THE WELFARE REFORM TRAP

"I came out of the bathtub one day around sunset and saw him with a broom in his hand just sweeping away. The front door of the trailer was wide open, and I asked him what he was doing. He said, 'Don't you see them?'

"'See who?'
"He said demons were running around everywhere.
"He was sweeping demons out of the front door of the trailer.
"He threw a Bible into a plate of my food and began speaking in tongues. He became very abusive and tried to strangle me."
Cathy remembers that this father of her child could not stand to hear the baby cry or scream. The week before Easter, she discovered an ugly, purple bruise in the shape of a hand on her infant's buttocks after leaving her son in his father's care. When she caught him trying to choke their 6-month-old baby, Cathy took off and never looked back.

"Child abuse was something I thought happened to other people," says Cathy.
She says this as if her life, or the men in it, had been "normal" and the child abuse incidents were an unusual blip on an otherwise tranquil radar screen. Only her mothering instincts finally suggested a path to normalcy; you could pummel Cathy like a rag doll, but, by God, you'd better keep your hands off her baby. In 1984, Cathy and her newborn, her mom and her two sisters all moved to Arizona.

Three years later, she was pregnant with her second child. At least the new man in her life--a chef in some of the Valley's better-known restaurants--worked steadily. But like every man she'd ever known, when he drank, he got mean, and then he beat her.

In 1992, he was arrested and slapped with an order of protection for attacking Cathy. Four days after he got out of jail, he was carted off again, charged with kidnaping, armed burglary and aggravated assault.

He had wandered, drunk, into an open apartment, pulled a knife on a terrified woman and forced her into her bedroom. He was too loaded to notice the woman's roommate and her boyfriend, who quickly called the cops. Cathy's man was sentenced to ten years.

Last week he sent Cathy a letter from prison.
"He wrote me that he was doing so much time because I wouldn't stand up with him in front of the judge. He said he had no family support.

"He blames me for his sentence. Can you believe it?
"He said when he got out, we'd have to learn to tolerate each other because of the child.

"I don't have to tolerate him, and I won't." It's been a ferocious ride for Cathy England, but welfare recipients, like prisoners in lockup, all have a story. The real question is this: How did she break the cycle?

I wanted Cathy to tell me how she went from living with one loser after another, always on the dole, to getting straight A's in college. How does Cathy fit into the new welfare Zeitgeist in America?

The turning point for Cathy, it turns out, was an event that underscores the futility of enacting welfare reform that doesn't factor in human nature. Social workers must have the authority to exercise their good common sense, to give the green light and the greenbacks to someone like Cathy. It is not a welfare revolution if we simply adopt a new set of guidelines as rigid as rebar, in place of the tar bath that existed before.

Cathy has confounded the new welfare system because her life is not a square peg in a square hole. Her journey has been highly personal.

Cathy claims, oddly enough, that it was her dad who opened her eyes.
In February of 1994, her father passed away. Although she had refused to ever again speak to the man who'd deserted his family in 1983, she decided to travel to Michigan for his funeral. Cathy drove out to the place where her father had lived.

"He was living in a garage and slept on a cot. There were beer bottles everywhere, trash, plates of medication. To the right, there were stacks of cut wood. All you could smell was the stench of burnt wood. There wasn't much ventilation for the stove. No one had cleaned up, garbage was strewn everywhere. There was still food on the electric range. There were shelves filled with old paint cans, some tools. This is how he died, a 59-year-old alcoholic.

"I didn't speak to him for 11 years because of the resentment and hate. But he used to tell me about the things he wanted to do. He never reached any of those goals, not a one. He was offered a job at a hospital as the head of maintenance, but he never took it. His father had been an alcoholic, and he'd said he'd never put his kids through what he went through. And look what happened."
Cathy England returned to Arizona shaken, yet determined not to end up living on a cot like her old man. And so she enrolled in college. No longer a kid, she was a middle-aged woman who'd about run out of chances.

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