Against Rosa's Odds

On the Road With a Welfare Warrior

One day Rosa was waiting to meet with her caseworker when somebody handed her a flier asking whether she was fed up and angry and inviting her to learn her rights. "Welfare makes you crazy. I was desperate. I was like, I gotta do something," she says.

And so she met the women of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, or FUREE, a nonprofit community-based organization in Park Slope. "In the beginning, I was thinking, these people are nuts," Rosa recalls. They sat around shouting about dignity and social justice, and cracking jokes about politicians, and they were mothers on welfare.

Her first protest ever was at City Hall. Recipients gathered to denounce Giuliani's campaign to slash the welfare rolls while failing to provide meaningful training or sometimes food stamps. A giant puppet of Giuliani-as-Hitler bobbled in the breeze. "I couldn't believe all these people," says Rosa. "I was like, I don't want to get arrested."

Rosario Rodriguez, bruised but not broken, in Washington, D.C.
photo: Bill Burke
Rosario Rodriguez, bruised but not broken, in Washington, D.C.

She agreed to hand out fliers, but generally she tried to escape notice."Rosa put herself down a lot," friend Isabel Rodriguez (no relation) recalls. "She said she's ugly, which is a lie. One time, somebody asked who she was. She said, 'I'm nobody.' " But, Rosa found, these women did not look for her failings—many faced similar challenges. She began to smile more often, though she couldn't quite shake the habit of shielding her grin with a hand.

Rosa and an advocate unraveled miles of red tape to get her into a respected GED program at Sunset Park Adult and Family Education Center. Her caseworker balked, but Rosa demanded a fair hearing—after learning she could—and won. She began commuting four days a week to a hushed, carpeted room in a large church, where she is neither divorcee nor aging dropout, but simply a student. When the semester ends this month, Rosa says, she will require perhaps another year of classes before she'll be able to pass the exam. Getting approval to continue, she predicts, will require more battles, ones she is not at all certain she will win.

And so as conservatives and liberals in Congress debate welfare reform—to raise or maintain current work requirements, to limit or expand educational opportunity—Rosa has much at stake. There are her education and future employability, her children's school supplies and clothing and possibly college. Since the government ties rent aid to welfare compliance, there is the roof over their heads. She wonders, "Are we going to survive any new work requirements?"

The FUREE women nominate Rosa to deliver a speech during a day of protest in D.C. with recipients from other cities. She is, they enthuse, the perfect example of poor women struggling to survive in the nation's harshest welfare system. In a burst of brazenness—or insanity, she begins to think—she agrees.

So Rosa swallows bubbles of terror on the bus ride down, running her eyes over the wrinkled page where she has carefully drafted her message. "My name is Rosario Rodriguez," it begins. "I am a welfare recipient."

With the others, Rosa wends through the Senate office building distributing letters opposing "make-work" increases and demanding more education and training. In front of Hillary Clinton's three-story townhouse, she totes a poster depicting a two-faced senator—Clinton's rightward lean on welfare is discouraging her liberal colleagues—at a protest that later garners headlines.

But Rosa hardly utters a word all day. "I'm tense, I'm tense," she whispers. Her hands are ice. In the hot sun, she removes some of her layers, then puts them on again. She can't tell, she says, if she's coming or going.

Late in the afternoon, she arrives at the rally, on the corner of 16th and H. The anti-globalization event means to link world poverty to domestic welfare policy. The crowd numbers several hundred. The microphone volume is cranked high, and Rosa waits alone by the elevated stage through speech after speech, not knowing when she is up.

Her notes rattle in her cold fingers. A couple of friends approach to whisper encouragement, but Rosa barely nods in response. An eternal second later, it is her turn. The moderator blares, "Come on, show 'em what you're made of, girl!"

Rosa climbs onto the stage and steps to the mic. She reads from her paper, "My name is Rosario Rodriguez. I'm a welfare recipient. I've been a welfare recipient since 1999. I've complied with the program completely." Then she stumbles and loses her place. Silence stretches while she scans the page in her hand, seeming frantic. "I'm sorry, I'm really nervous," she finally says, her whisper exploding through the speakers.

The crowd responds with a warm roar. She looks startled. Familiar voices call out, "Go, Rosa!" And suddenly she's back. She begins again, this time loud and strong. She tosses aside the paper she's held all day, and the words just tumble out.

"I lost my job, and I had to go to welfare. It's hard out there, to depend on the damn system!" Rosa gets a round of amens and applause. "They tell you you have no skills and put you into WEP. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are treated badly and put into WEP. If you don't know what WEP is, it's when you pick up garbage from highways." She's crying now, her breathing ragged. But she's not scared, she's mad.

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