By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
At 44, Joanie is a pretty woman -- 5 feet 1 inch tall, with an expressive, even-featured face and a nicely kempt, stylish way of dressing. Her figure is decidedly Rubenesque, but still curvy enough to draw frequent male glances. She fidgets as she waits for the computer's results. She got a notice three days earlier that she wouldn't be getting her check because her CA-7 form had not been received. "But I sent it," she says. "I'm very, very careful about that, mainly because I can't afford not to be."
CA-7s -- brief questionnaires that GR recipients must fill out monthly to report whether they have found work or enrolled in school -- seem to be one of the main sources of clerical snafus resulting in lost or withheld benefits, something welfare advocates say happens with unsettling frequency. When Joanie got her noncompliance notice, she immediately called ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), an advocacy organization that has helped her with problems in the past. ACORN workers assured her they would intervene, but Joanie is still jumpy. Suddenly a machine behind window 3 whirs into motion, and Joanie relaxes. "Everything is okay," she says. "I can tell by the sound the printer makes. If it's printing out a no-benefits notice, it goes slower." Sure enough, the clerk counts out a stack of 11 twenties plus a single and shoves the bills under the glass.
Joanie pushes some of the twenties back and asks for two money orders, for $67 and $24.50. "One is for my rent," she says. "The other one's for my phone bill." With the service charge subtracted, she is left with only $124.03, which she intends to make last the rest of the month. She carefully puts her remaining money into an envelope and, with a quick glance around her, stuffs the envelope into her pocket.
ON FIRST BOUNCE, IT'S DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND exactly why Joanie Murray is still unemployed. She is certainly bright enough, with good social skills and a seemingly earnest desire to find a job. Her personal habits suggest responsibility: Her apartment is spotless and well-organized; she's scrupulously on time for appointments and always calls when she says she will. Nonetheless, Joanie has been on some kind of public assistance most of her adult life.
The trajectory of Joanie's existence was determined less by one large incident or decision than by a series of choices and circumstances that, over time, acquired a cumulative force, drawing to itself more of the same. She was raised the eldest of six children in the Crenshaw district. Her mother was briefly married to her father, a former Air Force man from Cincinnati, but he didn't stick around. "After he left, my mother raised us pretty much on her own," Joanie says. To support the family, the mother cooked at the local hamburger joint, the Tiki Burger, and later did maintenance for Saks Fifth Avenue. "She wasn't home a lot, because she was working real hard to make ã sure that we had what we needed. She was the mother and the father for a long time."
Joanie was a skinny little girl who was often picked on by larger kids until, in the fifth grade, she got tired of it and started slugging back. Perhaps in part because of the bullying, she had one clear ambition from the time she was 7: She wanted to be a policewoman. "At first I liked it because of the badge and the gun," she says. "You know how kids are. Then, as I got older, I imagined myself putting the people in jail who molest kids and take drugs. That was my mission."
The goal persisted all through junior high and high school, where, Joanie says, she was sometimes teased because she wouldn't ditch, smoke or get high. "The kids used to call me Square Joanie, and I'd tell them, 'Say what you want, but I'll never be in the back of the police car, handcuffed. I'm going to be in the front, driving. You just wait and see if I don't!'"
Through most of adolescence, Joanie didn't date much. Then, in her senior year, she fell for a sweet-natured boy she'd known all her life, with whom she felt safe. "He used to bring me flowers all the time, and fabric 'cause he knew I liked to sew," she says. "And he was a real good mechanic and fixed people's cars in the neighborhood, so everybody liked him." Before long, Joanie had sex with her boyfriend, without protection, and the inevitable happened. In April of 1973 she dropped out of classes a month before graduation to have the baby. "That was my biggest mistake," she says. "But, see, I was always going to go back and get my diploma after my daughter was born." She actually went so far as to re-enroll in night school twice, but in each instance something got in the way. At first it was a bout of migraine headaches accompanied by fainting spells, a condition eventually diagnosed as high blood pressure. Then the medication her doctor prescribed to keep her from having a stroke made her so drowsy she couldn't concentrate.