Busting the Myth of the Welfare Queen

Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

When I was a small child, my father, who often votes for Republicans, was explaining to me the difference between Democrats and Republicans. "Republicans want you to keep the money you worked for, and Democrats will take it from you and give it to people who never worked a day in their lives and make you live on the side of the road in a cardboard box. Mommy votes for Democrats — why don't you ask her why she wants you to live in a cardboard box?"

Thankfully I developed a slightly more nuanced view of the American political system. For those who still believe my father, Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino, the story of two welfare mothers who are doing anything but living the high life, comes to the rescue by providing a detailed look at the lives of welfare mothers during the Clinton administration.The book follows Odessa Williams and Cheri Honkala, two welfare mothers in North Philadelphia who know that welfare reform might snatch the benefits they depend on at any moment. Odessa's children are all adults, but she is saddled taking care of a plethora of grandchildren, many of whom have serious health problems. Cheri runs an organization that seeks to bring attention to the plight of Philadephia's poor and works tirelessly but sometimes inefficiently to gain attention for her cause. We find out later in the book that she and her son are able to eat because of her late-night gigs as a topless dancer — that is the only way she can think of to support herself while being a full-time activist.

Odessa is the heroine of the book — we follow her as she visits her son in prison, sells people rides in her car, goes fishing to stretch her food budget, and picks through trash bags in order to cloth her many grandchildren. Odessa's children aren't always on the ball — one son is imprisoned, one daughter is a prostitute whose children live with Odessa, and one of her granddaughters keeps on having children while refusing to further her education or find a job. Not everyone in North Philadeplia is eligible for sainthood — but Odessa is doing everything she can to straighten out the lives of her family members while Cheri works to make people aware of the plight of urban poor people.

The story takes place in the Clinton years under the shadow of impending welfare reform—the women know that they system they rely on is going to end, and they cannot quite imagine their worlds without it. They are anything but lazy, but Odessa, who is ill, cannot possibly work and care for all of her grandchildren and children simultaneously, and Cheri knows how important welfare is to the many families involved with her advocacy group. The Myth of the Welfare Queen does an excellent job of creating empathy for the extremely hard working women who require welfare to allow them to support themselves and their families in an economy that won't give them many feasible alternatives besides starving in a cardboard box.