"Then they bring back public aid in a hurry," her mother said.

The Moores spoke with an element of melodrama, but their basic point is a sober one; they argue that the lack of decent jobs, not welfare, is at the center of the neighborhood's problems.

"They say people in Cabrini don't want to work," Cora Moore grumbled. "We got people lining down the street to be security guards."

Welfare probably merits a harsher judgment than the Moores provide. There were clearly times in Mary Ann's life when she was ill served by a system that offered cash but demanded nothing in return. Welfare did not cause her self-destructive behavior, but it did at times indulge it, allowing her to give up despite her abundant reserves of toughness and talent. At the same time, it is difficult to see how simply abolishing the system would help. The men in Moore's life have received few Government checks, and they have wound up even poorer and more wretched than she is. And whatever else welfare has done, it has managed to keep Marchello and his siblings with a mother they clearly adore.

As the details of Mary Ann Moore's life accrue, welfare itself seems to shrink in importance, compared with the surrounding problems, like low wages, unaffordable rents, gangs, violence, rickety cars, drugs and irresponsible men. The unspoken assumption in Washington seems to be that welfare checks have wrought all these problems and more, down to and including incurable diseases. In his attacks on the welfare system, Gingrich frequently complains of "15-year-olds killing each other, and 17-year-olds dying of AIDS," as if each month's payment is a bullet or a virus.

Welfare is less a supervillain than a shady character on the corner who accomplishes neither great good nor great ill but invites suspicion by his very presence. Replacing welfare with work would bring more dignity to the poor. But as Moore understands, the trade-off is tougher than it sounds. It will not happen unless the Government helps to create and support jobs, and even that will not guarantee an end to neediness.

But there is at least one sense in which work really may work, and that is its impact on politics. The Mary Ann Moore who lifts herself off the couch at 3:30 every morning is an intensely more sympathetic character than the Mary Ann Moore who relied on public aid. Ending welfare as we know it, whatever that comes to mean, may be the necessary prerequisite to a more important task: ending poverty.

Copyright © 1994 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.







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