Unafraid of the Dark
In the 1960’s, Americans declared “War on Poverty” and created federal economic programs to assist poor families by providing basic daily necessities and medical care to their children. Two decades later, Americans experienced a social and cultural shift. Caught up in a new social emphasis on rugged individualism, they called for an end to welfare programs and a reassignment of responsibility for poverty and for economic assistance to the poor. In the resulting political fallout, welfare programs as administered by the federal government were eliminated, to be replaced by state-level programs funded by lump-sum non- specific federal grants.
Rosemary Bray was shocked and angered by the elimination of federal welfare programs and the trend among state governments toward the creation of “workfare” programs, which trained women for low-paying jobs. Bray felt that economic supplements allowing women to feed, clothe, shelter and give basic medical care to their children were more beneficial than programs that forced women outside their homes to attend classes and then work full-time for wages insufficient to support their families.
Bray, a Yale University graduate, writer, and editor for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, had herself been reared by a “welfare mother.” Bray had expected that leaving the welfare system behind, achieving success in her career, and establishing herself as a suburban wife and mother would somehow automatically create the kind of social structure, with its sense of obligation to help children in need, that had nurtured her and encouraged her as a child. She was moved to tell her personal story when she realized that the opportunities she had as a welfare child in the 1960’s would perhaps not be extended to children in the 1990’s. Having lived with the fear of seeing her family broken apart and of losing her mother’s daily presence and comfort, Bray now feared that many children would now suffer the loss of family and home, partly as the result of complacency among individuals like herself.
Bray maintains that federal programs such as Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families with Dependent Children) made success stories like hers possible; poor children could realize their dreams only if her “once-committed” country was willing to offer help and opportunity to the children of the poor. Bray knew firsthand that the stereotypical “welfare mothers” portrayed by politicians and media outlets (predominantly “women of color as profligate and uncontrollable sexual beings producing illegitimate children to be supported by the state”) were rare, and that in fact welfare mothers were more likely to resemble her own. Bray’s mother was able to bring her strong influence to bear on her children, protecting them from danger on many fronts—in their inner- city neighborhood, at school, and at home—demonstrating the values of thriftiness and creativity and sacrifice for others, and emphasizing the value of a good education precisely because she was present in their home and in their lives.
Bray paints vivid pictures of her mother’s presence and daily influence with a keen sense of time and place. She recalls following along with her siblings while her mother performed daily shopping and chores, describing in detail how her mother met the weekly challenge of feeding the family, where she shopped for food and why, whether or not items were overpriced and what the family might eat with the help of food stamps and the little money Rosemary’s father was able to provide. Bray describes her mother’s intervention on her children’s behalf when their father assailed them in nighttime rampages and her willingness to take the brunt of his abuse to distract him from the children. She notes that her mother met her at the gate of her Catholic school every day for years to protect the shunned Rosemary from students who threatened to assault her after school.
Bray’s mother served as a protector and comfort in the “dark” Bray feared as a child, both the literal dark of nights when she woke, freezing and ill, in the family’s sometimes unheated apartment, nights that sometimes heralded fearful scenes of her father’s violence, and the figurative dark of a world where children of poor families must live without the hope that moves them to pursue dreams like the ones Rosemary nurtured as a child. Mary Bray served as a buffer between her children and the dark: the fear of sickness, darkness and the cold, and the saving grace of a mother’s presence and willing sacrifices for her family.
Bray rightly identifies herself as a child of welfare in the 1960’s, and she intends to link the attainment of her goals and realization of her dreams directly to the public programs that sustained her family. She writes of...
(The entire section is 1986 words.)