The Rat Bite

A welfare mother's tragicomic tale of life in the system.

By Aggie Max

Published July 8, 1997 4:23PM (EDT)

In 1970 I was twenty-five years old, exactly half the age I am now. I had no husband, no job, no marketable skills or social graces, little formal education, no money, and no place to live. I had two small second-generation welfare brats, ages two and four. Fortunately, I had a friend named Adeline, who helped me set up house in Berkeley, which was a good place for small children and refugees from New York City.

When the children were a few years older and enrolled full-time in school, I decided to enroll myself and attempt to secure that prize at the end of the rainbow: a high school diploma. Not that I hadn't figured out along with most of my male counterparts including the ex-father of the children that you can't support a family on a minimum-wage job, but I had hope: that insidious poison which encourages one to Do The Best You Can With What You Have And Surely Something Good Will Happen Eventually Maybe.
And maybe eventually something good would happen; maybe by the time the children needed separate rooms you would have achieved the means to provide them. Maybe by the time they're ready for college you'll be able to send them.

But there are all these built-in cutoff points which They've provided to tip the scales against you every time you try to take a step toward that magical point of balance where everything works. And you know they're there, and you may even know where they are, but you think that by the time you reach that point (the point where the children need bus fare and lunch money every day and have to buy their own schoolbooks, for instance) you will have figured out how to provide the extras. And then They cut you off.

They will pay to send you to vocational training, but They will not pay for child care while you go. They will help you find a job, but the job will neither provide nor pay enough for you to provide child care. And then the "taxpayers" vote in an initiative which assures that persons with incomes as low as yours will never be able to afford decent housing in California. Which was supposed to encourage landlords to lower the rent. My landlord doubled the rent. We went on to live in basements, attics, and finally a junked trailer in someone's backyard.

And while you're trying to deal with this the children get older. They need more stuff. They're supposed to go to high school. They get part-time jobs that they hate where the paycheck is deducted from the welfare check. They want nice clothes and sports equipment and stereos. Cars. Their own phones. They're ashamed to have their friends visit. The list of things you can't provide for them gets longer. You can't pay the bills. The rent goes up and up. They hate you. You have failed in life. You are a failure as a parent and a human being. You can't figure out how to go on. You might as well die. And then They cut you off.

But your life is not a failure, you must remind yourself. It is merely the logical extension of having been born poor.

- - - - - - - - - -

There are advantages, at times, to not being a Real Person. You may have to spend a lot of time looking for them and figuring out how to use them, but they're there. Sometimes you can walk through walls, fit into places where Real People can't fit, go places where Real People don't believe you can go. Sometimes you can fly. But you have to do a lot of crawling first, a lot.

I'd been working on my application to a four-year college. A Real College. If I made it I'd be the first in my immediate family. It's harder that way, having no one who has gone before to help you find the way.

My older child had chosen to go to a community college in another city. He worked weekends, lived with me, and needed eight dollars a day just for bus fare. My younger child, Jessy in this story, was in the middle of her High School Crisis. We'd moved from her former school district, and the former school wouldn't allow her to continue there. She dropped out. I dragged her to the new school she'd been assigned to.

A bleak, dirty brick building rising in the middle of a vast trash-covered concrete yard, surrounded by razor wire.

"I'm not going," she said after one look.

"I guess not," I agreed.

- - - - - - - - - -

The next step was, of course, a cutoff. Welfare finds out that you're in the midst of a college application, already struggling to send one kid to college, having a mid-teen educational running battle with the other kid, and what do they do. Cut off your check, what else?

- - - - - - - - - -

It goes something like this: "We have received information indicating that your minor child Blahblah is no longer attending school and blahblahblah, informing you that in order for you to continue to receive your grant this child must attend daily meetings of the Work Help Incentive Program (WHIP) and actively participate in finding employment within three (3) weeks so that we may discontinue your grant and blahblah."

These "workfare" programs do not find you a job. They do not train you for one. They give you "counselling" and a list of minimum-wage jobs you can apply for. Mainly, you get to sit around in a large plastic waiting room full of screaming brats all day, same scenario as any other welfare-inspired enterprise. If you don't go, they kick your family off welfare. If you do go and don't get a job, your family gets the boot. If you attend and you do find work, same thing. The only function I could attribute to this particular program was to get families kicked off welfare. The office was not even accessible to public transportation, except after a long walk through a bad neighborhood.

"I'm not going," said Jessy.

"I guess not," I agreed.

Fortunately, at about this same time, my daughter got bitten by a rat.

- - - - - - - - - -

The family's assortment of pets included, at this time, several snakes, a tarantula, some chameleons, goldfish, guinea pigs, and two big rats named Jack Mack and Rad Boy. Jessy had let the rats out for exercise one day and for some unknown reason they decided to stage a fight to the death. While she was breaking this up, Jack Mack bit Jessy right through the knuckle of her right hand.

I took her to Childrens' Hospital, where she was admitted for tendon damage and possible infection, the hand wrapped in a huge ball of gauze and suspended from an overhead fixture.

"Very Dr. Seuss," she remarked, flying on drugs, obviously referring to the apparatus.

- - - - - - - - - -

Thus immobilized, Jessy missed her day at WHIP and I received notice that my welfare grant was to be terminated. However, we could if we wished schedule a "fair hearing," which I requested immediately. It was scheduled to take place in three weeks at Welfare HQ.

Due to fear, I had never requested a "hearing" before. I spent the three weeks quaking with terror. Jessy came with me to the meeting, her long-healed hand heavily bandaged and helplessly suspended in a sling.

The hearings are held in a small plastic office. I had expected a looming courtroom presided over by a Mad Queen.

They provide you with a sort of lawyer, which They call a client advocate, to defend your "rights."

The Defense advocate assigned to me is young, skinny, serious and Jewish. The Prosecutor is old, skinny, severe, and WASPy.

PROSECUTOR: "We have a report from Mrs. So-and-so from the Work Help Incentive Program, which states that your daughter, Jessica, failed to report to her scheduled appointment at the Work Incentive Bureau and this therefore renders yourself ineligible to receive further aid from the County of Alameda, State of California, United States of America, City of Oakland, for your daughter Jessica Morris, age fifteen, who is judged to be uncooperative with the rules of said County, State, and etc., and is therefore a burden on the System, undeserving of the support of said County and State and Country, and the taxpayers of this Country, and we therefore have terminated your AFDC check, and rightly so."

THE DEFENSE (rummaging through a huge stack of papers -- my AFDC file): "Mrs. Ashby, it is your right to present an objection to the County's allegations ... uh ... if you have an excuse, let's hear it."

ME (terrified and trembling): "Uh ... I called Mrs. So-and-so at the WHIP? Excuse me ... the Work Incentive? Program? Office?" (Involuntarily, I start crying) "And I told her that Jessy couldn't come to the Program that day ... because she was in the hospital? I did call! I called them!"

THE DEFENSE (rummaging): "Yes, there seems to have been a note made of that." Vibrating with tension or energy or hysteria, maybe all three, she thrusts a barely legible copy of a form on pink onionskin paper at The Prosecutor.

Prosecutor squints at the form, frowning. "Yes, I see. But this" (waving the form at The Defense) "Is not proof that the Daughter--" Jessy's head snaps up; she looks around at the participants in this farce (The Daughter?? Are they referring to Me???) "That The Daughter was actually hospitalized ... this --" (waving form) "only states that a phone call was received by Mrs. So-and-so at the WHIP -- excuse me -- the Work Help Incentive Program Office on this date ..."

I rummage through my own stack of papers and pull out the form I signed when Jessy was released from the hospital. I hand it to The Prosecutor.

PROSECUTOR: "Hmmmm ..." She focuses an evil eye on Jessy, who has not said a word. Who has been keeping her right arm in the sling, inert, the sling which she hasn't worn since she was discharged from the hospital two weeks before. Who, from time to time, evinces a tiny grimace of pain. Who knows perfectly well that the family can't survive without this AFDC check, negligible as it is, and that without the AFDC coverage she will have no access to medical care, and the rent will not get paid, and bus fare will not be available, and that she is too young to get a legitimate job and too uneducated to get a good job and Mom is already trying to support a houseful of people (including Dudley who has been laid off for a year) who are all liable to wind up homeless in the street. Yet, she feels that she must speak honestly and truthfully.

"Well," Jessy begins, cheerfully, "What happened was that I got in the hospital because I got bit by this rat. I didn't mean to get bit, it just happened. And it hurt a lot, and it swelled up and made me sick. There was this rat, right?"

The Prosecutor and The Defense are both staring at Jessy, as if hypnotized.

JESSY (brightly): "This rat bit me right on the hand. On the right hand, and I'm right handed, so it was a real bummer. So I couldn't use my hand and it was all red and swollen up. This rat bit me right on the knuckle, and the doctor said that the fluid from the tendon was leaking out, because the rat bit right through the tendon. It was real ugly, and it hurt a lot. The rat didn't mean to do it, but he was fighting with this other rat, and I was trying to stop them from fighting. Right? The other rat's name was Rad Boy. It wasn't his fault, I mean, he didn't start the fight. Who started it was Jack Mack. The rat, I mean. Jack Mack bit me. I knew he didn't really mean to. He was trying to bite Rad Boy. He bit me in the hand, because he thought my hand was Rad Boy, my right hand, right, and they were fighting. I don't know why they were fighting. But they were having this terrible fight, right? And I thought they were really gonna hurt each other. So I'm in the Emergency Room, and this doctor was sticking this needle in my arm. Right in my bloodstream! So I passed out. I just got real dizzy and thirsty, because the doctor was sticking this needle in my bloodstream. But she was a real nice doctor. She said she didn't mean to hurt me, but it was for my own good. So then I woke up, in the Emergency Room, and the doctor asked me What Happened? So I said that a rat bit me. But he didn't mean to. So they put all these blankets on me. And they asked Are You In Pain? And I said What Do You Think??? I got bit by a rat! And they said they were gonna put all this medicine in my arm. And I was supposed to go to the WHIP -- sorry -- the Work Intensive thing? But I was in the hospital with needles ..."

"Your AFDC grant will not be discontinued!" states The Prosecutor, loudly. "This hearing is concluded. You may go now."

JESSY: "So there were all these needles in my arm. And they put this big, big bandage on, and they hung my arm from this stick over the bed, up in the air. But then I couldn't eat, like, I couldn't hold the fork with my left hand. Because I'm right-handed. Right? And I couldn't call the office with my left hand. I mean, I couldn't do anything because I'm right-handed. And my mom came and washed my hair for me. I mean, I couldn't even wash my hair!! I really looked terrible ..."

I take Jessy's elbow and steer her out of the office. As we leave the building, Jessy says "Hey, I did good, huh, Mom."

"You were great," I tell my daughter "Great!"

Sometimes you can walk on water.

Aggie Max


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

California Children Family Motherhood