Tough Times Force Woman Back On Welfare

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Forty years after getting off welfare, commentator Mary Sojourner finds herself signing up for benefits again. And she learns that the faltering economy has put a lot of neighbors in her small California desert town in the same situation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For commentator Mary Sojourner, coupons aren't nearly enough to make ends meet in tough economic times.

MARY SOJOURNER: Forty years and 2,500 miles ago, I hauled myself and my three kids free from welfare when I found work in a nursing home in New York state. Recently, I learned I didn't get a job in the little Mojave Desert town where I live. I had already applied for everything else that was available. At 68, I found myself hauling my tanking credit cards and drained savings back to welfare. I am not alone in any of this. This fierce stretch of rural California may be a microcosm of unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, and inflated gas prices. My neighbors are lower-middle-class, working-class, working-poor, and unemployed in all three categories.

The rich don't retire here. Cobalt mountains cradle our soft desert twilight, but triple-digit temperatures and double-digit winds don't make for nouveau west cachet. My neighbors and I swap stories at the gas pump. The jack of all trades in the beat-up Camino who tells me gas prices have cut his wages in half. The woman who glares at the pump and says, I'm supposed to be thrilled to pay this per gallon? They play with us like mean dogs with a rabbit. My neighbors do more than grouse. The grocery clerk, the folks in the Social Security waiting room, the receptionists at the welfare office, the people of this gorgeous, battered place simply ask each other, what do you need? It sounds to me like a blessing, but I wonder why they say it.

They have the right to glare at the old guy stalling the checkout line when they're trying to make minimum wage cover a week of groceries, but they don't. My guess is that a day at 109 degrees cooks the arrogance out of everybody. A 45-mile-an-hour wind knocks the starch out of any stuffed shirt. But more than anything, I suspect, it is because we all know we are the rabbits, and we don't want to be mistaken for the mean dogs.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Commentator Mary Sojourner is the author of "Bone Light: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest."

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