By Jason DeParle
The New York Times Magazine
December 28, 1997
7:30 on a November school morning, the twins finally stir. They tumble off the
couch in the kindergarten outfits they have worn for 24 hours and pad down the
hall, all whispers and giggles. They turn the bathroom sink into a balance beam
and dangle themselves from the shower rod. They paint luncheon meat with stripes
of mayonnaise to make breadless breakfast sandwiches. What they cannot do is rouse
their mother, who remains slumped on the couch with a worrisome case of depression
and a lapsed prescription for Prozac.
minutes, skinny little girl," she says to a tap on her shoulder. "I
ain't ready to get up." The tap continues, and her voice sharpens: "Girl!
Would you stop!"
The apartment looks
like a thrift shop hit by a cyclone. A month of dirty laundry sits stuffed in
plastic bags and a week's dishes are scattered around the kitchen. The blinds
are drawn, the room is dark and when Mary Ann Moore opens her eyes, she peers
out with a cracked gaze.
By 8:15, she pulls
herself up to brush her daughters' hair. By 8:30, she orders them into their coats
and points them toward the door. "Bye, you little smookers -- I love you,"
she says, on her feet for a goodbye kiss. She watches from the window until they
reach the Chicago schoolyard and returns for a day on the couch.
years ago, she was beating the sunlight to the streets. She was up at 3:30 A.M.
the first time I visited her, snapping on lights and bundling up children. She
was out the door at 5 and on the job, as a cook, by 6. Her car scarcely worked;
the twins' father felt neglected, and the routine left her bone-tired. But after
14 years of public aid, she had kept the job for nearly a year and talked of escaping
to the suburbs.
Now even she has a hard time
explaining her tailspin into homelessness and addiction. Perhaps the depression
keyed her drug relapse; certainly the relapse deepened her depression. Three years
after starring as a welfare-to-work heroine, Moore is back among the 2,000 welfare
families living in and around the public-housing high-rises of Cabrini-Green.
by the recent caseload declines, much of the country has already declared last
Washington's monumental welfare overhaul a success. But the new system has barely
begun to grapple with the Mary Ann Moores -- the one or two million long-term
recipients who pose the greatest challenge. For all the drama of last year's debate,
welfare is mostly a proxy for a far larger problem: the condition of the central
cities. There are more people on welfare in Chicago alone than there are among
the combined populations of Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska,
Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming.
There are nearly as many welfare families in Cabrini-Green as there are in all
Last year's debate brought extravagant
claims on all sides about what time limits and work requirements would mean in
these neighborhoods. Bemoaning the "stereotypes," one side argued that
long-term welfare recipients were basically like everyone else -- just less lucky.
Then it argued that new restrictions might cause children to starve. The other
side warned of a welfare underclass so dysfunctional it posed a threat to civilization.
Then it supposed that a legal finger snap would prompt the poor to stand up and
After spending a week with Moore,
and piecing together her fall, it seems safe to say three things: She and many
people around her very much need help. The old system wasn't providing it. To
do better, the country will have
to do far
more than celebrate caseload declines.
like I went through a depressive stage," Moore says, her face puffy with
fatigue. She is picking at a diner omelet and trying to explain what went wrong.
Depression, drugs, a tangled life with an unemployed man -- Moore is talking about
herself. But she is also describing the troubled landscape in which the new welfare
programs will try to take root. She is mapping an ecosystem of inner-city defeat.
What's missing is the spirited, self-mocking humor that used to abound despite
the unhappy basics of her life: a childhood in Cabrini without a father; no high-school
degree; four children by three men; dozens of jobs, and eventually an addiction
to crack. Her mood swings could be biological, of course. Or they could be rooted
in the violence that has saturated her life. (She saw her first neighborhood shooting
when she was 8.) A doctor recommended an antidepressant a decade ago, but Moore,
who is now 36, says, "I thought it was for crazy people or something."
in psychological terms, her staccato bursts of work seem less a plan for self-support
than an expression of underlying mania -- the mirror image of her current, depleted
self. In the fall of 1994, Moore worked her kitchen job for stretches of two weeks
at a time. She never went to bed; she had no bed. Then as now, she catnapped through
the night on a living-room couch. "I'm depressed when I'm not doing something,"
At times, her mood swung around
Michael, the father of the young twins. When I first visited in 1994 his place
in her life was unclear. He was a handsome, articulate man in his mid-40's who
had worked in a steel mill before he developed a cocaine habit. They met at a
party where Moore had gotten high, and they conceived the twins that night. They
reunited two years later, after Moore had finished a drug treatment program, when
they happened to be staying at the same shelter. Outwardly, she rolled her eyes
at his love poems and his roses. But she also kept him around.
role of the men is one of the great missing elements of the welfare debate. Like
many women leaving welfare for work, Moore had to contend with a man who felt
left behind. Michael beseeched her to work less, and told her that her emotional
neglect had pushed him to a relapse. When a relative of Moore's moved in with
a crack problem of his own, the household was poised for a fall. Mary Anne was
home one afternoon with a stomach virus when she awoke to a familiar smell. The
pipe passed into her hands, and in just a few weeks, her job was gone, food was
scarce and dealers were banging on the door to collect. "It got bad,"
she says. "It got real bad." It took her teen-age son, Marchello, to
summon a posse of relatives to put the addicted men out. Moore says she later
found powders, leaves and "something like an eyeball in a little, bitty medicine
jar" that convinced her Michael had harmed her with voodoo. "Every time
I tell somebody about that, they think I'm crazy," she says.
by black magic or bad judgment, Moore virtually collapsed. Marchello, who is now
17, escaped on scholarship to a boarding school in Colorado. She sent her other
son, Omotunde, now 8, to live with his father. And for most of the next two years,
Moore and the girls, Roshea and Roshaun, became inner-city nomads. They slept
on a couch in the overcrowded apartment that belongs to Moore's mother, and sublet
rooms from Cabrini addicts for $100 a month.
enough, throughout this time Moore mostly stayed employed. Her mother is a tenant
manager in Cabrini, and when all else fails Moore signs on as a security guard.
(In that job and others, she has rarely earned enough to leave welfare; over the
last 10 years, she has received some cash aid in all but eight months.) Some theorists
argue that work is a reforming force in itself: a bond to a larger community that
brings meaning and purpose to life. Moore accepts the idea -- she feels better
about herself when she works. But a job alone has never been enough to rescue
her. "We'd get our paychecks, buy food, go off on a binge and go back to
work two days later," she said.
help finally came, it did not come from the welfare department, which simply mailed
a monthly check. Years earlier, Moore had joined a Salvation Army program for
homeless women and children, and the social workers there went to extraordinary
efforts to stay in touch. Often unable to reach her by phone, they would show
up at Cabrini with baskets of food; they once talked their way in to see her in
the middle of a gang shooting. Their files reveal a sustained, personal relationship
almost unheard of in the public realm: "She was supposed to work yesterday
but the depression came over her....There has been gang fighting going on all
morning and it is getting on her nerves... She had a lot of clothes over at L.'s
house. ...She left there because he was starting to want sex from her... They
are not eating well since MA did not get paid this week.'
contrast, Moore's welfare file looks like a work sheet at H&R Block: it is
choked with the arithmetic of grant calculation and devoid of any other insight.
The Salvation Army workers have college degrees and six to eight clients at a
time. Half of the welfare workers are high-school graduates and they carry caseloads
of 180. They are the ones, as Illinois phases in the new welfare rules, who are
expected to take charge of the nation's toughest social problems.
the end, the Salvation Army all but dragged Moore back into drug treatment. Arriving
there with the recidivist's shame, she wrote angry diatribes at herself. ("A
supit fool. Thinking I alright because I have a job. when in fact I was working
for the dope.") She also wrote apologetic letters to her family and friends,
many of which lie unmailed at the bottom of her closet.
is addressed to Toby Herr. At 54, Herr is a nervous, talky, leaf-thin woman whose
prominence in the welfare world has surprised no one more than herself. Unlike
her clients, she was raised in material security, but she describes her childhood
as an 18-year panic attack. "When they called attendance in grammar school,
I'd practice saying 'Here,' because I couldn't stand to hear my voice," she
says. In 1968, Herr landed a job teaching grade school in Cabrini -- hardly a
haven for the emotionally fragile. But she felt as though she had found a home.
"I could identify with low self-esteem," she says.
decades later, Herr may know as much as anyone of the dynamics between inner-city
women and work. In 1985, she converted a dozen years of Cabrini experience, teaching
and evaluating social services into a shoestring employment program called Project
Match. At first it seemed remarkably easy: her first eight clients got hired.
But most quickly quit or got fired. "The job loss was staggering," she
says. Or as she put it, in what has become a maxim of the field, "Leaving
welfare is a process, not an event."
people cover the pitfalls as encyclopedically as Moore, who joined Project Match
in 1989 and raced through eight jobs in the first three years. She drove a delivery
truck; peddled nuts; fried eggs, and guarded a parking lot. She quit because her
car died and her baby sitter fell through; because her boyfriends were jealous
and she wanted to get high. Because "I was young-minded." Because "I
just got tired." Because "I just got depressed."
job losses posed a question to Herr that the country now has to face: how to design
an effective program when failure is so frequent? Herr tries to reduce the time
spent between jobs. She tries to get clients to learn from mistakes, while celebrating
the "incremental progress" that even a short-lived job can represent.
And she emphasizes a long-term relationship with clients that can unmask the underlying
problems; Project Match helped Moore find her first treatment program.
results look as good as any, but still the numbers are cautionary. Herr (with
a research associate, Suzanne Wagner) has found that about 36 percent of her clients
settle into stable employment within two years. Another 13 percent do so after
a much longer period of spinning their wheels. That still means half either do
no formal work (23 percent) or, like Moore, work intermittently but never stabilize
(28 percent). "The question is, What do you do with this large group of moms
who really don't function very well?" Herr says.
year, a Republican Congress and a Democratic President settled on an answer: time
limits and work requirements. While most of her profession reacted with dismay,
Herr has more complicated feelings. Thirty years in one of the nation's most blighted
neighborhoods has convinced her that everyone can do something, even if it's just
volunteering at a school. At the same time, she does not believe most Cabrini
women can do what the law en-visions: work full time while raising children.
law restricts most recipients to five years of Federal support in a lifetime.
While states can grant extensions to 20 percent of their caseload, Herr thinks
that won't be nearly enough. Her hope is that the law will serve as a sorting
mechanism "to figure out who can do what" -- who can work full time;
who can work part time; who needs to mix volunteer work with drug or mental-health
treatment. It is revealing that her mission statement says nothing of "self-sufficiency,"
the buzzword of the moment. It aims at "economic and social stability,"
a more important goal. "We're trying to get people's lives together, not
just get them off of welfare," she says.
question is whether her notion of flexible-but-rising expectations can find any
political support. (Herr says it might if recipients seem to progress -- a big
if.) Another is whether caseworkers have the competence to formulate and enforce
such individualized plans. And the country will still be left with a group --
"and it's not a small group," Herr says -- that cannot or will not comply.
What to do then? It's easy to talk about orphanages. But as Herr notes, "Mary
Ann, for all her shortcomings, has a very strong bond with her children."
She may seem inadequate. She's also irreplaceable.
have no reason to believe a lot of pressure will push her forward, because it
hasn't. But she can work. She does work. She needs to be in a system where she's
"I'm furious at her
and I'm crazy about her," Herr says. "She is everyone's concern."
she is lying on the couch in the early evening when Jean knocks on the door. A
thin, neatly dressed woman with watery eyes, Jean comes in, sits on the floor,
smokes cigarettes and says that she has been through drug treatment six times.
She has ostensibly come to help with the chores, since Moore's grandmother has
just died. It also appears that she has no place else to spend the night.
never fully committed to the drug treatment program and left it in February without
much of a plan. She moved to a shelter with the twins and mixed welfare with unemployment
benefits. Her big break came in June when she landed a subsidized apartment in
a private, well-guarded building a few blocks from Cabrini. It is her first home
in nearly three years.
When I leave one morning
last month, Moore is on the couch and Jean is in the kitchen, smoking. When I
return in midafternoon, Moore smells like wine, and she volunteers that they've
been drinking. When I pick her up for dinner, she meets me outside, and by now
she is exploding with anger.
stupid!" she says. "She's using me!"
says the talk of chores was just a cover for an addict needing a place to stay.
Moore's welfare payment had just arrived, and in her view, Jean borrowed the money
and bought the bottle in the hope of igniting a binge. "She thought I'd have
some wine and trigger off" -- get high -- "and just go spending money!"
vulnerable right now!" she says. "I'm grieving!"
three years I've never seen her so upset. I'd known she was hurting when I came
to Chicago, but I hadn't gauged the fullness of her pain and defeat. As we sit
in the car, she rails at Jean and then she rails at herself: for her deficiencies
as a worker, as a woman in recovery and as a parent. Then, oddly, she begins to
apologize for a more obscure sin: her failure, three years ago, to thank the readers
of the Magazine article who sent her money. She chooses this, of all times, to
worry that she is not teaching her children to say thanks. "I didn't send
a card or nothing!" she says. "It's hard to tell your kids things when
you don't practice it."
this grief-stricken woman, the welfare debate seems far removed. Time limits,
work requirements, bonuses to reduce out-of-wedlock births -- the welfare bill
is 250 pages of small print rooted in theories of cause and effect. Do this and
the poor will do that. But Moore's life is guided by different physics: the constant
collisions between the decency of her intentions and the depth of her wounds.
discomforting truth about situations like this is that no one really knows what
to do. Even in her crisis, Moore seems to suggest as much with a flash of self-awareness.
"I said, 'Jean, I cannot help you, 'cause what I'm going through, I can't
even help myself."'
After I left there
were a few more developments. Throughout our visit, I had noticed that Moore was
talking about Michael in surprisingly nostalgic tones. ("He cared about me,
but the way he cared -- it was dangerous.") After a separation of three years,
he began writing and calling again, and he was now disabled with kidney disease.
His first visit came a week after I left. Moore played it down, but the reunion
continued over subsequent days.
same time, Herr spent half an hour waiting outside Moore's apartment. They were
supposed to go get the Prozac refilled, but Moore never appeared. And with Michael
disabled, it turns out that the twins now qualify for Social Security payments.
Since the $594 total exceeds Moore's $485 welfare grant, her case has just closed.
For her, at least, the great national welfare debate has just become a moot point.
She is off the rolls, an addition to the celebrated statistics, and as much in
need as ever.
© 1997 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.