Nearly $650 went to rent and utilities. Seventy-five dollars went for household goods that food stamps wouldn't buy. Seventy-five went to groceries when the food stamps ran out. Fifty went to Newports, since Angie's body wouldn't function without a pack every other day.

What was left was about $270 a month, or $9 a day. With that, Angie had to buy the remaining stuff of her life: bus fare, haircuts, gerbil food, video games, winter coats, doctors' bills, Halloween candy, Kesha's color-guard uniform, Darrell's birthday party, and the occasional pizza supreme. It was a budget with no room for error. And a life with lots of error. "Cash money in my hands?" Angie said. "It's like the wind blows and it's gone."

Generous to a fault, Angie had let her drug-addicted cousin, Opal, move in. Opal was supposed to be helping to buy food, but she was spending her food stamps on drugs. One day Opal beat Angie's five-year-old, Darrell, to the last drop of milk. He flung himself to the floor. "What you crying for, boy?" Opal said.

"I'm hungry," he said.

"You need a good butt-whipping!" Opal screamed.

Darrell wasn't the only one in the house missing a meal. Called in to work on her 33rd birthday, Angie was broke and didn't eat all day.

Angie at 33: Evicting Family
In the middle of December, Angie and Opal had a new fight, after Opal went on another binge, accepting Angie's gift of shelter and spending her money on drugs. The house was out of groceries-again.

The next day Angie walked in Opal's room and said something she hadn't planned to say. Get out. Go! Leave within 48 hours. "Why you keep trying to use people?" Angie said.

Angie knew it was Christmas. She knew it was cold and the shelters were full. But "I ain't doing her no good here," Angie said. "She told me that a long time ago: I'm 'enabling' her-she learned that in rehab."

Angie laughed. "Shoot! Why don't your take your ass back there and learn something else?" But underneath she was as earnest as could be. "If I don't put her out, she ain't never gonna get herself together," Angie said. "I love you," she told Opal. "When you get yourself together, I'll be there for you."

Angie at 38: A Shot at the American Dream
The welfare revolution grew from the fear that the poor were mired in a culture of entitlement-stuck in a swamp of excessive demands, social due. There certainly was a culture of entitlement in American life, but it was scarcely concentrated at the bottom (as anyone following the wave of corporate scandals now knows). What really stands out about Angie is how little she felt she was owed. Not heat or lights. Not medical care. Not even three daily meals. And she scarcely complained.

In ending welfare, the country took away her single largest source of income. She didn't lobby or sue; she didn't march or riot. She made her way against the odds into wearying, underpaid jobs. And that does now entitle her to "a shot at the American Dream" more promising than the one she has yet received.

One night, Angie and I stayed up late talking about what her work had meant to her. She was propped up in bed with a beer. Great heaps of stuff spilled everywhere: report cards, pay stubs, unopened bills, CDs, an iron, mounds of dirty clothes. In the hours between midnight and dawn, she found her sacred space, turning the jumble of junk and a flickering TV into a makeshift sanctuary.

The kitchen clock flashed "88:88." In the real world, it was nearly 3:00 a.m. and Angie's alarm clock would soon drag her cussing from her bed. She wasn't betting that a low-wage job would prove her salvation. But by the time the sun rose over Milwaukee, she would be at the nursing home, saying she was broke and tired and desperate for a little sleep. Then she would get someone dressed and ready for the day.

Angie wasn't one to boast, but that much made her proud. "I work," she said.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus