Altared States

Women on Welfare Talk About Marriage

"I met her in Prospect Park, two summers ago," says Tonya Westbrook, 27, mother of four. "I was there with a few friends, at a poetry reading, and we kept looking at each other. My friends dared me to go up and recite some of my work. Afterwards, she came over and congratulated me and said she liked what I had to say. We exchanged numbers."

Westbrook's partner Tawana has since become "like a second mother" to her children, the oldest of whom is 12. After troubled relationships with two men, each of whom fathered two of her children, "I decided to come out with it," she says. Being with a woman "was something that was in me for a while, but I never wanted to face it."

Shenia Rudolph
photo: Brian Kennedy
Shenia Rudolph

Raised Catholic, she left home when she was 15. "I was with this guy who took care of me. I was dependent on him for money." Money is still her chief problem; three months ago, she reached the five-year lifetime welfare limit Congress imposed in 1996. While her application to the state's supplemental program slumps through the system, the family receives reduced aid—$85 cash every two weeks, $225 a month in food stamps—and is facing eviction.

She hopes graduating from college next year will free her from poverty. She's resisted living with Tawana, a retail salesperson, because "I have a lot of baggage. I'm still on public assistance, I don't want to drop that on her. I want to be able to give back to her what she gives to me." By that she doesn't mean cash.

"She accepts me for who I am, with all my faults and everything. She's more than a partner, she's a best friend," says Westbrook. "We have our ups and downs, but I would like it to be forever."

Her life should be a lesson in love for the president, she says. "He assumes a woman being with a man is the American dream, but love comes in many forms. If you're willing to put up money for me to marry a man, why don't you let me marry the love of my life?" —C.L.

Julia Jackson met her husband-to-be when she was 14, got pregnant at 15, and married at 16. "I thought I was in love," she remembers. "I thought I'd have a big house with a picket fence." Instead, when her husband was drafted to fight in Vietnam, Jackson ended up homeless. "They didn't have a shelter system back then, and I was roaming in the streets. I had my stuff in shopping bags and a baby in my arms."

After her husband returned from the war, the first few years of her marriage were relatively happy; he had steady work, first with a package delivery service and later as a city police officer. But, gradually, her husband became violent and started using drugs. "I was walking around beat up, with bruises, black eyes." She left him—several times. It was "like a revolving door," she says. "But I'd go back. How much can you drift in the street with six kids with you?"

Jackson finally left her husband and landed in a shelter when she was pregnant with their seventh child. Today, 33 years after her wedding, she is still married, though she hasn't seen her husband in years. She hopes to get a divorce when she saves enough money to pay for one, though she doesn't think she'll get married again.

"Marriage has to be a 50-50, understanding love relationship," she says. "It's supposed to be like on that show 7th Heaven, where people can work together. I don't think I'll ever have that." —S.L.

*Names and identifying details have been changed.

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