A WELFARE MOTHER by Susan Sheehan


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What's a garbage-toting, tax-paying, nine-to-five American to make of Carmen Santana? Cheerful, generous Mrs. Santana, forty-five, mother of nine children by three men, ""wife"" of a fourth, welfare recipient since 1961. Who weighs two hundred pounds and wears purple pants, has no closets, and spends vast sums on the family's clothes; who lives in a beleaguered Brooklyn neighborhood and doesn't lock her door; who never shops for a bargain, or hurries, or plans ahead. Whose ""days are a round of small domestic melodramas, and she wouldn't have it otherwise."" First-born Casilda, twenty-seven, has her mother's ups and downs with men. Eldest son Rafael is a heroin dealer with one wife in Brooklyn and another in Dover, New Jersey. Second son Felipe is an addict; his wife is a prostitute and a thief. The four children still at home run in and out until early morning, and doze the next day in school. Mrs. Santana did not have the children to increase her welfare check (""I had them because I had them""). As Sheehan remarks, she ""takes welfare as matter-of-factly as she takes everything else in her life."" And, like almost everyone she knows, she cheats on the welfare--because honesty brought her trouble and, besides, ""It's not enough to live on."" In his introduction, Michael Harrington presses for welfare reform and speaks of the ""bad"" and ""good"" within the ""culture of poverty."" Sheehan's reportage mocks the dichotomy. Like another New Yorker writer's Profile of Yugoslav families in Sweden, A Welfare Mother challenges us, finally, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Responding to queries, Sheehan tells us in an afterword what happened to the Santana clan next; with her and her friend Mrs. Santana, you will mourn the doomed Felipe's death.

Pub Date: July 21st, 1976
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin