I first heard about Mary Childers' memoir, Welfare Brat, on NPR. She was on there talking about her life in a poor white family, one of seven children of a welfare mother. As a child, she knew her mother had numerous children from various men. She hated to see her mother spend the welfare money drinking and bringing men home, and, at times, she dragged her mother out of the bars. When her mother had her last child, soon after one sister was in a serious accident, her mother stopped drinking. Despite a few under the table jobs, the family was already too far into the welfare trap to get out.
Mary Childers wanted out. She yearned for nice clothes and an education. She loved reading, and said, "The library books under my bed are my secret. They take me away to a world of my own imagining where I am content." (p.10) Mary was in the accelerated program in school, graduating at 16, and wanting to get away from the family into the privacy of college. She was the only one of the children to take advantage of the Fresh Air program, living with a family in the country every summer. As a child she said of her mother, "I want to live my life the opposite of how she has lived hers." (p. 64)
Even a child who wants out of the welfare trap has lessons to overcome. "As naturally as a child learns language, I've absorbed that bitterness and fear of being taken advantage of. I stint on babysitting and even schoolwork to avoid the humilation of getting caught believing anything other than the facts of life - disappointment is the most likely outcome of commitment and the poor stay poor while the rich get richer." (p. 174)
As she grew up, Mary said, "It is getting easier to focus on how hard my mother tried instead of how often she failed." Mary got out of that world, where sex and children were easy, along with the handouts. Following her college education, she has a Ph.D. in English literature and is a human resources consultant. Of her family, she said, "Several of us are thriving and able to help others survive because we refuse to accept family habits and inherited disadvantages as if they are destiny." (p.4)
Welfare Brat is a riveting, thoughtful book telling the story of one family, and one child who raised herself out of poverty.
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