I had to get up at 3:30 and start getting the kids dressed. It was cool that morning and I didn't have a coat for Sam. I decided to use Sally's coat that Aunt Jean had given her two years ago. He wouldn't know the difference, and I could care less about what people would say.
I wrapped the baby snugly and the four of us started off for the bus stop. At 4:45 a bus finally came and the four of us boarded.
When we arrived at the social service office, it was 5:05. The door of the office was still locked, and people were standing around waiting for it to open. The door finally opened at 5:30. Everyone rushed in and took a number or crowded half in line around the desk. I didn't know what to do so I took a number, too. Then I went to the front desk. I waited in line for at least ten minutes before my turn came to talk to the receptionist.
I came straight to the point, saying, "I'd like to see someone about getting food, clothes, and shelter for me and my children." The receptionist told me I would have to wait and talk to an intake worker but they didn't just hand out money like that. Then she took my name and said someone would call me later. I felt a little sick to my stomach that she thought I was looking for a handout.
Around 9:00 the kids become restless. I kept getting up to give them a drink of water, but the water wasn't relieving their hunger. There was a snack bar next to the information desk and some people were buying things to eat. Naturally this made the kids want food even more. But the only money I had I needed for bus fare to get home.
By 11:00 the waiting room was crowded. Some people had to stand, However, when noon came everyone that worked there went out to lunch. By this time, my insides felt like they were melting together. I knew how Sally and Sam must feel. But I wasn't thinking much about them because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.
All of the employees came back to work at one o'clock. I approached the receptionist again to find out why I hadn't been called. She told me flatly, "Everyone has to wait their turn; they will call you when they get to your name." I tried to explain that my two older children hadn't had breakfast or lunch and I couldn't afford to purchase them anything from the snack bar. She looked up from her scratch pad and said, "What do you expect me to do? I hear this kind of thing all day long." I quickly took my seat, hoping too many people hadn't heard our conversation.
Finally, at 1:15 a lady came out and called, "Mrs. Morgan." My name never sounded so beautiful. I hurried to the front desk. A woman instructed me to follow her to a small room. She began by saying, "I am Mrs. Jenkins and you are Mrs. Morgan."
"Yes," I replied.
She said, "What can I do for you?"
I began, "My husband left me because he was constantly being laid off. He said we could make it better without him."
"Do you know where your husband is?"
"No, ma'am," I replied.
Giving me an application blank, she said, "Fill this out and bring it in tomorrow by 5:30."
It seemed Mrs. Jenkins had finished, but I continued to sit there. After a few seconds, she said, "You may go now."
"But--but Mrs. Jenkins, I don't have any food for my two older children. I do have some milk for my baby. Plus I don't have bus fare to return tomorrow."
She went into another room and returned with bus tickets. Then she told me that she would be unable to provide me with a food order; my application would have to be approved first.
As I left the room I thought to myself, "Anyone who thinks being on welfare is fun has to be mentally unstable." The wait alone is enough to make you go out of your mind. Then after the long wait, what did I get? Four bus tickets.
As we left the building, I was thinking we might go to Aunt Jean's instead of going home. After all, she didn't live too far away. Maybe she would ask us to spend the night and then it would be easier to return to the social service office the next morning. Besides, we didn't have any food at home and she might offer us a little something to eat.
Aunt Jean was full of southern hospitality and offered us food immediately. Later we sat down to talk and watch television, and it wasn't long before she started to encourage us to spend the night.
The next morning we arrived just as the door of the social services office was opening and waited in the waiting room the same as we did the previous day. People walked back and forth to buy snacks. I knew that Sam and Sally were hungry after a while, but neither of them asked for anything.
I was daydreaming about being able to afford things for my children when I heard my name over the paging system, "Mrs. Morgan, front desk." I rushed up to the front desk and identified myself. A lady said, "This way, please."
She offered me a chair and identified herself as Mrs. Jones. I handed her my application and she began to look it over. She didn't say a word with her mouth, but she said a lot with her facial expressions. I would have felt better if she had spoken. I began perspiring until my hands felt slippery. My knees began to tremble so that it appeared I was shaking my baby. I wondered whether Mrs. Jones was enjoying my extreme anxiety. She certainly wasn't trying to alleviate it by breaking the silence.
I suppose it took Mrs. Jones ten minutes to read my application. To me it seemed like ten years. She finally looked up at me and said, "Mrs. Morgan, do you know where your husband is now?" I told her that I didn't have any idea of where he could be. Then she proceeded to tear apart each of my answers on the application. She asked, "Do all three of your children have the same father?" I suppose I was partly to blame on this one. I didn't indicate their last names on the form because I assumed anyone would know their last name was Morgan. Mrs. Jones wanted to know about the length of time I had lived at our address. She threw one question after another at me: "Why don't you have . . . ?" "What have you been doing up to now for . . . ?" "How come you haven't . . . ?"
My father always said, "Take it easy when you have your head in a lion's mouth." This was certainly true now, and I needed this woman for my survival. She rambled on and on but still wasn't saying anything that I wanted to hear. I wanted to know what they were going to give me. Finally she told me she would work out a budget for me.
"I don't have any food for my two older children," I told her. "I also don't have any money or bus tickets to get home."
"I see your kind every day," she said. "Want everything you can get. Have a seat outside and they will call your name to pick up the tickets and food order."
The dinner I prepared that evening was a tasty one. I fried chicken livers with onions and we had rice, spinach, and corn bread. We felt like saying grace before eating for a change. During the meal, I explained my success of the day. "Now we'll be able to eat a meal three times a day. And I won't be so worried and upset."
Sam asked, "Is three times a day a lot of times?" I laughed and assured him that it was enough times that he wouldn't be hungry.
The following week was beautiful: three meals each day, peace of mind, and most of all giving love and receiving my children's love. The money I was to receive from social services could pay the rent, utilities, and buy some food. However, the food would have to be mostly second rate such as neck bones, chicken livers, or bacon ends. But I couldn't complain because I could at least live.
The time came for Sally to start school, and I began to wonder what we would do for clothes. I started looking for a night job, but I couldn't find work doing anything. I would even have taken a job sweeping the street. I knew there had to be more to life than this. I was barely surviving.
The day before school, I made starch out of flour and ironed Sally's best dress, which wasn't much. It was old plus it was up to her butt because she had gotten it two years before. I bought her a pair of gym shoes and socks at the supermarket.
The first day of school I dressed Sally along with Sam, the baby, and myself. Of course, today was Sally's day and the rest of us didn't matter that much. But as we waited in line to register, I noticed the way the other children were dressed.
After being in school for several weeks, Sally began to act strangely. One afternoon she came home and asked, "Mama, why do all of the children laugh at me?" I didn't want to tell her it was because I couldn't afford to buy her nice clothes like the others had. She seemed to sense that I didn't want to talk about it, so she never mentioned it again. But she began to withdraw and talk less and less. That winter she had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for two weeks. When the doctor told me he thought this had happened because of the way she had been treated by her peers at school, I became even more determined to get a job so I could buy us some clothes.
I soon found the Lord was looking out for me. The day Sally was discharged from the hospital, her doctor told me about a job at a nursing home working nights as a nurse's aide. Ide said the administrator was a friend of his. He told him about me, and the administrator had agreed to give me a try. I felt all I needed was a chance like this. I was so elated I had tears in my eyes when I thanked the doctor. He told me to take good care of my children.
I was due to start to work on Sunday night. I knew I couldn't afford to hire anyone to look after the children when I was at work. So I took time and explained to Sally what I was going do to. I told her in order to get money to buy a few toys and clothes like other people, I had to work. I would need her help with Sam and the baby. I assured her they would be asleep most of the time anyway.
I bought a white uniform with my light bill money and used the rest of my emergency savings to catch the bus to and from work.
It was three weeks before my first paycheck, but it was well worth the wait. I cleared $120 and had some money to buy clothes. I went to K-Mart and bought Sam a suit; Sally a dress, shoes and socks; and the baby a new dress, socks, and shoes because she had never had any shoes before.
The next Sunday when I got home from work, I dressed everyone; and we all went to church. I was sleepy that night at work, but I was pleased we went. The kids enjoyed it and my heart felt all good inside.
From that time forward Sally kept the kids for me while I worked at night. We had better food and clothes and I even started saving a little. We went to church every Sunday and sometimes during the week. Sally and Sam began to love Sunday school and looked forward to going.
Sometimes I felt a little guilty for accepting money from social services and working, too. But I rationalized to myself that I couldn't survive on either one alone. So I took the better of two evils and risked going to jail if I got caught.
One night at work an in-service instructor gave a class on "Treating the Patient as a Human Being Through Reality Orientation." I dearly enjoyed the class. Afterwards I went to the instructor and asked her about continuing my education. She was happy about my interest, especially since I wanted to be a nurse. (I had been thinking about this for some time.) She agreed to bring me literature and an application to junior college.
I talked about going back to school with my coworkers, and they made fun of me. Even the licensed practical nurse in charge made sarcastic remarks. But this made me keep my head up and try harder.
During that first year, I made two A's in chemistry, four B's in my other courses, and two C's in English. I managed to pay my own way through school in addition to buying our clothing.
I continued to work at the nursing home. The jokes and remarks about my going to school became less frequent as I progressed in the nursing program. At the request of the nursing director, I even took charge when the supervisor was unable to come in.
At times, working along with going to school and taking care of my children would get the best of me. Sometimes I would catch myself nodding in class, and once I fell asleep. Everyone was leaving the classroom when I awakened. I was so embarrassed. I immediately went up and explained to my instructor that I was working nights.
Finally I graduated. It was a small graduation, but an extremely happy occasion for me and my children. As I walked across the stage for my associate degree in nursing, my baby Nell stood up in her seat in the rear of the auditorium and said, "That's my mama!" The audience turned to her and cheered and clapped.
I am now off AFDC, and I am very thankful to God that He helped me through those years. I am very proud to be a nurse, and it feels great to be able to go to the supermarket and pay for my groceries with cash rather than food stamps. I always felt people were watching me when I paid with food stamps. It doesn't mean that I have that much more money now, but I do have more dignity which seems to make the money go further. Bank tellers and checkout clerks seemed to sneer at me when I cashed my welfare check. With a check I've earned, these people respect me and I feel that I am not a burden to society. I feel good about having earned that money.
I can see now that children act in the same way their parent acts. When I was on welfare and barely able to make ends meet from one month to the next, my kids were sad and struck out at each other. Now that I am more content, they are nice to each other. Another factor that has changed their attitude is that they can do things other children do and have things other children have. Now I am able to buy Sam a truck for his birthday. I can afford to take the kids to the zoo or on a picnic in the park. Sally has pajamas so she can spend the night with a friend. Our life is very different from before.
By BETTY MORGAN
"Betty Morgan," a former AFDC client who did not feel free to use her real name when this article was published in the spring of 1979, is Addie M. Morris of Little Rock, Arkansas. A registered nurse, she is on sabbatical from her position as director of education, Arkansas Mental Health Services, while she works on her doctorate in higher education. Appointed in 1979 by then Governor Bill Clinton, she was the first African-American registered nurse to serve on the Arkansas State Board of Nursing. Her son "Sam" is a registered nurse. "The baby" is in college studying international relations and has been an exchange student in Japan, Chile, and Austria. "Sally" is deceased.