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.

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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


SONIA MORALES
"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*
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.


TONYA WESTBROOK
"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."

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*
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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