American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare
By Jason DeParle
Much as Hattie Mae had feared, Chicago proved a "big raggedy place that you could get lost in," and countless people did. In the three decades before she arrived, Chicago's black population grew by eight hundred thousand. A city-within-a-city sprang up in its midst, and while it fostered a proud black middle class it also bred a destructive new street life, spreading havoc in the ghettos and fears far beyond. Just how it happened is still not fully understood. There had always been chaos in black southern life. But the stabilizing forces of the rural world-church, school, communal networks-carried less weight in the anonymous city, where someone looking to live the wild life could do it on a grander scale. Economics played a role. While the work paid better than picking cotton, many of the best jobs remained off-limits, and by the time Hattie Mae arrived in 1970, the blue-collar economy was dying. In two decades, Chicago would lose 60 percent of its manufacturing jobs, and with them the promise of a decent living on muscle alone. Plus, Chicago had its own segregationist passions, especially in housing and schools. Most tragically, it piled the poorest black migrants into monstrous public-housing towers, whose names would become synonymous with government folly: Henry Horner Homes (1957), Stateway Gardens (1958), Cabrini-Green (1958), the Robert Taylor Homes (1962).
In the early days, the ghetto was an eclectic place, with lawyers and preachers sandwiched beside porters and prostitutes. Fair-housing laws let much of the middle class escape, and those left behind grew not only poorer but socially set apart. Welfare rules loosened in the mid-1960s, and within a generation the nations rolls quadrupled. From 1964 to 1976, the share of black children born to single mothers doubled to 50 percent. Crime, drugs-likewise up in startling fashion, especially after the mid-1980s onslaught of crack. In Chicago, a vicious gang culture appeared, filling the vacuum left by absent fathers. By the late 1980s, even left-of-center experts had broadened their concerns from poverty per se to self-defeating behaviors-to what William Julius Wilson, the country's preeminent black sociologist, called the "social pathologies of the inner city." That all this was happening after the triumphs in civil rights only lent the tableaux a more tragic cast. When Angie, Opal, and Jewell were born in the mid-1960s, the word underclass was obscure and distrusted; its suggestion of intransigence collided with the national faith in class mobility. By the time they reached high school, the word was widely used, however imprecisely, to describe people much like them.
Hattie Mae settled in more easily than she expected; she knew people everywhere. From the bus station, she took a taxi to the south-side projects where Aunt Lula Bell had a place. Hattie Maes grown son, Squeaky, whom Lula Bell had raised, was in and out of the Stateway Gardens apartment, so among the reunions Hattie Mae enjoyed was that of mother and son. Her cousin from the Eastland plantation, Ruthie Mae Caples, lived in Stateway, too, with five kids and a factory job at Zenith. Ruthies daughter Opal was a mischievous girl of four, two years older than Jewell, and both generations bonded. For all the hard living condensed in her years, Hattie was only thirty-three and still ready for some fun. Three decades later, a Polaroid of her and Ruthie in white go-go boots still crackled with danger. "We thought we was Miss Fine!" Hattie Mae said. Soon she had her own Stateway apartment and a version of her old survival plan: an unreported job, a boyfriend, and a monthly welfare check. The job, at a linens factory, didn't last. The boyfriend, Wesley, did, much to her children's chagrin.
The high-rise was tolerable for the first few years. But as Opal and Jewell were starting school, it was spinning out of control. The gangs frightened even Hattie Mae, who had witnessed more than her share of roughness. Coming home late from work one night, she barely outraced some teenage boys intent, she presumed, on rape. Ruthie moved out first. Hattie Mae stayed, and a year later her son Squeaky was murdered-done in, she was told, by friends in a drug gang who suspected him of stealing their money. Hattie Mae was devastated, maybe all the more so because, as a thirteen-year-old mother, she had given him away. After two of her other sons were assaulted-Willie was shot at, and Greg was hit by a brick from a balcony-Hattie worried the whole family had become a target of gang reprisal. Vowing to salvage something from Squeakys death, she promised she would get the rest of the kids out, and she found a job waiting tables at a bar.
The job, at the Marcellus Lounge, was a big break. The lounge drew a high-rolling crowd, including the drug baron Flukey Stokes, who would seal his place in Chicago lore (and a song by Stevie Ray Vaughn) by throwing himself a $200,000 anniversary part)' and burying his son, "Willie the Wimp," in a casket shaped like a Cadillac. Having traveled from Big Jim Eastland's plantation to Flukey Stokes's pool hall, Hattie Mae was living a kind of pulp fiction version of the underclass formation story. Flukey and his sidekicks liked Hattie. They called her "sister," bought clothes for her kids, and put out the word that she wasn't to be hurt. With $100 tips, she could net as much in a night at the lounge as she could in a month on welfare. As for where her friends got their money, she said, "I didn't get into their business, and they didn't get into mine." Hattie Mae kept the job (and since she didn't report it, her welfare check) well into Jewell's teens. She fled the projects when Jewell was eight. By then, the black belt had burst out of its historic confines and spread fifteen miles to the city's southern edge. Hattie Mae and the kids went with it, eventually landing in the far southeastern corner of the city, in a rough-and-tumble place called Jeffrey Manor.