Debate about welfare reform usually proceeds high up the ladder of abstraction. Suite-level pundits hurl theoretical thunderbolts and wave statistics. One talented journalist, Katherine Boo, took a different approach when welfare reform became a national reality in 1996. That year in The Washington Post she profiled Elizabeth “Cookie” Jones, a longtime welfare recipient. Boo reported on her again in 1997, profiled her once more in 2001, and mentioned her in a 2006 NPR interview.
Boo met Jones in a D.C. public-housing project because a friend of Jones also on welfare suggested that Jones, 27 and the mother of three elementary-school children by three different men, was making a mistake by going to work. The reason: “Her kids are raising themselves”—and that would ruin them in the long run. Jones agreed to spend time with Boo so that legislators would come to understand “the stomach-turning choices implicit in that bumper sticker of a phrase “welfare-to-work.”
Boo in 1996 and 1997 documented how Jones found a job but then “faced a choice: Ice the job, reclaim the welfare check, walk the kids home from school. Or keep the job and risk the kids.” Boo wrote that Jones’ mother “had her first child at 17 and went on welfare. Jones had her first at 17 and went on welfare”—but Jones vowed to break that pattern, “or I’ll die trying.”
Jones, in short, was a purpose-driven heroine facing huge obstacles, including the bad public schools in her poor part of the district. Boo’s implied question: Would Jones’ children die as their mom tried to break that generational pattern? Boo described the children muttering, “scary,” as they walked past old vodka bottles, up a stinkweed path, past one long block “where a man will days later be found murdered in his car.” Jones believed the risk was worthwhile because her children would learn that work, not welfare, is natural.
My favorite short story, “What Men Live By,” came from the mind and hand of Leo Tolstoy. In it God sends a compassionate angel plummeting to earth because the angel refuses to take the life of a woman with two little babies: The angel asks how they will live without their mother. Boo, a compassionate writer, was asking that same question when she wrote a new profile of Elizabeth Jones for The New Yorker in 2001.
By then Jones had become a police officer, even though her children didn’t like it: “They think she’ll get hurt. She fears they’ll get hurt if she gives it up.” By then Boo, in the words of an interviewer, was “close to suggesting that Elizabeth Jones would have been better off had she stayed on welfare.” Boo responded, “In the long run, I think the struggle may be worth it,” but Jones’ “lack of time is going to have consequences.” Five years later, on NPR, Boo said “the positive benefits that a mother is going to get from work—self-esteem and exposures to mainstream culture, the benefits of higher education—those are real benefits. But family life in the short-term, I think, isn’t very pretty.”
Jones’ attempt to escape welfare clearly was stressful, as all transitions to upward mobility, whether individual or national, are stressful. Immigrants to America had it tough. British workers going through industrialization had it tough. Now, workers in China and India suffer. But Jones, like many others throughout the world, refused to give up. She also disappeared from the press for the next few years, as pundits abstractly discussed the long-term effects of welfare without drilling down into the effect on individual lives.
At WORLD we try to operate at ground level, so we tracked down Elizabeth Jones. We learned that she persevered in police work: In January she will have 15 years of service. In 2005 she helped to bring to justice a woman eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison for physically abusing her foster son. In 2006 Jones helped to bring to justice two D.C. men who were eventually sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for their roles in a fatal shooting. She now works in the Metropolitan Police Department Youth Division, and when WORLD caught up to her was going in to work overtime on her day off.
Looking back over the years and thinking about her original decision to go from welfare to work, Jones said, “I knew I had to do something. It’s always been hard—from day one.” For example, because she had come off welfare, her insurance coverage for a short time applied only to herself and not her three children—and during that window one of her sons broke an arm, while another broke a leg. (Yes, going off welfare cost her an arm and a leg.) Her first job off welfare left her with less income than her friend who remained on welfare had—but Jones was looking to the future and doing it for her children.
In Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By,” the angel eventually witnesses God’s provision for the motherless babies: When he sees them grown into happy and healthy children because of a compassionate neighbor, he is ready to return to heaven.
The story I’ve told here is a secular one, but remember her friend’s belief that Jones’ children would suffer from their mother’s absence after school? Let’s look at the results thus far: Her older son is 25 and a 2011 graduate of Muskingum University. Her daughter, 23, has been in the Navy for four years, is married, and has a son. Her younger son, 22, had some college and is now working. (One problem to note: He is an unmarried father.)
Several months ago Jones saw her friend who remained on welfare for the sake of the children, but the two did not talk long because “the vibe wasn’t really pleasant.” Jones says one of her friend’s sons was killed on the D.C. streets. Jones said her own move off welfare helped her children “tremendously. They’re not in jail, they’re productive members of society, and they’re responsible. … I remember being on public assistance and I would have to go and re-certify. I never took them. Not that I was hiding it from them, but that’s not the picture that I wanted them to have when they got older—that this is how things are supposed to be.”