Welfare mythology: buried charlatan


"Myth of the Welfare Queen," by David Zucchino, Scribner, 368 pages. $25.

The story of women on welfare is not narrative friendly. To borrow a famous phrase, life on public assistance is not one thing after another, it's the same damn thing over and over again. Sometimes, just getting through the day can be a triumph, especially late in the month.

Yet despite the built-in limitation, this book is a page-turner, a tour de force in reporting on the real women (and men) who rely on the patchwork of federal programs - Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, USDA food stamps - that most of us know as simply as welfare.

David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, focuses primarily on two women. One is Odessa Williams, a 56-year-old who ends up sharing her small Philadelphia rowhouse with three generations.

She has gone back on welfare eight years before the book begins, when one daughter's crack addiction forces her to take in three grandchildren.

Her household has only grown since then. Odessa "trash picks" and goes fishing to stretch her food dollars, but there's never quite enough to make it to the end of the month. In one of the book's more memorable scenes, she "splurges" on a $1.75 hot sausage and calculates how far her check will go: $280 for the electric bill, $80 for meat bought in bulk, $120 for the perishables food stamps doesn't cover, from diapers to toilet paper.

The other woman at the center of Zucchino's book is Cheri Honkala, an advocate for the poor who also happens to be poor.

Cheri is a member of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a coalition of homeless people who set up a "Tent City" on a burned-out factory site. Cheri and her group undertake an escalating publicity campaign - squatting next to the Liberty Bell, taking over an abandoned church - with decidedly mixed results. Young, with only a teen-age son to raise, Cheri would seem to have more options than Odessa, but her activism is not so much about her own plight as it is about the welfare system in general.

This is truly an important book that should bury the image of the Cadillac-driving charlatan forever. I fear it won't, but that's not Zucchino's fault.

Bleeding heart liberals all had a nice laugh at George Bush's expense when it was remarked that he was the guy who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. But most of us see our good luck as the result of hard work and ingenuity, while we secretly believe the poor are lazy good-for-nothings held back by their own bad habits.

Few Americans can bear to confront the utter randomness of life on this planet, the fate-shaping forces of class and race that are in place from the moment of our conception. Zucchino doesn't stack the deck - "Welfare Queen" has its share of addicts and insolent young women who think the world owes them a living. But its heart is Odessa, a woman who in the midst of her own grinding poverty finds a way to help the homeless families at Tent City.

If there were any justice in the world, Rush Limbaugh would have to spend at least one night of his life helping her pick through the trash in the Philadelphia suburbs. He might even find a VCR or freezer. Odessa did.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer at The Sun. For five years, sh covered poverty and social services for the Evening Sun and The Sun, writing about Maryland's attempts at welfare reform. Her "Baltimore Blues" was published in February; "Charm City," also a novel, will be published in October.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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