The old corner store stank of mildew and garbage. Graffiti streaked its cinder block facade. Its walls were cracked and stained. It had been shuttered for more than two years, one of 13,000 abandoned properties in the urban wasteland of North Philadelphia.
From her rowhouse porch a few doors up the street, Odessa Williams had watched the property deteriorate over the years. Like the rest of her neighborhood along Allegheny Avenue, it was headed slowly, inexorably downhill, another casualty of poverty and drugs in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in America. The store was in a section of North Philadelphia with the city’s highest murder rate, its highest arrest rate for narcotics, and its highest percentage of families on welfare.
Odessa Williams, 60, a great-grandmother who was herself a welfare recipient, stared at the old store day after day, month after month. At night in bed, after reading a Bible passage for salvation and tucking a tiny pistol under her pillow for protection, she prayed. She prayed that God would show her a way off welfare, a way to support herself and her grandchildren, a way to ward off dependency and dispossession. And the Lord pointed her, she says, to the decrepit corner store a half-block from her bedroom.
And that is how Odessa, on welfare for 11 years but desperate to get off, created her own personal welfare reform program. She decided to go into the corner store business, entirely on her own, relying only on her spiritual faith and an abiding belief in self-determination.
I first met Odessa in 1995, when I was researching a book about women on welfare. For six months that year, I spent virtually every day, and many nights, with Odessa and her large and ever-shifting family inside her cramped, two-story rowhouse on Allegheny Avenue. In my 1997 book, Myth of the Welfare Queen (Scribner), I chronicled the family’s struggles to survive in the ghetto during the national debate preceding the 1996 welfare reform act, which ended 61 years of federally guaranteed cash assistance to poor families with dependent children.
Odessa not only became the central character in my book, but she also became a close and valued friend. Long after the book was published, we continued to talk on the phone almost daily, and I visited her often. As welfare reform became a reality in her household in 1997 and 1998, I closely followed her family’s fortunes.
Odessa first joined the welfare rolls in North Philadelphia in 1967. She had recently left an abusive husband and was trying to raise eight children alone. She began receiving a $150 welfare check every two weeks.
Odessa considered welfare a gift from God. She felt blessed, she said, that he had provided, through welfare, for her and her children. She believed that accepting welfare obliged her to spend the money on her children’s basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter. To spend welfare money frivolously was immoral, she believed. To spend it on drugs, as some of her neighbors did, was beyond her comprehension. She predicted that those who found perverted uses for the bounty of welfare were doomed, quite literally, to suffer in hell. “Those people will have a lot to answer for when the time comes,” she told me one day as she drove past the well-furnished house of a successful drug dealer whose wife received welfare.
When Odessa said her nightly prayers, she thanked God for sending welfare her way. She promised him not to abuse the privilege. If she came into serious money one day—winning the state lottery, say—she promised she would pay back every welfare cent she had ever received.
Odessa stayed on welfare through the late 1960s and early 1970s, but when her children were old enough to allow her to go to work, she took a succession of jobs as a mechanic, truck driver, and assembly line worker.
In 1987, after being off welfare for a decade, Odessa found herself back on public assistance. Her daughter Brenda had become addicted to crack cocaine; to support her addiction, Brenda turned to prostitution. She left her four young children—fathered by two different men—alone in a filthy rowhouse for hours at a time while she worked the streets to raise money for crack. One day, after learning that the children had been left alone all day without food, Odessa caught a bus, scooped up all four kids, and took them to her place. Eventually, she obtained legal custody of her four grandchildren and took over Brenda’s welfare payments—a grand total, by the time I met Odessa in 1995, of $201.50 every two weeks plus $87 in food stamps per month.
Odessa also received a $490 Supplemental Security Income check every month to cover her medical complications, which included a stroke, asthma, and diabetes. She received another $490 a month from SSI for her youngest grandson, Brian, now 11, who suffers from hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder stemming from Brenda’s cocaine use during pregnancy. But even with Brian’s check, Odessa’s monthly cash income was just $1,382. That came to $16,584 a year, or about $1,000 short of the federal poverty line of $17,449 for a family of five.
In addition to caring for her four grandchildren, Odessa was still burdened by several of her eight grown children. One son, Israel, moved in with her after breaking up with his common-law wife, bringing his four children along with him. A daughter, Joyce, also moved in with Odessa; her rowhouse down the street—two doors down from the shuttered corner store—had been gutted by a fire started by young Brian, who had been playing with matches. Joyce brought along her son Geedy, then 8, who had helped Brian start the fire that claimed their home.
And then there was Brenda. She was hopelessly addicted to cocaine. Along with a parade of fellow hookers, she turned tricks on nearby Kensington Avenue. Brenda rarely ate or bathed. Her hair was matted, her teeth were rotting, and her clothes were stained with grime. She was literally wasting away; she weighed just 97 pounds. Often, she would disappear for days at a time. Odessa would drive the streets in search of her, fully expecting to find her dead in an alley, but invariably Brenda would finally emerge, appearing at Odessa’s door in search of food and money.
Saddled with a rowhouse full of people, Odessa also ministered to her elderly mother, Bertha, who lived a few blocks away. At the same time, she cared for two babies, both great-grandchildren. One was the infant daughter of Joyce’s unmarried teenage daughter Iesha, a mother of three whom Odessa despised for her irresponsibility and cavalier lifestyle. And Odessa saved small amounts of cash and clothing for another son, Darryl, who was serving time in state prison for drug offenses. Sometimes she felt like mother to the entire world.
Complicating matters was the central role that welfare played in Odessa’s household. Her daughters Joyce and Elaine and her granddaughter Iesha were all on welfare. None of them had ever married, and each had given birth to children by several men. With the end of welfare on the horizon, Odessa was warning all three that soon they would need a means of support beyond public assistance.
This was Odessa’s situation when I met her in 1995, a time when President Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” reverberated throughout North Philadelphia, where welfare and the illegal drug trade are by far the two biggest sources of income. In certain North Philly neighborhoods nearly half of all households rely on a welfare check. Welfare is a mainstay there, complete with its own lexicon. It’s called “aid” or “fixed income” or “DPW” (for Department of Public Welfare) or, simply, “the check.”
Odessa was not a woman to wait for Bill Clinton or anyone else to take her check away. She began planning for the day when welfare would end for her and her family. From her childhood as a sharecropper’s daughter in rural Georgia to her years as matriarch to an extended family of 65 people in North Philadelphia, she had found ways to survive near-starvation, along with occasional death threats from drug dealers. She would survive welfare reform.
An imposing physical presence, Odessa carried 240 pounds on a broad, heavy frame. She spoke in a low, throaty voice that rose to a high-pitched shriek when she shouted out orders to her children or grandchildren. She had a round face and deep brown eyes that registered kindness most of the time but hardened into bright little stars behind her spectacles when she was provoked, which was often.
Resilient and resourceful, she furnished her entire rowhouse with other people’s throwaways: her refrigerator, freezer, television, VCR, furniture, and most of her own and her grandchildren’s clothes were retrieved from trash piles. Several nights a month, Odessa “trash picked,” driving into suburban, middle-class neighborhoods on the evenings before trash collection days and cruising past driveways until she spotted a perfectly usable hair dryer or a record collection, a lawn mower or a bookcase that someone had thrown away. Almost every week, she found plastic bags stuffed with outgrown children’s clothing. Often, the clothes were washed and folded before being set out with the trash. For years, Odessa’s grandchildren—and dozens of her nephews and nieces scattered across North Philadelphia—went to school wearing clothes she rescued from the trash.
The cars Odessa drove on her trash-picking jaunts were themselves secondhand clunkers, either given to her by relatives or bought for a couple of hundred dollars from junkyards or neighborhood streets. When they broke down, Odessa worked on them herself or enlisted a son or nephew.
In a way, even Odessa’s rowhouse was trash-picked. Searching for a place to live in 1986, she had noticed an abandoned rowhouse on Allegheny Avenue that seemed structurally sound and worth repairing. She went to city hall, where she located the owner through property records. He agreed to rent the property to her for just $185 a month if she would rehabilitate the place. With the help of sons and nephews, Odessa put in new windows, doors, drywall, and a new roof. When the owner saw the place, Odessa told me, he was so impressed that he gave it to her.
Though Odessa had no official job, she always put in a full day and night. Like many women on welfare, her workday began when she woke up and ended when she fell asleep. She was never off duty. Workday demands were relentless for people whose only job is survival. She took her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and elderly relatives to the public health clinic when they were ill. She prowled wholesale meat outlets for bargains on chicken necks and hog maws. She shopped at discount houses for cheap shoes and clothes. She waited outside the local Salvation Army warehouse, intercepting people driving up with donations of food and clothing. She cooked dinner every night for children and other relatives staying with her.
To raise precious cash, she charged friends and neighbors $5 for a ride to the welfare office to pick up their bimonthly checks, knowing they would be flush with cash and able to pay her on the spot. She waited outside grocery stores for neighborhood shoppers loaded down with groceries, knowing they’d be more likely to pay her $5 for a ride home than to haul their bags onto a city bus. People call it “hacking,” and it’s a common practice in North Philadelphia, where an underground service economy thrives amid poverty.
After watching Odessa in full survival mode for the past three years, I was sure the end of welfare as she knew it would not diminish her circumstances. And I somehow knew she would find a way to turn a small investment into a small but meaningful profit.
During the time I spent with her in 1995, Odessa often mentioned the corner store but not in terms of salvation. It was a public nuisance then. Drug dealers hung out in front of the property day and night, drinking malt liquor and smoking crack cocaine. They ran up to passing cars, offering crack and heroin. They sold $10 glassine bags of crack known as CDs, or “cooked dimes,” and $10 and $20 packets of heroin with such street brand names as “TNT” or “Tyson,” for its punch.
Over the years, Odessa and her family had confronted many neighborhood drug dealers and thugs. She confronted these corner boys, too. She asked them not to sell drugs when neighborhood children were walking back and forth to school, and for the most part they complied. She called the police more than once, but the dealers always came back as soon as the squad cars had pulled away. In the end, the best Odessa could do was to ban the dealers from her end of the block and forbid her grandchildren to patronize the store.
Two years ago, the store’s lease expired. Odessa approached the owner of the property, a former neighbor who had moved out of North Philadelphia years before. She begged him not to renew the store proprietor’s lease. When the property owner, agreeing that the behavior outside the store was out of control, refused to renew the lease, the store shut down, and the drug dealers drifted to other street corners.
It was during this period, Odessa says, that God began to answer her prayers. She says he pointed her to the corner, and at last, she began to regard the abandoned property as an opportunity.
She already knew something about small businesses. She had run a small grocery in North Philadelphia years before. For the previous two summers, she had sold sodas and snacks from her front porch, buying the items from a wholesale warehouse that sold them in bulk and then doubling the price for her retail porch sales.
All she needed was a location. Eventually, she says, she persuaded the property owner to sell the corner store to her. The property had become a burden for the man, and its location in a drug-infested inner city neighborhood had reduced its value to almost nothing. He was willing to let Odessa have it at no cost if she agreed to pay back taxes and the title transfer fee, which came to less than $300.
Odessa considered this a sign from God that she was destined to own the store. She believed in destiny. More precisely, she believed that God leads people to their own destinies. Odessa is not a churchgoing woman, although she attended Baptist churches in Georgia every Sunday as a child and even today maintains her membership in an evangelical church in North Philadelphia. She believes that faith is measured not in how often a person goes to church but in how a person lives out his or her beliefs. “I know what the right thing is,” she told me, “and I do it.”
In this case, she said, she knew she had to wean herself and her family from welfare, and running a store was the best means available. “I didn’t push it,” she said. “I prayed over it. I watched. I waited till God gave me a sign that the time was right.”
She knew the time had come when an old friend from her neighborhood offered her the money to buy the store and enough inventory to open for business. Immediately, she rounded up her sons and nephews, all of whom have skills at one trade or another. Under the direction of her oldest son, Willie, a building contractor, they cleaned out the store, put up new walls, repaired the ceiling and outer walls, restored the electricity and plumbing, and put in new counters. In a matter of days, Odessa had a new corner store.
With her remaining cash, she bought cases of soda for 25 cents a can. She sold them for 50 cents each, the prevailing neighborhood rate. She bought chips and pretzels for 12 cents a bag and sold them for 25 cents a bag. She paid $1.80 for 240 pieces of penny candy and sold each one for—what else?—a penny. She located a video game distributor who installed two games for her; she gets half the proceeds every week.
On her first day of business, with Willie and the others still working inside, the store was filled with neighborhood children. They descended on Odessa with their quarters and crumpled dollar bills. She earned enough that first day to replace her entire inventory of sodas and snacks, with enough left over to feed her household for several days.
Odessa says she reported her new source of income—and the cash given to her by her friend—to her welfare caseworker, who told her that her check and food stamps would probably be reduced substantially in the future. “It’s getting to be where it doesn’t matter a whole lot—welfare is so little these days,” she says. And in any case, she points out, “They’re fixing to cut off welfare anyway.”
Actually, Odessa probably is not threatened with a cutoff of benefits under the welfare reform act (formally called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) signed into law in August 1996. The law allows for exemptions to the two-year benefit limit imposed by most states, and Odessa is probably eligible for exemption because of her age and poor health.
But her daughters and granddaughter, all of them able-bodied, were facing almost certain cutoff. With Odessa’s prodding, Joyce graduated from a job-training program, got off welfare, and took a job as hospital clerical worker. Odessa’s daughter Elaine has attended job-training programs and is applying for a job as a transit driver. After several relapses, Brenda has emerged from a series of drug rehabilitation programs, regained her weight and health, and now works at a fast food restaurant.
Only Iesha, now the unwed mother of four and a high-school dropout, is unprepared for the end of welfare. Iesha knows Odessa will take in her children if Iesha finds she can’t survive without welfare—or so Odessa tells me. Odessa knows that her willingness to intervene for the good of her great-grandchildren absolves Iesha of full responsibility for them. But Odessa has a plan: She intends to pay Iesha minimum wage to work in the kitchen she hopes to open soon in the back of her store. “I’ll make sure Iesha works, believe me—and I’ll keep an eye on those kids at the same time,” Odessa told me.
The full impact of welfare reform in Pennsylvania will not be known until March, when the two-year time limit on current benefits expires for 25,000 welfare recipients. Welfare authorities have begun an advertising campaign to remind recipients that the end is near. Ads on morning tv talk shows and afternoon soap operas warn that anyone who has received benefits for two years and is not working 20 hours a week will be cut off. “Don’t be afraid, Mom,” a child says in one ad. “You can do it. You’ve already got the hardest job in the world.” An announcer’s voice adds: “Welfare may be ending, but a real opportunity for work is beginning.” Odessa considers the warnings a waste of time. “Don’t need to tell people what they already know,” she says.
Most of the young, able-bodied welfare mothers Odessa knows had signed up months earlier for job training programs. In fact, they complained that their case workers badgered them until they gave in and signed up. But once they did, she found, many of them actually looked forward to ridding themselves of the cumbersome welfare bureaucracy. “A lot of people, they’re just tired of the same old same old,” Odessa said. “Now there’s some people who won’t work, period. You’re wasting your time trying to force them. But most people around here, they love to see a paycheck, and they’ll work hard for it. It beats a welfare check.”
Even before the welfare reform act was signed into law in August 1996, national welfare rolls had been declining for two years. The number of Americans on welfare peaked at 14.1 million in January 1993. By last March, it had dropped to 8.9 million. Some of the decline represents people who were motivated to get off welfare before time limits and other restrictions kicked in under the new law. But the economy is probably more responsible.
Since the early 1990s, a booming economy has created an abundance of the sort of low-wage, service industry jobs that many former welfare recipients can get and keep. And the dramatic contraction of the welfare population has helped those who still receive welfare, as well as poor working people. Because the reform law based federal welfare contributions on the much larger welfare rolls that existed before 1996, states are enjoying a $4.7 billion surplus, according to the General Accounting Office. Many have poured the money into welfare benefits or have expanded job-training, child care, and transportation services for the working poor.
But since last summer, the economy has begun to falter; the country’s current record low unemployment levels are bound to begin climbing again sometime. And no matter how the economy fares, there will be increased competition between welfare recipients and the working poor for a limited number of jobs and benefits such as subsidized day care and job-training programs. What is more, even with welfare rolls shrinking, there has been no systematic study to find out whether everyone leaving is finding a job or simply getting by via other means. Nor is it known whether people who have found jobs are holding on to them. There’s also the question of what happens to the lowest tier of welfare recipients—people with drug, alcohol, or mental problems who are the least likely to get off welfare and survive on their own.
Drug addicts and homeless people are still common sights in Odessa’s neighborhood. Odessa’s own family has had its share of drug addiction. She prayed that it was over now for her household. She expected all her children, even the fragile ones like Brenda, to fend for themselves—without welfare and without her. It was all she could do to keep the store functioning from one day to the next.
Despite her diabetes and asthma, she now works at the corner store every day, including Sunday. Just after 10 every morning, she slowly walks the half-block down Allegheny Avenue, unlocks the store, and sets out her sodas and snacks in time to open at 11 am. Except for a few breaks when the store is staffed by family members, she stays behind the counter until 10 o’clock every night.
On most days, she brings in $30 to $40. Much of that goes to replenish her stock. She sets aside the rest for household expenses. If her profits improve, she hopes to save enough one day to equip the store with a stove, oven, and sewing machine. Her dream is to expand into selling complete meals cooked on the premises, while also sewing quilts to sell on the side.
For now, Odessa has no time to worry about the end of welfare as she knows it. “I’m going to tell them down at the welfare office exactly how much I’m making here every day,” she said, sitting on a stool inside the store. “If they cut me off, they cut me off. I’m too busy to bother with it. And you know what? I’ve had my time on welfare. I raised my family on welfare. It’s time to let somebody else have it.” By that, she meant single mothers so burdened with the demands of feeding, clothing, educating, and protecting their children that they do not have the luxury of seeking paid work.
Odessa herself does not have time these days to do much trash-picking. She doesn’t drive people to the welfare office or go hacking. She doesn’t even cook dinner anymore; at ages 12 to 16, her four grandchildren are old enough, she says, to prepare their own meals. She doesn’t have the time or energy.
In fact, Odessa says she is so busy with the store that she has not
had time to frame the first dollar she earned the day she opened for business.
She keeps the bill in her shirt pocket. When the time is right, she says,
she will frame it and hang it on one of the store’s clean new walls.
David Zucchino is projects editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from South Africa, he belongs, along with his family, to Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pennsylvania.