THE WELFARE REFORM TRAP

"Geez, a 4.0 . . . is that right?" marveled Kircos, who acknowledged his own grades in college were somewhat less stellar. But rules are rules, he said.

Which is what everyone at DES said.
"These are laws passed by the Legislature," said an unperturbable Robert De La Garza, program and projects specialist. "They want them run the way they feel they should be run."
What does that mean?
"It has to be something that can be completed in two years," says Gretchen Evans, administrator of the JOBS program that oversees Cathy's file.

"There is no flexibility," says Evans. None.
So, no, DES will not make an exception for Cathy.
And Cathy refuses to go to the state's trade school. She does not want to be a mere assistant.

"When I worked in a nursing home, I met physical therapists who came in to treat the patients. They worked with stroke victims, teaching them to relearn the basics, like walking. They were very caring people, and it's what I want to do with my life." She has told the state to go to hell.

For 12 years, off and on, welfare has been a constant in this woman's life. But something basic and fundamental has changed in Cathy.

It's not the teeth; good teeth are only a reward, a goal. The motivation to turn her life around came from a man, which is kind of funny because Cathy has only known bums and criminals. And yet, one of these men, her dad, a person she refused to speak with for 11 years, gave her the idea that she could stand on her own two feet.

It was a hard lesson for her to learn. Cathy was so implacable in her rage that her father had to drop dead, literally, before he could get through to his daughter.

When she was younger, she listened to no one.
After a miserable time in her Michigan high school, where she was picked on by the other kids because she was a runt and pretty much a flop in the classroom, Cathy went to work in an automotive plant. She worked on mold presses, drill presses and even did a little spot welding. The year was 1976, and she was pulling down $1.89 an hour and seeing a fellow who "was a tool and die guy."

Cathy looks back and says she should have guessed how it would turn out when she discovered her boyfriend siphoning gas out of her mother's car.

"I was young and stupid," says Cathy. "Even though he abused me, I went for him. He thought I should stay home, cook and clean while he drank and did drugs. On the day we got married, he left at midnight to go to a cathouse in Detroit with a friend. He said he needed 'variety.'"
Cathy's dad liked the new husband. He liked him so much that both of them decided to hit the road together. The two traveled first to Arkansas and then to Oklahoma.

Cathy followed them to Oklahoma because they were the two most important men in her life. Once there, her husband beat her so often--three to four times a week--that Cathy actually learned to fight back in self-defense.

"He would go out to bars after work and come in whenever. If dinner wasn't on the table when he showed up, he'd knock me down and kick me.

"Towards the end there, he came home about 10 p.m. I'd left his dinner in the oven, but I turned the heat down so it wouldn't dry out. He beat me because it was cold when he came through the door.

"I got off the floor and made his supper. When he sat down to eat, I picked up the rolling pin I'd used to make his dinner rolls. I swung it like a baseball bat and hit him in the back of his skull while he was chewing his food. His head just pitched forward into his plate, and he did not move.

"I went into the living room, turned on the television and picked up a deck of cards. I was numb.

"I played solitaire until it was time for bed. He still hadn't moved."
Cathy's husband returned to Michigan after two years.
"He missed his mother, who was used to bailing him out of jail. He told me that since he had paid for the marriage, I had to pay for the divorce."
Before the paperwork was finished on the divorce, she met the man who would father her first child.

"He was nice-looking, but not very bright. When I met him, he was in construction. He didn't do it very often, but that's what he did. Both of his parents were ordained ministers."
The handsome man wooed Cathy, and the next thing she knew, she was pregnant with her son. But it was not a happy time.

Cathy's mom took a bad fall in Oklahoma and broke her knee in five places. The running joke among the doctors was that it looked like she'd been dropped from a helicopter. When her mom went into the hospital, Cathy's dad cleared out the family bank account, abandoned his wife and kids and fled the state. Cathy was four and one-half months pregnant. She was living in a trailer in north Tulsa with the common-law husband who, before their three-year relationship ended, lost his mind.

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