Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

One Woman's Life Personifed Failures of the Welfare System

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

One Woman's Life Personifed Failures of the Welfare System

Article excerpt

Rosa Lee Cunningham is back. Now she is the title of a book ("Rosa Lee"); before that she was the subject of a newspaper series. But always she was a real human being - mother of eight, grandmother of at least 32, prostitute and thief, welfare chiseler and drug pusher whose life story was in the numbers. Of her eight children, six have different fathers and all but two have gone to jail.

My colleague, Leon Dash, first chronicled Cunningham two years ago in a Washington Post series. He spent four years getting to know her and her family and now a has put her story between hard covers. Next time you hear someone knock the welfare reform bill, tell them to get the book about Cunningham.

Dash, I think, might argue with my conclusion.s But he recognizes, too, that Rosa Lee lent herself to multiple interpretations. To me, she personified the utter failure of a welfare system that for too long liberals either defended or refused to reform. When, finally, it was done by others - the Republican Congress - they wailed about the unfairness of it all and blasted President Bill Clinton for signing the measure. But look at Rosa Lee. Welfare made her possible. Rosa Lee died last year of almost everything, AIDS included. She was 58 and had been on the dole of one sort of another her entire life. She'd been on welfare, each child adding to her stipend. She lived in public housing. She'd gotten food stamps, Medicaid and various emergency grants. She used this aid - my money, your money - to finance a drug habit and to raise children, most of whom have cost you and me even more money. Critics of the new welfare law say it has broken the federal government's 60-year commitment to poor children. But it might also be said that it's an attempt to break the cycle of welfare dependency. Only two of Rosa Lee's children escaped her lifestyle, both apparently because they found mentors - wonderful people who took an interest in them. That's great, but it is not a program. As for the others, they did what their mother did. Despite Dash's wise injunction against using Rosa Lee to make a broad political statement, one quote stands out. …

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