Altared States

Women on Welfare Talk About Marriage

The Bush administration has presented marriage as the solution to poor women's problems. Would that it were so simple. Here, five women who could be targeted by the initiative talk about the complicated realities of their lives. Each has tried to be half of a stable, sanctioned union, but has wound up raising children in poverty and largely on her own. Also: Chisun Lee examines the partisan politics behind the president's proposal, and Sharon Lerner shows how government-sponsored marriage promotion programs across the country are already spending welfare dollars without making a dent in the real problem: poverty.

Related Articles
  "Unholy Matrimony: The Politics of the President's Marriage Proposal" by Chisun Lee

"Beyond the Threshold: Marriage Programs Give a Glimpse of What Bush Has in Store" by Sharon Lerner

Shenia Rudolph
photo: Brian Kennedy
Shenia Rudolph

After Shenia Rudolph got divorced, she was very careful about who she let into her home. "I don't believe in having men coming in and out of the house," says Rudolph, who was sexually abused as a child and was living with her three children at the time. "I don't trust men around my kids." She managed to find a man who would live by her ground rules, taking a relationship slowly and not spending the night at her house. Their romance went on like this for 10 years, with the couple planning to get married after Rudolph's oldest daughter was out of high school—and then Rudolph got pregnant. After she told her beau the news, he gave her some of his own: He was already married—and had been for about half of their decade-long relationship. Though she says her boyfriend wanted to continue seeing her, Rudolph ended the affair. As for the government's nudge toward the altar, Rudolph says "What do they want me to do? Do they want him to be a bigamist?"

Now living in a one-bedroom, fifth-story walk-up with five kids (her most recent pregnancy turned out to be twins), Rudolph could use as much financial help as she can get. She reached her five-year welfare benefits limit in November, and though the babies' father pays $800 a month in child support through the state, she says she rarely receives that amount. Rudolph insists the next man in her life will have to contribute financially—"You can't afford to have men in your life who don't have nothing," she says.

Beyond that, the only reason worthy of getting involved once again, she says, is true love. "Some people stay in relationships 'cause they think it's good for the kids—and that's not good. Or for the security. I'm like, 'Get a dog, if you want security. Get an alarm system.' I'd rather be alone for the rest of my life, happy, than being with someone but feeling lonely when I'm with him." —Sharon Lerner

"Two weeks before Thanksgiving, he decided he wanted to be free and single," says Sonia Morales, recalling her husband's departure two years ago. "You don't hold no one down. I said, 'If that's what you want to do, go ahead.' "

After 10 years, they parted "on good terms," she thought. "Then he changed his beeper number," cutting off contact with her and her two children, she says. "To this day, I still don't know where he is." The Voice was unable to locate him.

Depression and smaller welfare checks made it impossible for her to make ends meet. She and her two children lost their apartment, bunked with a string of friends, and eventually landed in the city's shelter system. "It's going to be hard for me to get out of the shelter," she says. "The computer says I'm married," and the income from her phantom husband could disqualify her for public housing.

She fumes at the suggestion that marriage provides security for women. "Here I am, married to a man, and I can't even catch up with him! This is a husband. This is marriage. I'm homeless because I'm married." —Chisun Lee

Isabel Mendez apologizes for her shaky state. She has just gotten off the phone with her ex-husband, with whom she has three children. "It was really hard for me to call him up and ask him for money," she says, but the less than $400 a month she receives in cash assistance and unemployment doesn't always last, even with the government paying the family's $312 rent. "He told me what nerve I have calling him and asking him for things."

The put-down is nothing compared to the physical abuse Mendez, 38, goes on to describe. In a history of assaults that included being kicked in the stomach when she was pregnant, the breaking point came one summer night six years ago when, she says, her husband raped her. "I called the cops. They said they couldn't do anything because I was married to him."

The sanctity of marriage was an excuse she had made to herself many times. "I'm Catholic, I stayed in there for religious reasons. I tried to get him to work it out. It got even worse."

Since the divorce, she has had to clear trash and dead rats from Long Island highways to keep her public assistance and cleaned welfare centers late at night for extra cash. But no amount of hardship would drive her back to her abuser, she says. "I wish we were never married. I want to be on my own, living my own life, even if it's hard. I just wish I had a good job, so I could support my kids and not bother with my ex anymore." —C.L.

Next Page »