Angela B. sits at a card table in the dilapidated nave of St. Joseph’s Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The church, whose floors are covered with thin, wrinkled wall-to-wall carpeting, has forgone statues of Christ, lofty tributes to the Holy Trinity and stained-glass renditions of the Ten Commandments in favor of more prosaic stuff. Computers line the walls, garbage bags full of donated clothes are piled in a corner, five kids in an after-school program lounge on the altar doing homework and a scrawled sign warns: NO CURSING, NO FIGHTING, NO NAME CALLING.
Oblivious to the noise generated by the kids, 33-year-old Angela (names have been changed to protect privacy) sits with her head in her hands, deep in thought. “Thank God for St. Joseph’s,” she tells me. “If it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t have made it.” Angela has been on welfare most of her adult life, and she has never been able to make ends meet. But lately things have gotten a whole lot worse. She runs her hands through her raggedly cropped hair and tells me firmly, “I wasn’t thinking to stay on welfare this long, not fourteen years.”
I’ve asked her what I thought was a simple question: “Tell me about yourself.” But she struggles. Her story unfolds in fits and starts. With long pauses in between.
I give it to you in a nutshell: One of ten kids with an abusive dad, Angela was kicked out of the house when she was 13; she never went back. A sixth-grade special-education student at the time, she dropped out of school. She was homeless for several years. At 18, she got married and had her first child. At 19 her husband lost his job. At 20 she had her second daughter and went on welfare. Her husband abused her. She left him. She went back. She left him. She went back. During a “reunion” she got pregnant again. She delivered via C-section. She got her tubes tied–she thought. There was a mistake. She got pregnant again. She tried to get her tubes tied again. The Catholic hospital where she was a Medicaid patient resisted at first. She appealed to the board. She got letters of support. The baby was born. The board granted her request. In 1998 she finally got her tubal ligation.
Why did she want it?
The question strikes Angela as absurd. “Uh, duh! I got four kids, how come!” Then, thinking of her youngest daughter, Beth, who is 3, she pauses. And, like all moms, she rushes to correct any confusion between not wanting to have another child in the abstract and not wanting this child. “I’m not saying I’d take her back in any way, because she’s an angel,” she says. “And God blessed me with that one. She’s a regular riot. A smart cookie. She picks up fast. She’s a joy.” She smiles and delivers up a cute anecdote as testimony. Then frowns as she returns to the big picture. Her life–in her words–in a nutshell: “I’ve just been dealt the wrong hand of cards my whole life.”
The city of Elizabeth, the State of New Jersey and the United States of America disagree. They say Angela has failed to exhibit “personal responsibility”; not only did she bear two children out of wedlock but she did so while on the dole. Consequently Angela has become one of 108,000 women in the country whose children have been denied welfare benefits because of a “family cap,” a welfare policy that denies additional benefits to children born while their mother is on welfare. Angela is also a plaintiff in the country’s only class-action suit directly challenging the legality of the family cap.