Symbol of Welfare Reform, Still Struggling

The New York Times
April 20, 1999

MILWAUKEE -- She had practiced her lines and prayed with her mother. She had bought her children new clothes. After 10 years on welfare, Michelle Crawford was leaving her rundown home to speak to the Legislature, at the Governor's personal request. She clenched her notes so tightly in the back of the car, it seemed she was trying to choke them.

"I'm not much of a talker," she said, drawing anxious breaths and jumbling her words as the Wisconsin countryside flew past.

An hour later, she stole the show.

Standing beside the man she nervously called "Government Thompson" -- Wisconsin's Governor, Tommy G. Thompson -- Ms. Crawford explained how his showcase welfare program had transformed her life. "Today, I'm working as a machine operator, providing for my family," she said. Then with flawless timing, she pointed at the gallery where three of her children were watching.

"Now," she said, holding an emphatic finger in the air, "I tell my kids that this is what you get when you do your homework."

Ms. Crawford's prime-time, televised performance -- her poise, her humor, her confident smile -- filled the chamber with cheers and transformed her, after a life of defeat, into a potent symbol of success. In one resonating moment, she became the most celebrated beneficiary of the most closely watched welfare program in the country.

Governor Thompson recently drew a burst of applause as he retold "her inspiring story" to a room of conservative supporters at a welfare conference in Washington. She recalls him saying, " 'I want to run for President,' " when they met three months ago. " 'And I want you on my team.' "

Ms. Crawford's odyssey, from desperation to distinction, from welfare to work, is indeed a powerful, inspiring story. It is also an incomplete one, at least in its official telling. In a series of interviews over the last several months, Ms. Crawford offered a far more complicated account, depicting a life that is much more difficult than her admirers realize and less steady than the Governor may hope.

In sharing her fuller story -- in explicit, even harrowing detail -- she said she wanted even the most troubled women to know that they, too, could move forward. "I want to tell other girls, hey, if you're going through something, I've been there," she said. "I've had those things thrown in my face: 'You'll never be nothing.' There's women out there scared."

As the Legislature heard, Ms. Crawford is indeed off welfare and on the job at a plastics factory outside Milwaukee. After years of severe anxiety and depression, her diligent record recently earned her a raise of 48 cents, to $8.20 an hour. But she continues to struggle with panic attacks, unpaid bills and barbs from co-workers and relatives who envy her achievements.

In his Washington speech, Mr. Thompson again praised the effect her work was having on her children. But only a few days earlier, her 19-year-old son threw her life into new turmoil when he was arrested and charged with possessing cocaine. It is his second such charge in the last four months. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

In the past, such pressures have overwhelmed Ms. Crawford. She was hospitalized briefly for what she described as a nervous breakdown as recently as a year ago, and she said her troubles had been brought on in part by the pressures of the very program, Wisconsin Works, or "W-2," whose virtues she now represents. Before leaving the system and landing her current job, she was required to work for her welfare check of $673 a month, a requirement she fiercely resented.

"To me, it was just like slavery," she said. "I couldn't be with my kids."

Perhaps most worrisome, Ms. Crawford's success has brought new strains to a volatile marriage. Her husband of two years, Donald Crawford, is an aspiring minister who plays New Testament tapes when he drives her to work and warns, "If you put God first in your life, the Devil won't have time to get in." He is also a recovering addict who says he received the Holy Ghost in prison three years ago, where he was facing a possible 20 years for his role in torturing a man he suspected of stealing drugs.

At least four times last year, the Crawfords' relationship erupted in violence. Twice, Mr. Crawford was led away in handcuffs for striking his wife, who has been beaten by a succession of men for two decades. But once it was Ms. Crawford who was placed under arrest, for hitting him in the head with an iron and threatening him with a knife.

"I was going berserk" from financial and family pressures, she said. She said she hit her husband to defend herself, after he restrained her by grabbing her throat.

Despite their fights, Mr. Crawford sometimes supports his wife's work life, through prayers, rides and baby-sitting services. But he also worries that his role as the breadwinner is being usurped.

"I don't like it, because I'm the man of the house," he said.

The tensions in their life were on full display one recent afternoon. Inside the house, Ms. Crawford was frantically phoning for details of her son's arrest. Outside, Mr. Crawford angrily complained that his wife had failed to tell her admirers about his contributions to her success.

"I pulled that lady in there out of a lot of rough stuff," he said.

"Don't kick me to the curb, like, 'I did it all by myself.' " Worried that she would call the police again, he accused Ms. Crawford of "telling lies on me." He added darkly, "I don't like liars."

A Complex Case
When Getting a Job Is the Easy Part

In an interview following his recent Washington speech about Ms. Crawford, Mr. Thompson said he knew nothing of her violent marriage, her son's arrests or her history of emotional duress. When sharing the stage with her in January, he said, he did not even know she was married. Mr. Crawford had left the house two months earlier under a court order.

Speaking in a somber tone, Mr. Thompson said he was saddened but not surprised, since many women on public assistance struggle with similar issues. A four-term Republican who is seen as a national leader on welfare, he went on to say that Ms. Crawford's problems made her achievements all the more impressive.

"It's a richer story; it shows how complex and how difficult this is," he said. "People start out with some real difficulties, emotionally as well as educationally and culturally. To overcome these things, it's not easy dealing with human frailties. Michelle is very much a success story and continues to be so, even more so because she's been able to overcome these adversities."

Julia Taylor, the president of YW Works, a state-financed welfare agency that offered Ms. Crawford a remarkable array of services, views the story as a warning against the simplistic view that "all you have to do is go out and get a job." While "getting a job certainly helps," she said, policymakers should remember "it doesn't make all the problems go away, and sometimes it intensifies problems. The public needs to understand how hard people's lives are."

Despite her moments of panic and doubt, Ms. Crawford can also summon reserves of uncommon, even eloquent, resilience. In pushing poor women like herself to find their hidden talents, she said, Mr. Thompson "did a good thing with W-2."

A Hard Start
Abuse, a Miscarriage And Mental Illness

The fourth of 13 siblings raised on welfare, Ms. Crawford, 39, has struggled all her life. Her family moved to Milwaukee from Arkansas when she was a young child, on the tail of a vast migration of Southern blacks chasing hope in the industrial North.

But her father left the home when she was 7, and her mother was still decades away from settling down. "My mother was running the streets," she said. "When I was 15, I ran away. I told her I wasn't taking care of all the kids."

Soon she had children of her own. After an adolescence marred by sexual abuse at the hands of a relative, Ms. Crawford left high school, found a rough young man and followed him to Chicago. They had a child when she was 18 and lost another a year later. "He beat it out of me," she said. "It was a miscarriage." Two more children followed, and too many beatings to count.

She returned to Milwaukee and sought peace in pills -- the Devil's doing, as she sees it now. She drank. She battled urges to hurt herself. Depleted in body and soul by the age of 24, she left her children with her mother and entered a mental hospital for five months. It took three years to grow strong enough to get her children back.

By 1993, when she met Donald Crawford in a training class for welfare recipients, she had two more children, another violent boyfriend, and a headful of worries. She admired him from across the room, but felt sure a man that tall and fine -- 6 feet 2, with a wide, winning smile -- was already spoken for.

He paired with her during interview rehearsals, showing her how to impress an employer with a firm, confident grip. He drove her home. He said he liked her. In 1996, he offered her a ring.

"I thought he was joking," she said. "Nobody ever wanted to marry me."

The Partner
Struggles of His Own, And a Similar Past

But Mr. Crawford had problems of his own. Like his wife, he came from a large family of Arkansas migrants, with 11 siblings. Like his wife, he dropped out of school and battled an addiction -- cocaine, in his case. Though his father had enjoyed a steady life as a janitor and a preacher, Mr. Crawford has been on and off of welfare, and in and out of jobs. By 1996, he had found a sideline helping an associate sell drugs.

Early that year, they suspected a boarder of stealing their cocaine. They stripped, bound and gagged the man, beat him with a 2-by-4, poured boiling water on his naked body and whipped him with a cord, according to an account the man gave the police 10 days later. Despite his injuries, the victim said he had stayed in the house for a week after the assault, until the men, accusing him of stealing a coat, stripped him, scalded him and beat him some more with a hammer and a pipe.

Mr. Crawford said the associate was the main assailant, but acknowledged, "I had a hand in it."

On his knees in the cell where he was being held for the crime, Mr. Crawford wept and prayed for divine intervention. "I said, 'Lord, forgive me, it's all in your hands," he said. "The Holy Ghost came and filled me with the Spirit. Ever since then, nothing's turned me around."

Mr. Crawford was released a few weeks later. The victim, who told the police he feared being killed if he testified, failed to appear in court. Mr. Crawford proposed shortly after his release, and Ms. Crawford accepted the following year. They married in July 1997.

The Program
After a Reluctant Start, Glad to Be Working

The state began its bold remaking of the welfare system two months later, requiring virtually everyone on cash assistance to work for their benefits.

Ms. Crawford was sent to a work site where her duties involved picking up trash. She felt humiliated. After a life filled with insults, she says, she felt like the program equated her with the garbage bags in her hand. "It felt like they were punishing us," she said.

Problems in the program collided with problems at home. Mr. Crawford had rented an upstairs apartment to tenants who began selling drugs. He got an eviction order. They got a gun. The Crawfords constantly quarreled -- about his disruptive relatives, her resentful children, and a pile of unpaid bills.

In February 1998, Mr. Crawford was arrested for grabbing her by the throat. In March, she went to jail for hitting him with the iron. No one has been seriously hurt in their fights, and the charges were all dropped before trial. In May, Ms. Crawford sought professional help, returning to a psychiatric hospital for a night.

"I had a nervous breakdown," she said. "I just didn't want to live no more."

What followed next was an extraordinary collaboration, between a creative agency and a tenacious client. YW Works, one of five private agencies that run the welfare program in Milwaukee, initially made Ms. Crawford's work assignment the pursuit of her psychiatric care.

After a month of intensive outpatient therapy, the agency sent her to a plastics plant it had just bought to train poor clients. Though she started in housekeeping, her supervisor noticed her unusual drive. Others goofed off when vacuum cleaners broke, but Ms. Crawford grabbed a broom. By August, the supervisor had promoted her onto the assembly line.

Not every day passed peacefully. Failing to take the medication that helps control her mood swings, Ms. Crawford erupted one morning and denounced her supervisor as a racist. He calmed her down, sent her home, and by the next morning she was back on the line, molding minnow buckets. "They really put up with me," Ms. Crawford said. "They were like family to me."

In October, her supervisor drove her to a job interview, and she fell to her knees when she was hired. "I said, 'Thank you, Jesus' -- I'm going to be paying taxes, too!" Off of cash assistance since the fall, Ms. Crawford receives $65 a month in food stamps and the coaching of a job retention specialist employed by YW Works.

When the Governor toured the training plant in January, Ms. Crawford was invited to join a group of clients meeting with him.

"Sir, I didn't like it -- but it worked for me," she said, offering him a hug. Soon after, Mr. Thompson startled his aides and Ms. Crawford alike by inviting her to join him onstage at his annual State of the State Address. "There was an instant chemistry between us," he said.

Six days after their first, brief encounter, Ms. Crawford was standing before the Legislature. "I thought I would always be on welfare," she told her statewide audience. But now, "my kids see a difference in me," she said. "I ask others to take a chance on W-2 workers. We won't let you down."

By the end the speech, Mr. Thompson recalled, "There wasn't a dry eye, including myself -- I even get teared up now when I talk about it. It was just so emotional, so right, and so correct."

Not everyone thinks so. Her co-workers resent Ms. Crawford's celebrity, and her mother and sister are furious. Ms. Crawford's sister was recently evicted after losing her welfare benefits, Ms Crawford said, adding that her relatives match her admiration for the Governor with equally potent spite. Her mother and sister "hate Thompson's guts," Ms. Crawford said. "They said it's wrong to say those things about W-2, because W-2 is messing up other people's lives."

Closer to home, her husband, too, chafes at her prominence, and the three children still living at home, Lorenzo, 14, Lavita, 11, and Yolando, 7, often chafe at her husband. "I'm trying to go straight in the Lord," he said recently. But his anger flared just a moment later, when he noted that in her defining hour, Ms. Crawford "didn't say nothing about me."

Mr. Crawford was arrested last November, after another fight. But despite the order removing him from the home, Ms. Crawford let him return after her January speech. She praised him in a recent conversation, saying, "He doesn't hit women; he's a Christian man." In dreams, she sometimes sees him in white, standing in a pulpit. "We need each other," she said. "You just can't do things by yourself. You need a helping hand."

Through six months' crises, one thing has held steady: Ms. Crawford's devotion to her job.

She was scheduled to tell her story in Washington on April 22 before a Congressional panel. She wanted to arrive in a limousine and meet "important people." But her son's drug arrest cost her two days of work, and Ms. Crawford is sagging from the pressures of the publicity.

She plans to spend the day making plastic valves instead.

"I like getting up in the morning, going to my job," she said. "I just feel good about myself."

Copyright © 1999 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.








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