The Endless Odyssey of Patrick Henry Polk
The Wanderings of a Texas family on the road to nowhere.
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Patrick Henry Polk III and his brood had been waiting six weeks for their welfare check. It was the worst winter anyone could remember. Henry Polk was 49, destitute, and disabled by a bad heart. He was a rock mason and cedar chopper by trade, though Henry acknowledged that he hadn’t “hit a lick at a snake” in months. Piece by piece, he had sold his chain saw, then his tools, and finally his furniture to feed his wife and seven children. They had stuck him in a hospital in Stephenville and scared the fool out of him with that talk about putting a plastic valve on his heart. And that’s when Henry Polk did the only thing he could think to do: he put his wife Cynthia and the seven children, ages 4 to 15, in their ’67 Chrysler station wagon and he hooked ’em. For most of September and October, they lived in their station wagon, cooking and camping on creek banks, accepting handouts from churches and charitable agencies, sometimes stopping to visit relatives as they zigzagged through the cedar breaks of Chalk Mountain, Sipe Springs, Glen Rose, Valley Mills, Cranfills Gap, Lampasas, Marble Falls, and Liberty Hill, moving mostly south toward Austin, where Polk was born and lived most of his life.
By late October Henry was too sick to go on, and so was the baby, Kathy, who had a congenital heart condition. The transmission had fallen out of the station wagon, and they had traded it for a ’67 Buick. By Thanksgiving Polk was in Brackenridge Hospital in Austin and Mrs. Polk had applied for welfare. Polk left the hospital a few days later, complaining that they wouldn’t let him smoke. By now there was nothing left to sell, so Polk and two relatives went down to Onion Creek to look for some fern that they could decorate with holly and sell for Christmas wreaths. Sliding down the creek bank, he felt the familiar flash of pain in his chest and stomach. “The Claw,” he called it: just like that wrestler on TV. A week before Christmas Polk was back in the hospital and they were talking again about surgery. By now the family had received $336 in emergency food stamps, and social workers had helped them locate a four-bedroom house in South Austin that would be covered by a federal housing program. But the welfare check for $225 still hadn’t arrived.
Damned if Henry Polk was going to spend another Christmas in a hospital. He didn’t trust hospitals, or doctors, or the city of Austin for that matter. “You know that song, ‘My Kinda Woman’?” he said. “Well, that’s Austin to me. I know ever’ pig trail in it. You take a woman and seven kids and turn ’em loose in this town with no protection, you just as well tell ’em to go jump off a cliff. I told the doctor that, but he never savvied what I was saying. He just wasn’t wearing the right pair of shoes. Long as I can move my hands and feet, there ain’t no way I’m gonna let ’em cut me open.”
Over his doctor’s objections, Polk checked himself out of Brackenridge and went home for Christmas. It was a good Christmas. A Baptist church furnished dinner for the Polks, and a Catholic church brought toys, clothing, and certificates for some groceries and a tank of gasoline. One of Henry Polk’s older sisters, who lived a few blocks away, and some other cousins, nephews, nieces, and in-laws found enough used furniture to make the house livable, and Henry borrowed a hammer, saw, and nails from a neighbor and built a kitchen table from an old door and scrap lumber.
“We was all together, that was the thing,” said Cynthia Polk. “It was like a miracle.” At 32, having given birth to eight children and buried one, having survived two major operations of her own and enough trauma to fill a Russian novel, Cynthia Polk found miracles in the commonplace. She was a woman of faith, moxie, and country wit. When the kids bellyached about something they didn’t have, the price of a movie for instance, she would turn it on them and say, “Gimme a dime’s worth of dollars and you can keep the change.” She was physically enormous—after the birth of her six-year-old, Jimmy Joe, or J. J. as he was called, her weight had soared and remained over 225 pounds—but she was amazingly pliable, good-humored, and, in a rough way, pretty. Cynthia Polk had married Henry Polk nineteen years ago, when she was thirteen.
On Christmas, as any other day, the Polks clustered together like immigrants in steerage. When they ate, they ate together at the large homemade table. When daddy and mama sat in the living room, the kids congregated there. When the older kids played outside, they checked in every few minutes, reporting on the whereabouts of each member of the family. Four-year-old Kathy, who had epilepsy as well as a heart condition, was seldom out of her mother’s sight: the family rule was that she would never be left alone, not for a minute. “If something was to happen to this baby,” Cynthia said, “they’d have to put me in the grave with her.”
Almost everyone in the family had medical problems. Lanette, the beautiful five-year-old with the blond ponytail and imp’s grin, had a blood disease one doctor had diagnosed as leukemia. Henry Polk’s mother spent $39 on a long-distance telephone call to Oral Roberts, and within a week, through the miracle of faith in Jesus and AT&T, she was pronounced cured. “The doctor couldn’t believe it,” Cynthia said. “He accused me of switching babies on him. No doctor cured that baby. It was the Lord.” Colann, the thirteen-year-old, suffered from occasional convulsions; Cynthia Polk called it a form of epilepsy, though this had never been confirmed. Colann also had a hearing problem. Debby Sue, the brash, chubby eleven-year-old, needed glasses. Lanette needed dental work: her small teeth were already turning black. Billie Jean, the firstborn who would soon be sixteen, had diabetes, as did her mother and grandmother. Billie Jean had also inherited her mother’s addiction for sweets and propensity for gaining large amounts of weight.
The two boys, Patrick Henry, Jr. (Buddy Boy), nine, and J. J., six, had inherited their father’s ruddy, flinty Anglo features and reddish-blond hair. If you had to guess their genealogy, you would guess Welsh. You could almost see the two boys following their old man down into the coal mines somewhere in South Wales, their fair skin already permanently stained. Though their true origins were long misplaced, Henry Polk and his fourteen brothers and sisters grew up in south-central Texas mainly in the Clarksville section of West Austin, a community of shacks, neighborhood stores, and churches founded more than a hundred years ago by newly freed slaves. His father was also named Patrick Henry Polk: the old man liked the name so much he named two of his sons Patrick Henry—II and III. Cynthia Polk, whose maiden name was Bates, grew up near Gatesville, the oldest girl in a family of eleven.
“We lived in a tent way back in the cedar breaks,” she would tell her children, who never seemed to tire of the stories their parents told, of hardships endured, of values learned and embraced, of other Christmas days sown along incomprehensible distances and yet ripening before their eyes: there was no tone of embarrassment, no sense of shame or regret or doubt that the ways of their people had happy endings. “Daddy would always run off, and pretty soon we’d be out of food. We’d look for armadillos or birds or wild onions, anything to eat. Mama was already sick with cancer and the sugar diabetes, and granny was too old to be much help.”
“Hey, mama,” Debby Sue would interrupt. “Tell us again about the man in the truck that broke down and your granny smelling bacon.”
“Your granny always carried a broom,” Colann prompted.
“Who’s telling this story?” Cynthia Polk barked at her daughters. The other children laughed. They loved their mother’s bark, which was considerably worse than her bite. “Oh, anyhow, we was out in the woods when all of a sudden granny throwed down that old broomstick she always carried and yelled out, ‘I smell bacon!’ We walked down to the road, and sure ‘nuff there was this feller with a pickup load of groceries broke down. Hundred pound sacks of flour, sugar, beans, potatoes, bacon, everything you could think of. Mama said, ‘Mister, if you’d like it, I’d be happy to fry you some of that bacon.’ I guess he seen all us hungry kids, ’cause he said okay. So mama built a campfire and started fixing the bacon while us kids sneaked back and took some of the provisions from the truck and hid ’em in the woods. He knowed we’d done it right off, and mama said, ‘Mister, I ain’t gonna lie to you. My kids took them provisions ’cause they was hungry.’ He let us keep what we already took, and the next day he come back with more groceries and mattresses and blankets and stuff we didn’t even need.”
Cynthia would remember the first time she ever saw Henry Polk, her future husband. Henry had been married and divorced twice by then—he has five grown children and numerous grandchildren from his earlier marriages. Henry had drifted up around Valley Mills where Cynthia Bates was living and it was love at first sight. “I was outdoors cutting wood,” she recalled, “and I looked over and seen him lift this car motor up all by hisself. He was built like a bull back then, back before he took sick. I told my mama, who was sitting on the porch shelling peas, ‘I’m gonna marry that man there.’ And sure ’nuff I did.”
When Cynthia told her daddy she wanted to marry Henry Polk, he volunteered to drive them to the courthouse. “He said that would just be one less mouth to feed,” Cynthia continued, not concealing her rancor. “After we was married, Henry tried to help out mama and the kids. The last bottle of medicine my mama ever had, Henry bought it with his last ten dollars. When mama finally died, all eat up with cancer and the sugar diabetes, daddy took the nine kids who was still living at home and dropped ’em on the courthouse steps like you would a sack of puppies. We didn’t know ’bout what he’d done for a few days. My Uncle Joe got there in time to ’dopt six of ’em. The other three we never saw again.”
“Back then people wasn’t so bad off as they are now,” Henry Polk cut in, stubbing the butt of his Camel on the bare wood floor of the living room. There were not yet any ashtrays and hardly any dishes in the house in South Austin, though ashtrays were not a habit Henry cultivated. “Back then, we’d find us an abandoned filling station or somewhere and move in. I’d take that double-bit ax and cut me some cedar or post oak and sell ’em fifteen, twenty cents apiece. I was strong as a bull. I could cut wood all day long. When the weather was good, it weren’t nothing to make twenty dollars a day.”
Christmas passed, and so did New Year, and as the Legislature convened to consider the problems of the state the Polks still had not received their first welfare check. They didn’t know it, but the check was lost in the computer somewhere deep in the heart of the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) bureaucracy. This was partly the Polks’ fault. From the time they first applied for welfare back in Stephenville, the family had left such a tangled trail that the DPW computer couldn’t cope with their case.
Patrick Henry Polk and his brood are not the typical Texas welfare family, but they are a fairly typical poor family. Only a small percentage of the poor in Texas actually receive welfare. There are approximately 500,000 poor families in the state—that’s families, not people—and only about 18 per cent of them will get any government aid this year. Contrary to prevailing myths, most poor Texans are not black or Chicano: the largest group—almost half—are like the Polks: Anglo-Saxon Protestant, nearly illiterate, and totally puzzled by the complexities of life in the 1970s. Polk is not their real name. I changed names and a few other details because that was the only way the family would agree to a series of interviews that would cover two months. But the Polks are not a composite: details of their case, their medical and social histories, their habits and lifestyle are as accurate as I could report them.
Welfare is one of those five-alarm words, like communist or rattlesnake and is customarily followed by descriptive nouns such as chiseler and bum. You have no doubt heard that welfare recipients drive Cadillacs. The hard fact is, most welfare recipients are barely surviving. Members of an Austin women’s club were asked recently to guess how much cash a mother and one child would receive from welfare each month. Guesses ranged from $200 to $500. The actual figure is $86—$24 for the child and $62 for the “caretaker.” Only 325,000 Texans, 75 per cent of them children, receive cash payments, or the dole as it is sometimes cynically described. That’s less than 3 per cent of the state’s population. The program that administers the dole is called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The key word here is children, though this seems to confuse a lot of us taxpayers. Under the rigid standards set by the Texas Legislature, the only persons who receive welfare are children (and one caretaker) who have lost one or both parents, or (as in the Polks’ case) are deprived of basic necessities because the father is disabled. What makes the Polks so rare among welfare recipients is that both parents are living at home. The size of their family and the total amount of cash assistance ($225 a month) place the Polks in the upper 1 per cent of the AFDC rolls.
The “average” AFDC family consists of a mother and two to three children. Daddy is either dead, deserted, or disabled. These children and their caretakers receive on average $32.06 a month (the national average is $72.35). That amounts to about $1 a day for shelter, clothing, laundry, utilities, and other necessities. Twenty to 30 per cent of that $1 goes for the purchase of food stamps, which are not accepted for household items such as soap, detergents, and toilet paper—not to mention cigarettes, beer, or wine. Very few AFDC recipients live in public housing. All AFDC recipients automatically qualify for free medical care under Medicaid, which in terms of simple survival is far more important than actual cash. If the youngest child is older than five years, the mother is automatically enrolled in a work-training program and in most cases quickly returned to the labor force. The caretaker mother is allowed to deduct job-related expenses from her salary (usually about 30 per cent), but if her bottom line exceeds $86 a month, the mother and child are dropped from AFDC and, after a grace period of ninety days, from Medicaid. The myth of the dole as a permanent gravy train finally collapses when you realize that the average income of a Texas family receiving both AFDC and food stamps is barely half the official poverty level of $5500 for a nonfarm family of four. Hardly your Cadillac crowd. Old Buicks and Oldsmobiles are more like it.
The actual payment to a specific family is calculated by an AFDC caseworker using a sliding scale based on 1969 cost-of-living figures. Because of inflation, the cost of living has increased 56 per cent since 1969, but in the case of AFDC the Legislature has found it politically expedient to ignore this. Except for AFDC none of the other 28 programs administered by DPW has gone a single year without a cost-of-living increase. Once the caseworker has calculated the “needs” of the family, the next step is to cut that figure by 25 per cent. The philosophy here is that if the state pays a family less than it “needs” somebody in the family will have to go to work. Even though 75 per cent of the AFDC recipients are children, the incentive theory is championed by demagogues and embraced by lawmakers as an excuse to maintain AFDC payments below subsistence levels. “Incentive,” says Bill Clayton, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, “is the only way we have to break the poverty cycle. Anytime you get support payments to a high level, you discourage incentive.” The major flaw in this theory is that by no stretch of the imagination can $1 a day be considered high level. More than half the adults living in poverty in Texas are already working full time: they just don’t earn enough (the Texas minimum wage is $1.40) to make ends meet. In fact, the incentive is to stay on the dole, if for no other reason than to qualify for Medicaid.
There is a technical but highly revealing factor in the Legislature’s gut reaction to the Department of Public Welfare. It’s not welfare that inspires the sanctimonious preachings in the state house, it’s the dole. Welfare in fact embraces dozens of local, state, and federal programs that touch the daily lives of two million Texans (one of six) and cost $2 billion a year—but only $125 million ($92 million of it paid by the federal government) is mailed out each year to AFDC families. When you consider who controls all that money, and where it goes, the incentive theory takes on a new light.
Roughly one-fourth of that $2 billion passes through the cash registers of the grocery stores, then filters down to distributors, processors, teamsters, farmers, and ranchers. “The food stamp program,” says a DPW executive, “is heavily supported by the food industry. In fact, it’s an industry subsidy program.” Doctors, pharmacists, hospitals, and nursing homes pocket an enormous share of welfare money. “The strongest lobby in Texas, except maybe the highway lobby, is the nursing home lobby,” an executive at DPW claims. “The last Legislature actually gave us more than we requested for nursing homes. The figure goes up every year—it’ll reach about $436 million by 1978. This doesn’t mean the patients are getting more benefits; it simply means the nursing homes are getting more money.” Welfare in fact is a gigantic public industry controlled largely by special-interest groups.
“The reason AFDC is so unpopular,” the DPW executive continued, “is that there isn’t any interest group that can control it. It’s cash, and it goes directly to the client. It’s the only program where the client makes the decision what to do with it.”
“I think one reason our welfare rolls are declining is it’s easier to get a job in Texas than in most other states,” says John Frannea, chief of management assistance at the Department of Public Welfare. “They don’t pay very much, but you can get them. It’s not the purpose of DPW to compete with the job market—nobody wants that—but we’re not even close.” Frannea points out that 80 per cent of those being added to welfare rolls are coming on for the first time. On average, a welfare family drops from the rolls after eleven months. “There are few recidivists,” Frannea adds. “What this means is that once you’ve had the experience [of welfare], you don’t want it again. There’s not much to come back to.” Dr. Victor Bach, an expert on urban studies at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, is even more blunt: “The reason there is a low welfare fraud rate in Texas is because it doesn’t pay even if you get away with it.”
In light of the 56 per cent inflation since 1969, the DPW recommended that the current Legislature increase daily AFDC payments from $1 to $1.23—or about $7 a month for each member of the family. The Legislature Budget Board, composed of the Speaker of the House, the Lieutenant Governor, and eight ranking members of the Legislature, rejected the request. With Dolph Briscoe also four-square against it, there seems little chance the increase will be approved.
THE LONG WAIT
It was the middle of January, and the Polks still hadn’t received their welfare check. Henry was getting cabin fever. There was nothing to do with his hands and no way to explain, much less stop, the grinding of time. He had become a statistic. While the kids watched the fuzzy old black-and-white TV set rented from the Seven-Eleven, and mama worked the sewing machine altering hand-me-down jeans and shirts, Henry cut little windows in a piece of cardboard and rolled it into a tube. “What’s that, daddy?” Debby Sue asked. “Nothing,” he said forlornly, tossing it aside.
“The worst thing I ever did was sell that chain saw,” he said.
“Now daddy, don’t talk like that,” Cynthia said. “We needed the money. ‘Sides, that kinda work would kill you now.”
“When you get sick,” he said, “that’s the end of the hump.”
Henry remembered that his daddy used to make chairs of green willow and lariats of binder’s twine. Henry was thinking of getting himself some binder’s twine. Maybe he’d look around for some green willow, though he hadn’t seen much willow since they cut the MoPac Expressway through Clarksville. Most of the cedar was gone, too. His daddy had a stationary buzz saw, powered by running a belt around the rear wheel of a ’33 Ford, and Henry remembered how they used to pile overlapping layers of cedar posts in a mound, cover the mound with sod and cook it slowly until they had charcoal. They would use the sawdust for fertilizer, and the kids would sell the charcoal from door to door. They hunted coons and rabbits in what would later be called Tarrytown, now a quiet neighborhood of large homes and walled estates. There was always something to do, something to hope for. There were stories of Comanche gold hidden in the caves along the Colorado River, and Henry’s daddy claimed there were nine jackloads of Mexican silver buried near the Old Confederates Home, which stood on the southern edge of Clarksville.
Although Clarksville had started as a settlement for newly freed slaves, many poor white families had come later, and by the time Henry and his brothers, sisters, and cousins were growing up, the community was comfortably integrated, making it unique in Austin and probably anywhere else in Texas. “We played and fought with the niggers just like they was our own,” Henry said. “There was two old ex-slave ladies, Aunt Eady and Aunt Jenny Moe, lived just down the street from our place. My daddy used to make us call all old folks uncle or aunt no matter what color they was. He said it didn’t sound right to call ’em mister or missus. It was unrespectful.” In the evenings they used to sit under the large live oak in front of Aunt Eady’s frame shanty, which was about the same size and construction as their own place down the block. Aunt Eady would tell about the time of slavery, and about her white folks’ pet parrot that would rat on her when she would sneak food from the kitchen or neglect her chores.
“When her white people would leave the house they’d let this parrot out of his cage so he could foller Aunt Eady around and tell on her, then when they come home they’d whup her. But one time they forgot. They left the ol’ parrot caged up where the nigger could reach him. ‘Nigger gonna get rid of ol’ polly parrot,’ Aunt Eady said, and the parrot started crying, ‘Oh, please, nigger, don’t!’ But Aunt Eady taken the parrot and socked him in a pot of boiling water, then put him back in the cage like nothing happened, and she never got no more whuppings.”
Obie Polk, Henry’s older brother, would sometimes drop by the house in South Austin; and—when he wasn’t working—so would their cousin, Jake Polk. While Cynthia and the two oldest girls cooked, the men would sit around the kitchen table playing forty-two and talking and drinking strong black coffee. As a young man, Henry had done his share of hooting and drinking—the self-administered tattoo of a spraddle-legged naked woman on his left biceps was a living souvenir of one AWOL bender thirty years ago—but now he was pretty much limited to coffee and cigarettes. He wouldn’t want this to get back to his old lady, Henry said in a low voice across the table, but having intercourse, or even urinating, “hurts like somebody cut you between the legs with a hot knife.” Doctors at Audie Murphy Veterans Hospital in San Antonio had removed a malignancy from his left testicle two years ago. “They said they cut out the cancer,” Henry said,” but I think they just spread it around.” Cynthia knew about the claw, of course, but the hot knife in his scrotum was a secret Henry intended to keep among the men. The men nodded. They understood these things. It was like when Cynthia’s younger sister’s husband put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger: the men swore it was an accident, even though everyone knew he was dying from cancer.
Jake Polk, who was in his late fifties, earned his living digging, hauling, and laying rocks. He was a rock mason, as opposed to a rock cobbler. “The difference is, a rock mason has to know what he’s doing,” Jake explained. Henry also took pride in the fact he was a rock mason and regretted that he hadn’t gone on to be a brick mason. For reasons that were not clear, Henry never mastered brick masonry. “But there’s none better at rocks,” he said. “All I gotta do is hang a string from each corner and get after it.” Obie Polk, who was two years older than Henry, had never mastered rock or even learned to figure square feet and so was something of an outcast. Obie suffered from emphysema and chronic bronchitis and hadn’t worked since he loaded watermelons in Weatherford last summer. Obie was a tall, very skinny scarecrow of a man who would have been in a veteran’s hospital except for the misfortune of having deserted the Army in 1945. Since Obie had no children to qualify for welfare, he ate and slept wherever he could.
Of the three men at the kitchen table, only Jake Polk was physically able to hold a steady job and now that it was the dead of winter even Jake was idle. So they spent the long afternoons around Henry’s kitchen table, talking about rock, about where to buy a rebuilt carburetor, about what they hated most in the Army was saluting, and about mistakes in judgment that might explain their dilemma. Jake remembered the old black man who used to sit on the steps of the Sweet Home Baptist Church and ramble for hours about how someday there would be an expressway right through Clarksville. It would be years before they got around to building MoPac, but the old black man was right about it coming. In time the city would appraise the land in MoPac’s projected path at $2000 a lot, peanuts compared to its potential worth. Maybe if Henry’s daddy had sold out in time. But he didn’t. “The city come and took our homestead for $640 back taxes,” Henry said. “Somebody got rich, but it sure wasn’t us.”
I had been around the Polks for more than a week now, and the hard luck stories had become routine. It wasn’t just Henry and his brood: there were brothers, sisters, cousins, in-laws so numerous I couldn’t count much less record them, and almost every one of them was a medical and social disaster. When they weren’t talking about money they didn’t have or hospitals that wouldn’t have them, they talked about cancer and bleeding sores and broken hearts and faulty transmissions and relief checks that were nonexistent. When I first knew him, Henry Polk couldn’t bring himself to say the word welfare—he called the DPW “those people down there”—but by now the family accepted my presence and even seemed to share a measure of relief that someone from the outside was there to listen. I gradually came to see them as a tribe, a class of people who had never joined mainstream culture or had the least desire to. They were almost all cedar choppers and/or rock masons. They worked for cash or sometimes for the cedar itself, which they would sell after clearing land for some developer. They had never belonged to a union or paid Social Security or graduated from a school or had a title. They had never voted, and some of them had never thought of filing an income tax return.
Many of them were unemployed, but only a few qualified for unemployment since they had never worked for anyone except themselves. The ones who were old and disabled like Troy Tucker and his wife Sara lived on food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal program for the needy who couldn’t qualify for Social Security or state welfare. As in the case of unemployment insurance, only people who have paid into the program are eligible for Social Security. A few of them, such as Cynthia’s sister (whose husband died from the shotgun blast), drew AFDC. Almost all of them were eligible for food stamps, but some hadn’t got around to applying and others simply refused. Jake Polk never said it out loud, but you could tell that he’d rather die than accept welfare. At one time in his life, Henry Polk must have shared that aversion. Even now, when he heard someone bellyaching, Henry would say: “If you look around, you’ll always see somebody worse off than you. God didn’t make everybody to be rich. It would be a dull world if everybody was the same.”
The house in South Austin, once so government-issue sterile, was gradually taking on a personality. Cynthia found some patches of cloth and sewed curtains. One of those velvet bullfighter paintings that you see in Mexican border towns appeared on the wall in the living room. Henry constructed a coffee table from some pieces of plate glass found in the city dump. They got an old king-size mattress and box springs from Goodwill. The two little girls, Kathy and Lanette, shared a cot at the foot of their parents’ bed, the three older girls shared a second bedroom, and the two boys slept in the dining room (although the house was supposed to have four bedrooms, the two rooms at the back weren’t heated). Apparently the Polks weren’t familiar with thermostats, or maybe they were cold-natured—whatever the case, the house was always uncomfortably hot and smelled of used lard and burned sugar. Spectacular amounts of trash accumulated. Billie Jean and Colann swept the kitchen and living room two and sometimes three times a day, and still the floor was littered with crushed candy canes, spilled milk, partly eaten sandwiches, chicken bones, and cigarette butts.
Cynthia Polk had measured out the food stamps carefully, loading up initially on staples like sugar, flour, potatoes, and lard, then falling back on a lifetime habit of planning and shopping one day at a time. While the food stamps lasted, there was always meat or chicken, always fried. Every meal included potatoes, beans, and cake. (Henry’s favorite meal was red beans and chocolate cake, mixed together.) Nobody in the family liked tomatoes or lettuce, and they weren’t big on fruit either. In the afternoons when the kids came home from school, Cynthia would drive them to the bakery outlet and treat them to day-old fried pies, purchased ten for 99 cents. There was one particular supermarket that the Polks visited daily, the chain that sponsored the TV sweepstakes show called Let’s Go to the Races. Cynthia would select four or five items, then they would each head to a different checkout line, thereby multiplying their allotment of sweepstakes cards. On Friday nights, Cynthia and the kids would gather in front of the TV and cheer home their horses.
Henry thought this was foolish. Henry’s motto was to “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” It was like the stories about the Mexican silver and Comanche gold. He’d never seen any of it. He had crawled inside every cave along the west bank of the Colorado River and he had never seen any gold. He remembered one cave in particular. It was located straight across the river from the old Deep Eddy grocery store near Clarksville. Henry, Obie, and Troy Tucker discovered it one day as they were hauling rocks across on a rubber raft. In his memory the cave was large as a house, and right in the center, partially covering a seemingly bottomless well lined with cedar posts, was an enormous boulder. The ceiling of the cave was black, suggesting ancient tribal camp fires. He thought about this cave. He thought about it a lot.
“One of these days,” he told his two boys, “we’ll go look for it.”
IN THE TRENCHES
Marie McAdoo was one of twenty-one AFDC caseworkers assigned to the DPW’s Austin office. Each caseworker was responsible for 95 cases. Though she thought of herself as a social worker, her official title was Welfare Service Technician II, the bureaucratic way of saying that her monthly salary was fixed at $820. In a few months she was scheduled for promotion to Public Welfare Worker I, and though her duties would remain the same, her salary would increase to $876. That’s tops for a full-time caseworker in this state. Considering their qualifications and work load, DPW’s social and clerical workers are among the lowest paid state employees. Many of them are teachers who couldn’t find a teaching job. Few started out to be social workers. They majored in math, English, history, economics, in the subjects and skills that the market has little use for. The workers who deal in the food stamps and AFDC programs are the most overworked and the most criticized. “Nobody in those two programs has a good job,” says a DPW executive. “Their work load is staggering. They come in daily contact with people who have very serious problems. Quality control is always looking over their shoulder, just like a factory. It’s not surprising that they don’t last too long.” Marie was an exception. She had been with DPW for more than three years and she liked her job. Before joining DPW Marie taught grade school and worked with retarded teenagers. She’s 48, a grandmother, and a compulsive problem solver. Her husband makes good income as manager of an insurance company, but Marie works because she enjoys it.
When Marie first learned of the Polks in early December, the family was camped on Slaughter Creek. She contacted them by telephoning one of Polk’s sisters, and an interview was arranged. “The immediate problem was to get them food,” she recalled later. “They were down to one can of lard.” Normally, emergency food stamps can be obtained in two or three days, but there was a technical problem. Rules set down by the federal Department of Agriculture, which funds the food stamp program (DPW only administers it), require that a family have cooking facilities, and a campfire along Slaughter Creek didn’t qualify. Marie requisitioned groceries from the Travis County Department of Human Services, from a church, and from the goodwill of another social worker who was quitting and requested that her fellow workers donate food instead of throwing a going-away party.
Then she contacted David Keene, administrator of the HUD-funded Austin Housing Authority—known in the industry as Section 8. Section 8 is a federal program designed as an alternative to the dreary public housing projects that were in vogue during the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. Poor people who qualify are allowed to find low-cost rent property in whatever section of town suits their needs. If the house satisfies government standards, payments are made directly to the landlord. The program is confidential. Since even a next-door neighbor would have no way of knowing that rent was subsidized by Section 8, there is no stigma. It is a very simple, direct program that helps both landlords and poor people and involves a minimum of red tape. The catch is there are never enough suitable houses to go around. In the case of the Polk family, a four-or five-bedroom house was required. But David Keene’s office only had allocations for 31 four-bedroom homes and five five-bedroom homes. Maybe it was a miracle, as Mrs. Polk insisted: at any rate, the Polks located the frame house a few blocks from Polk’s sister, and on December 13, after the landlord made some minor repairs, the family moved in.
Now that they had a roof over their heads and cooking facilities, the Polks immediately became eligible for emergency food stamps. Since their application for AFDC had yet to be approved, the food stamps they received were classified as Non-Public Assistance (NPA), which is not to be confused with Public Assistance (PA) food stamps, which go automatically to AFDC recipients. What it meant was that Mrs. Polk paid only $36 for $336 worth of stamps. Later, when their first AFDC check arrived, they would pay $108 for the same amount of stamps. If the Polks came across any additional income, they would pay more.
Meanwhile, Marie McAdoo was pursuing the Polks’ case through reams of paperwork. Before their odyssey, the Polks had applied for welfare in Stephenville. For their new application to be accepted, the old one had to be denied in order to “clean the computer.” The Stephenville office of DPW had forwarded the Polks’ records, but the file was stacked up somewhere in the Christmas mail rush. Marie had verified from her interview that the Polks needed immediate help, but first she had to get Henry Polk’s medical records from Brackenridge Hospital. That required a written release. On December 18, she carried a release form to the hospital, but Polk’s doctor was out Christmas shopping. She telephoned again two days later, and nobody at the hospital could find the release form. She took a second release form to Brackenridge. She called again on December 23. She was told that the release had been signed, but they couldn’t find it. “I told them this was an emergency, so they looked again.” Late that afternoon they finally located the form—it had been sent by mistake to the children’s section. By the time she got her hands on the release form all state offices had shut down until December 28. It was January 6 before all the records arrived.
By then, Marie had enrolled Colann, Debby Sue, Buddy Boy, and J. J. in school. Billie Jean, who was almost sixteen and had never lived in one place long enough to get past the ninth grade, couldn’t be registered until March. Billie Jean wasn’t really interested in going back to school. Marie suggested several alternate programs through which Billie Jean could learn a trade. Billie Jean had bad memories of her last encounter with education. When they were living in Lipan, a small community north of Stephenville, she enrolled in a vocational agriculture course and they wanted her to castrate a calf. If that was education, they could have it. Henry and Cynthia Polk didn’t encourage Billie Jean. The parents shared an inborn distrust of education, maybe because they feared it would break up their tight family structure. To them children were assets, not too unlike horses and cows. This wasn’t cynical or cruel, merely practical: when their own time came years ago both Henry and Cynthia supported their dying parents; now the cycle was being repeated and it would be their children’s turn. There were also moral implications. It was Henry’s experience that “all schools are good for is sex and dope,” and that wasn’t what they wanted for their children. Although Billie Jean was already three years older than her mother had been when she married Henry, the girl had never been allowed to date or attend socials.
On January 6, Marie McAdoo filled out DPW Form 1-A, which in most cases goes straight to the computer keypunch operator. But in cases of “medical incapacity” the form must first be approved by the state office. Henry’s medical report confirmed his chest pains as angina and myocardial infarction, and indicated it might be necessary to implant a valve to control the flow of blood through the heart. A week after Marie McAdoo completed DPW Form 1-A, the application was approved and sent to the computer where, for reasons no human could explain, it “bounced.”
In mid-January, Marie McAdoo had been transferred from “financial needs” to “social services.” “I guess you could say that what I’m doing now is dealing with physical instead of financial needs,” she explained one afternoon when I dropped by the welfare office in South Austin. “Things like housing, health service—a lot of it is advice and counseling. A lot of it is just listening. The people I deal with have such tremendous problems they just need to talk to someone.” There were two phones in Marie’s tiny office, both ringing at once. Welfare workers joke that the only time the telephones are silent is when As the World Turns is on TV. There is a chaotic undercurrent in their work, a rumble like you feel in your legs when a subway train is approaching, an apprehension that an orderly world is only an illusion that protects our sanity. There is always a big rush on welfare after a holiday. One Social Security worker explained: “That’s when old-timers sit around the stove and talk about their Social Security checks.” It’s the same when the weather is bad and arthritis acts up, or when there is an unexpected freeze and thousands of migrant citrus pickers are suddenly out of work. I noticed a mysterious sack of canned goods on the floor by Marie McAdoo’s desk, but she didn’t volunteer to explain it and I didn’t ask.
Jean Bundrant, another social worker who had dropped by Marie’s office to deposit two cans of turnip greens in the sack, told me: “Basically, people on welfare do not handle routine things the way you and I do. They don’t think in terms of records or forms or programs. It doesn’t occur to them to telephone and say they are moving. Right now I’m waiting to interview a mildly retarded woman with two kids. This is the seventh appointment I’ve set up for her and she’s missed them all. Usually, after three times, the application is automatically denied.”
“They need an advocate, someone to hear their problems and help solve them,” Marie said. “If they can’t find their way to Section 8, you take them. If they have problems with the landlord, you try to work it out for them. There are some doctors and pharmacists who won’t accept Medicaid because of the red tape, so you help them find a doctor or pharmacist who will.”
Sometimes the good intentions backfire. Welfare is so complex and so over-weighted with conflicting rules and regulations that only a fool or a politician would pretend to understand it. Businessmen employ platoons of attorneys and accountants to deal with government red tape. Welfare recipients must face it essentially alone.
Jean Bundrant said that what really bothered her was people talking about welfare chiselers and Cadillacs and scrubby hippies on food stamps. Veda Douglas, a Medicaid worker who had come in to drop two cans of vegetable soup in the sack, offered a real case: “The husband had a job paying $600 a month. His wife had to go to a nursing home, which cost $650 a month. Welfare couldn’t pay for the nursing home because the income limit in this case is $557.80. This means any kind of income—salary, retirement, Social Security, VA, trust funds.”
“It gets very frustrating,” Veda Douglas continued. “Every day we see people who need help and can’t get it. If we’re in the business of helping, we ought to help.”
When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I asked about the sack of canned goods. Marie McAdoo handed me a clipping from a local newspaper. It told the saga of Slim and Pearl, an elderly couple existing on $38 a month from veteran’s disability. Slim should have been eligible for Social Security, except his birth certificate was destroyed in a Colorado courthouse fire. Slim had mailed off $18 trying to get a duplicate, but for some reason it hadn’t arrived. The shack where they lived had just been condemned. They were hungry. “If I just had four dollars,” Slim said, “I could get me a fishing license and catch some fish.” The sack of goods was for Slim and Pearl. Marie McAdoo intended to pay for the fishing license herself. In the two months that I spent hanging around welfare, this went on all the time. People so sensitive somehow coped with human misery in a system so insensitive. And yet almost every social worker I spoke with defended DPW as doing the best it could with what it had. I wondered many times what would happen if you brought the governor and every member of the Legislature down here to the trenches. But that would never happen: political slogans can’t deal with specifics.
It’s hard to choose an exact date when Henry Polk became a social problem, but Henry would pick sometime about 1968, when he found the Lucifer bracelet. They were living out on Bluff Springs Road south of Austin, and things looked pretty good. They had collected two goats, three meat hogs, and 175 chickens, and there was plenty of work in the Hill Country cutting cedar or laying rocks. Cynthia, who was pregnant with Buddy Boy, still had an attractive figure. Life had hope and harmony.
Henry found the Lucifer bracelet while digging for worms in the backyard. As he recalls, the bracelet was a devil’s head of pure silver with black ruby eyes. A small wooden cross was bound by twine across the devil’s face. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the Spanish lady next door had tooken it away from her boy and buried it. She had bounded up the devil with that cross. Anyhow, the bracelet was pretty, so I took to wearing it.” Looking back on it now, Henry could see that God was punishing him for his backsliding ways. In those days, Jesus frequently spoke to Henry Polk. A few years earlier Henry had been “called” to preach in the Pentecostal church. When it came time to preach his first sermon, God told Henry to wing it. God’s exact message, as Henry recalled, was “open your mouth and I will put in the words.” As Henry approached the altar there was a great gust of wind from the north and the Bible pages blew open to Mathew 21:31. In a strange voice Henry read: “Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” What did that mean? Henry told his flock: “Harlots means whore, and publicans . . . that’s like ‘Publicans and Democrats. Like senators and governors and hypocrites.”
Later, Henry learned to speak in tongues. He took credit for a few modest miracles. The redemption of his nephew, for one. The boy was a disbeliever, so Henry asked the Lord to “not hurt him but scare him a little.” That night as the nephew was sleeping on mattress on the floor “a great ball of fire come rolling through the window” and there appeared Lucifer himself, fire in his eyes and carrying a pitchfork. The next day the boy joined the church. Not long after that, another nephew got in a bit of trouble—police arrested him for robbing a grocery store and shooting the owner. “They was asking the death penalty,” Cynthia Polk recalled, “but Henry and his sister got down on their knees and the Lord spared him.” His nephew is now doing five—to—ninety-nine.
Anyway, at the time of the Lucifer bracelet, Henry hadn’t exactly turned his back on the Lord, but he was standing sideways. Then bad things started happening. His dog jumped through a plate glass window. The son of the Spanish lady next door ran away, then her house burned down. There were weevils in the cornmeal. Henry got another cross and buried the bracelet where he found it, but the bad luck didn’t stop. Henry wrecked his car and almost killed himself. One night the Polks came home and found seventeen chickens dead. “We thought the dogs done it,” Cynthia said. “We put the dogs in a sack and took ’em out to the country and dumped ’em, and when we come back more chickens was kilt. We discovered it was a polecat done it. We shoulda knowed by the way the chickens was scalped.”
Buddy Boy was born healthy, but in 1970 Cynthia gave birth to another boy who was named Oral Roberts Polk. The baby had a bad color and his head seemed too small for his body. He had trouble breathing. Cynthia recalled, “Henry told me right from the start, ‘Don’t get attached to that ’un, ’cause God never meant him to be raised.’ I couldn’t believe God just let me borrow him. But one morning when he was a few months old I woke up, saw blood coming from the baby’s nose. When I felt him, he was cold as a bucket of ice. We was living then with Henry’s cousin Jake and his wife Dora and I screamed, but it weren’t no use. I knowed there was a Jonah where we was, and there wasn’t nothing nobody could do.”
Shortly after they buried the baby, the Polks got together with two of Henry’s cousins and their families and reached a decision to move to California. Jake Polk, who was ten years older than Henry, had heard there were millions of acres of wood to be cut in the Sierra Madres west of Bakersfield. Jake and Dora Polk had saved a little money. Their kids were all grown and Jake had bought an Army surplus truck large enough to carry their belongings. Henry bought a 1955 green-and-white Olds from a used car lot on East Second. Cousin Woodrow Polk, along with his wife Betty Frank and their four kids, had an old Ford Ranch Wagon that the men put in shape. Everything they couldn’t carry they sold.
In the spring of 1970, while the bodies of Vietnamese civilians were floating down the Mekong and Richard Nixon was pushing for the confirmation of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court, the Polk clan set out on a migration that could have happened during the Great Depression. U.S. troops would invade Cambodia and four students would be shot to death at Kent State, but the Polks didn’t know it. H. Ross Perot, who had accumulated a fortune of $1.5 billion selling computer time, had chartered a 707 which would fly halfway around the world without reaching its destination in Hanoi, and Woodrow Polk, who had won a Purple Heart in Korea, would sell his broken-down Ford wagon for $50 in Cordes, Arizona. Henry Polk’s Olds used half a tank of gas getting up one side of Salt River Canyon, and on the down side the brakes failed. Henry saved the family by bumping against the rear of Jake’s truck until they could grind down the canyon to safety. Dandelion soup and organic brown rice were big among movie stars and wealthy faddists in Southern California, and that wasn’t too different from what the Polks ate.
Like thousands of migrants before them, the Polks soon experienced the nightmare of California. “You couldn’t buy a job,” Henry Polk recalled. “The unions had everything locked up.” A procurer who worked for a collective of growers still holding out against Ceaser Chavez’ United Farm Workers union found the Polks destitute in Delano and gave them enough money to reach the fields. For the next three months the Polks picked tomatoes, strawberries, grapefruit, grapes, peaches. “It was like a concentration camp, only it wasn’t,” Henry recalled. “But you had to do what they said. We lived in little cabins right by the orchards. They’d shake us out at 3:30 in the morning so we could get in eight hours before noon when it got too hot to work.” They were paid 22 cents a box for strawberries and 30 cents a box for peaches. The Polks had no way of knowing that Cesar Chavez had just negotiated a contract that would pay farm workers $1.80 an hour, plus 20 cents a box, plus medical benefits. “We’d take the kids out to the orchards with us,” Cynthia recalled. “They’d play under the trees while we picked fruit. When it was dinner time we’d build a fire and cook what we had. The grape people was the best. They give us all the free grapes we wanted,” Henry said. “We had a hell of a time just keeping from starving that summer. Don’t let nobody tell you that money grows on trees in California.”
In the late fall of 1970, cold and broke and dispirited, the Polks headed home to Texas. Henry’s Olds broke down and had to be abandoned near White Mountain, New Mexico. For the remainder of the trip all fourteen members of the Polk clan rode in Jake’s truck. Colann and Debby Sue got whooping cough. When their food supply was down to a few overripe grapes and a little oatmeal, they sold their fishing poles and mattresses. “I happened to tell this woman in New Mexico about the baby dying and she give us a tank of gas and $135 in groceries,” Cynthia remembered. “Otherwise, I don’t know how we woulda made it home.”
Over the next several years the Polks spent a good deal of time moving, looking for wood to cut or rocks to lay. J.J. was born, then Lanette, then Kathy. Lanette got lead poisoning from eating paint. Kathy was born with a heart murmur caused by a defective valve. Fluid had to be pumped from her chest every six months. Jesus still talked to Henry from time to time. “Sometimes He just told me to hook ’em,” Henry said. It was Jesus who finally pointed the way to welfare.
Periodic entries in the Polks’ thick dossier at the Department of Public Welfare describe what happened after that:
GRANBURY, May 1972—This was the Polks first encounter with welfare. A DPW caseworker wrote: “Mrs. Polk says that she has been separated four months from her husband Henry. States she doesn’t know where he lives. He comes around about once a month to see the seven children and leave $10.” Mrs. Polk’s application for AFDC in the amount of $146 is approved. She is also granted “commodities.” Food stamps weren’t available in Texas until the fall of 1973. When her case was next reexamined, additional AFDC payments were denied. The record does not reflect the reason for the denial.
GRANBURY, September 1973—Henry has obviously returned to the fold because this time he is the one who has applied for AFDC, claiming disability because of a bad knee resulting from his car wreck in 1968. The doctor who examined Henry wrote: “This patient’s environmental background is poor and he has adapted inadequately to society and is very poorly motivated to improve.” The doctor recommended x-rays to the right knee. The heart is listed as “normal.” On September 9, the caseworker reported that “this applicant is healthy. He does not appear to meet the agency definition of AFDC incapacity.” Application denied.
ROCKWALL, December 1973—Cynthia Polk has applied for welfare. Henry is hospitalized in Dallas with bleeding hemorrhoids. The hemorrhoid operation proves satisfactory, but doctors then discover “a mass in the left testicle.” It is diagnosed as “a benign retention cyst.” Polk also complains of chest pains. The report states that in the last five months Polk has earned only $278, and that his medical bills are enormous. (The law allows payment of medical bills back to ninety days from the date of the application.) AFDC payments of $245 and food stamps are approved, subject to reexamination on March 1. In another month the federal government will take over all cash assistance programs except AFDC: the baby, Kathy, who is permanently disabled because of her heart condition, will be eligible for Supplementary Security Income (SSI) checks of $167.80 per month. The Polks don’t yet know this, but little Kathy’s SSI checks will keep the family going for the next three years.
GRANBURY, May 1974—Polk still complains of chest pains. An appointment is made with a Granbury doctor who will do “an EKG, chest x-ray, and upper G.I.” The record shows that Polk never showed up for the appointment.
GRANBURY, July 1974—Cynthia Polk reports that her husband is working again and requests that they be dropped from AFDC rolls. Request approved.
SAN ANTONIO, May 1975—Polk is receiving out-patient care at the Audie Murphy Veterans Hospital. Cancer cells have been found in his testicles.
STEPHENVILLE, August 1976—Mrs. Polk has again applied for AFDC and food stamps. She complains that her husband has “heart trouble” and is hospitalized. The actual medical report is sketchy. A doctor wrote: “Patient complains that he needs to go home and take care of his daughter, Kathy. He seems more concerned with his daughter than his own condition.” The doctor suggests heart surgery may be required.
AUSTIN, December 1976—A medical report states: “Chest pains are not brought on by anything in particular but exertion definite problem.” The diagnosis is “Angina and recent inferior M.I.” Application approved.
As January slogged on and the welfare check still hadn’t arrived, Henry had a bad case of the ol’ hook ’em blues. In his depression, he had almost forgotten the claw. This was worse, much worse. The cash from Kathy’s December SSI check had completely run out. So had the food stamps. “I can just feel it running all the way through me,” he said. “I’m gonna have to make a move. I’m gonna have to do something.” Cynthia was unequivocally in favor of hooking ’em back to Lipan, money or not. Kathy’s condition appeared to be deteriorating: all day Kathy would sleep in her mother’s lap, and all night she would cry. Cynthia had it in her mind that the girl would do better in the country. Cynthia purely hated Austin by now. “The only people I know here are Henry’s relatives,” she complained. “And the prices here—they’d stop anything. Eggs, ninety cents a dozen. Back home in Lipan you can go to Chicken City and buy a dozen cracked eggs for forty cents. You can get bacon on sale, fifteen pounds for $11.50.” Cynthia had a hankering to see her sister, who was consoling the grief of her husband’s death by dating a nineteen-year-old neighbor. She even missed her old daddy, who by now had married her mother’s sister’s oldest daughter.
There were several problems with hooking ’em, aside from the fact they didn’t have enough gas to get to Lipan. They worried they might never receive their welfare check if they moved again. But the main consideration was little Kathy. “If that’s what’s best for the baby,” Henry swore, “that’s what I’ll do. They can keep their checks. They can keep their house. They can sue us. I never asked nobody when and where to go. I’m not gonna start now.” To keep up their spirits—particularly Henry’s—the nine Polks would lie for hours jammed together on the king-size bed, trading ideas about what might be done with the welfare money. Cynthia wanted a washing machine. The kids wanted a drive-in movie and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Billie Jean wanted something special, but she wouldn’t say what, Henry mentioned buying an old pickup truck to haul rocks, or maybe a chain saw, but you knew his heart wasn’t in it. On second thought, Henry might buy an old school bus. “I’ll fix her up and make us a home,” he said. “We’re gonna travel. If they got no rock to lay one place, we’ll go where they is. If there’s no wood to cut, we’ll go find some. We’ll see how it goes. Nobody’s gonna live forever.”
There was one day of total panic when Kathy’s phenobarbital and Dilantin ran out. Without the medicine she would lapse into a coma. A refill cost $27, and they didn’t have anywhere near that amount. Besides, the prescription was written on a drugstore in Lipan. Late that afternoon, when the little girl could no longer keep her eyes open, they rushed her to Brackenridge emergency room where a social worker reminded them that Kathy already had a Medicaid card—it comes automatically with SSI, or “Sissy” as they say in the business. A doctor checked Kathy—she had “acute coryza,” also known as a common cold—then he wrote a new prescription for her medicine, which Kathy’s Medicaid card would pay for. “I had it right there in my purse and didn’t know it was any good,” Cynthia laughed as she carried her baby back to the car. She kissed Henry on the cheek and laughed again. “I told you it was still good only you wouldn’t listen to me.” Henry smiled, tugging on the beak of his grimy, red “Bowes Seal Fast” mechanic’s cap.
On January 20, the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, Herny was in the front yard attempting to fix a broken water pump on his ’67 Buick. His wife and all seven kids bustled around him, climbing on fenders to watch him work, asking endless questions about when they could go to the drive-in movie and have some fried chicken. Henry’s only tools were a borrowed wrench and a piece of scrap metal he used as a screwdriver, but the work itself was obviously a therapy and Henry seemed as calm and patient as a hound dog with ten pounds of kittens crawling over his back. In the living room a silent television screen showed Jimmy Carter walking up Pennsylvania Avenue, waving, and promising, “No new dream . . . but rather . . . a fresh faith in the old dream.” Suddenly, Debby Sue screamed: “It’s the mailman, it’s the mailman!” Henry kept on working and Cynthia placed his cup of fresh coffee on the fender, pushed through the yammering children, and threatened to “slap that silly off y’all’s face if you don’t behave.” The letter looked official, though it didn’t look like the welfare checks they had received in the past. It wasn’t. It was a letter from the Texas Rehabilitation Commission (TRC), informing Henry that an appointment had been set for him at the regional headquarters the following Monday. The letter said something about “evaluation, counseling and guidance, training, job training . . .” “What does it mean daddy?” Debby Sue asked. Henry just looked puzzled.
I timed it so that I would arrive at the Polks’ home about an hour before Henry’s Monday appointment with the TRC. The front door was open. The thermostat was turned to 90º and it was hot enough to bake biscuits in the living room. Henry was lying on the couch with his head in his wife’s lap. All the children were sitting around looking at him. “The claw,” he told me. “Tell him the truth,” Cynthia said. “Over the weekend he climbed up to fix the carport roof and like a fool he jumped off and that’s when it got him.” After awhile Henry said he was feeling better. Billie Jean brought us two cups of strong black coffee and Henry sat up, adjusting his cap. I noticed that the dogs were gone; Henry said he had taken them to the country and dumped them because his sister told him dogs weren’t allowed in welfare houses. It turned out the sister was wrong: all he needed was a letter of permission from the landlord, which the landlord was willing to supply. Later that afternoon, when it was too late for the appointment, we all drove out to look for the dogs, but there was no trace of them.
That night I brought over some meat that was wasting in my own refrigerator and we watched the second episode of Roots. Cynthia said: “It makes you want to get mad at the white people.” Henry retold the story of the old slave lady and the parrot, only this time there were tears in his eyes. I could tell something else was bothering him, and while Cynthia was putting the little girls to bed, Henry offered me some Bull Durham and said: “I’ll tell you the truth about that appointment. I was just plain scared.” Scared of what? “Superstition,” he said. “I ain’t even told my old lady this, but Sunday when we was out driving I saw a roadrunner. Ain’t that foolish?” I told Henry I’d heard about black cats, but roadrunners being bad luck was news to me. “That’s what I’m talking about. I was a fool. Roadrunners is bad luck for some. I got to remembering later, after it was too late to keep that appointment, that the last time I seen one I got a check for $1100 in back payments on Kathy’s SSI. Don’t that beat all?” I agreed that it did. “But I’ll do it yet,” he promised. “I’ll have my old lady make me a new appointment. I don’t know from A to B what they’re talking about, but if they’ll help me get some tools . . . or a job I can cope with . . . they can keep their damn check.”
But Henry Polk wasn’t about to report to the TRC. When a man is hanging by his fingernails, it takes a mighty promise for him to lift a hand.
THE CIRCLE IS UNBROKEN
This may be difficult to believe, but Department of Public Welfare Commisioner Raymond Vowell’s habitual tie clasp is a silver and turquoise roadrunner. Vowell is a sturdy, balding man with quick-study eyes and the practiced poise of a man accustomed to making large decisions. He might be a retired Air Force colonel, or the president of a small college, which he did once aspire to be. In fact, Vowell is a professional administrator, the presiding officer of a public-owned industry that employs 14,000 people and operates with a biennial budget of $2.3 billion. If you thought of DPW’s budget as “industrial sales” it would rank among the nation’s 100 largest industrial corporations; it would also rank among the top 300 in employees. Of all the state agencies, his is the least popular and the first to feel the heat when something goes wrong. It’s also the first to duck when it is politically expedient.
“The Commissioner,” as he is always called around DPW, is admired among rank-and-file welfare workers, particularly those who worked for DPW before his appointment in 1971. They feel that he has streamlined procedures, improved welfare’s public image, and reordered priorities where they rightly belong—in favor of the welfare recipient, or the “client” as they say. “You feel that he really cares about the clients,” says a social worker. The commissioner’s passion for bettering the lot of his fellow man does not automatically extend to his own employees. “The commissioner will bust his ass for recipient benefits, but not for his own staff,” says a DPW executive.
While administering DPW is the chief purpose of Vowell’s $42,000-a-year job, an equally important function is selling his department’s biennial budget to the Legislature. Vowell enjoys pointing out that this year the department actually turned back to the state a $40.5 million surplus in its food stamp and AFDC programs. The reasons for the surplus were higher employment and a decline in AFDC families. Figures like this make good reading back in the legislators’ home districts, but in fact this is an example of the way the lawmakers arbitrarily tangle the department in red tape. By budgeting each DPW program separately (which pleases the various lobbies), the Legislature also makes it unlawful for the DPW to transfer state funds where they are needed. Health service premiums paid to Blue Cross, for example, were projected and budgeted at $159.7 million, but the actual cost was $177.9 million. The department couldn’t use the food stamp surplus to make up the difference but had to find surplus federal funds. Since individual members of the Legislature possess an abysmal understanding of the welfare system, Vowell must know at all times who to see and what to say.
Vowell’s most popular decision was the creation in 1974 of the department’s investigation division which claims to “uncover a half-million dollars a month” in welfare fraud. That is uncover, not recover. Last year $871,000 was recovered, or about $72,600 a month. The cost of recovering this money is $1.7 million a year, almost double the reward, but of course there is a principle involved. Not all the criticism Vowell hears in his daily routine concerns welfare chiselers. At almost every subcommittee meeting some black legislator is certain to ask Vowell how may blacks DPW employs at the executive level. “None,” Vowell says. Then he smiles and adds, “With the salaries we pay and the services we provide, qualified blacks won’t take the job.”
Pointing proudly to his charts and graphs, Vowell offers evidence that the state’s welfare rolls are steadily declining: when Vowell became commissioner in July 1971, there were 384,682 persons on the Texas AFDC rolls. After peaking at 449,000 in the fall of 1972 (during the national recession), the rolls have dropped to under 325,000. This doesn’t mean, though, that there are fewer impoverished Texans; strict enforcement of eligibility standards is cited as the main reason for this decline. Only 2.4 per cent of the Texans on welfare shouldn’t be there: no other state has such coldly impressive statistics. The national average is 7.5 per cent. Increases in the state’s per capita income levels mean that federal matching funds are decreasing proportionately. Seven years ago, for example, the federal share of medical assistance programs was almost 80 per cent. That figure has dropped to 63.5 per cent, and beginning next fiscal year it will drop again to 60.6. And yet, for all the billions spent, man-hours utilized, charts and graphs and reports, Texas still has the highest number of illiterates and the highest number of poor people in the country. There is absolutely no evidence that the state’s stop-gap approach to welfare is doing anything to solve the real problem: what welfare experts call the poverty cycle.
“Before clients come into our system,” Vowell told me, “something [bad] has already happened to them. In most cases you can track it back to the time they dropped out of school. If we would go back to the roots of the problem and start doctoring it there, we could break or at least reduce the poverty cycle.” Vowell cited a recent study that claimed that of the students who entered the first grade last year in Texas, 40 per cent will never receive high school diplomas. Vowell suggested that I go to the DPW library and read the report of “The White House Conference on Child Health and Protection,” convened by President Herbert Hoover in 1930. “I think you’ll see that we’re dealing with the same problems today as we were then,” the commissioner said. “The truth is, we haven’t come very far.”
The DPW librarian seemed surprised when I asked to see the 1930 White House report, which is about the size of a junior high school history book. “The commissioner is the only one who ever asks for that one,” she said. The bulk of the report consists of flowery speeches and high-principled declarations from Hoover and lesser lights. The report claims that of 45 million children, ten million were “other than normal” because they were improperly nourished. One million suffered from defective speech, and another one million had weak or damaged hearts. Lesser numbers had behavior problems, were mentally retarded, tubercular, deaf, crippled, blind, or delinquent. Hoover begins his speech extolling the virtues of motherhood (the Great Engineer added that he wasn’t so sure about fatherhood), then there was a sentence underlined in red pencil, possibly by Commissioner Vowell himself:
“If we could have but one generation of properly born, trained, educated, and healthy children, a thousand other problems of government would vanish.”
And finally this warning, also underlined in red.
“. . . if we do not perform our duty to the children, we leave them dependent, or we provide . . . the major recruiting ground for the army of ne’er-do-wells and criminals.”
Ray Lyman Wilbur, Hoover’s Secretary of Interior and chairman of the conference, tacked on a final philosophical note, claiming that education, health, and welfare were jobs for “the local unit” of government. “We want a minimum of national legislation in this field,” he said. “No one should get the idea that Uncle Sam is going to rock the baby to sleep.”
You probably remember what happened next: The Great Depression. Then the New Deal. The New Frontier. The Great Society. Always, welfare was supposed to be a leg up. It never worked, possibly because politicians could never agree on whose leg needed the helping hand. Farmers, miners, small businessmen, even Lockheed got a nice share, but many of the states, Texas in particular, never got around to doing much about the crippled, the blind, the deaf, the disabled, the young, the old, or the plain old down-and-outer. There was hardly a trace of uniformity among the states, which of course precipitated migration, putting unbearable burdens on high-welfare states such as New York and California, and at the same time did little to alleviate poverty in tightfisted states like Texas. Uncle Sam’s first all-out attempt at what welfare people call “whole income subsidy” was the food stamp program which became mandatory for every state in 1973. On January 1, 1974, the federal government took over all cash-assistance programs except AFDC, which remained the province of each state. In other words, while the federal government set amounts for adult welfare, it remained for each state to determine cash payments for dependent children.
Like the commissioner says, we haven’t come very far.
“The most difficult problem that we face is the attitude of the people,” says Ed Horne, an attorney in charge of one of the DPW’s regional Child Support Collection Units. “We have one of the most efficient welfare departments anywhere, but when people read wild stories about welfare fraud in New York they automatically assume that goes for Texas, too. We need to advertise, like the telephone company or Mobile. We’re not going to change a lifetime of thinking overnight, but if people could at least understand welfare, society might be able to prevent the cycle sometime in the future.”
“The average legislator knows little or nothing about the welfare system,” says Representative Mickey Leland of Houston, the only black on the powerful Legislative Budget Board (LBB) which routinely trims the DPW budget and sends it out to be rubber-stamped. “Fraud is used as an excuse to cut back or vote against welfare programs. The LBB doesn’t have the resources to investigate the complexity of welfare, and what’s more they don’t want to investigate.” I asked Leland how long it took the LBB to hear testimony and consider the DPW’s 2000-page budget proposal. “There wasn’t any testimony,” he said. “I’d guess we spent about an hour on the total budget, maybe ten minutes of that hour discussing the constitutional limitations of AFDC.” After sixty minutes of deliberation, the LBB voted to whack $231 million from the DPW request.
Representative Sara Weddington of Austin told me, “When you reach the bottom line, welfare comes into collision with other programs—highways, prison systems, new parks. If you ask us to vote a $5 increased to an AFDC recipient or $5 for a new park, we’ll vote for the park. It’s something lasting. The letters we receive say don’t raise taxes, not don’t raise welfare, but there is no effective lobby for poor people. The teachers are organized, the highway lobby is very organized, but when the poor try to organize they usually end up hurting their own cause. The poor are not people that a legislator feels comfortable with, nor are they influential in terms of votes.” A member of the state Senate, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “It’s not that members of the Legislature are all that insensitive, it’s just that it’s politically expedient to vote against welfare. Poor people don’t vote.”
The mood of the current Legislature is to raise penalties for welfare fraud. Senator Bill Meier of Euless introduced legislation to make welfare fraud of more than $200 a felony (it is now a misdemeanor) punishable by up to ten years in prison. Meier’s proposal originated at DPW, which claims that the bill is not designed to slap welfare mothers in jail but to prosecute major offenders, such as the Houston nursing home that collected $120,000 from phony billings, or the DPW worker in Dallas who made off with $14,000 in food stamps. Senator Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi views the bill as a method for legislators to score political points by punishing the poor. Says Truan, “This is a class of people that doesn’t have an understanding of the law and its consequences. These are the most illiterate, most ill-educated, most ill-prepared people in our society. I’m sure that it is politically expedient to vote for this bill. Members of the Legislature are fearful that the folks back home wouldn’t understand a vote against it. There is no concern for the effects of this legislation. The only concern is to demagogue.”
Another “reform” bill that the demagogues can write home about is a piece of legislation that would prevent elderly persons from giving away property in order to get into a nursing home. An individual who owns at least $1500 in assets is not eligible for nursing home assistance. The maximum for a couple is $2250. Social workers cite numerous cases in which elderly couples have been forced to divorce in order for one of them to qualify for nursing home assistance.
Henry Polk and his brood were watching As the World Turns when the mailman finally arrived. They had returned the night before from a quick trip to Lipan with an old treadle sewing machine and a dog in the trunk of the Buick. Henry had insisted on doing the driving, and now the claw had him again. His spirits were at rock bottom. “I’m just a backsliding Christian, banged up, beat up, wore out,” he moaned to the children, who stayed home from school out of sympathy for his condition. “Just a ol’ holer roller. In my soul I don’t believe I’m gonna prosper til I get down to the very bottom where I started.”
But on January 26, the welfare checks arrived, two at once. The computer finally spit out both December and January. Combined with Kathy’s $167 SSI check, the Polks suddenly found $617 in their pockets, though they had already spent about $50 of it on the trip to Lipan.
Thirty minutes after the checks arrived the entire family was at Pay-Less Shoes, purchasing tiny cowboy boots ($12 a pair) for the little girls, Kathy and Lanette. It had been almost two weeks since they had eaten meat, so the next stop was the supermarket where they got five dollars’ worth of round steak, some cigarettes and candy, and a stack of Let’s Go to the Races cards. Debby Sue was still bellowing for some Kentucky Fried Chicken, so that was their next stop. Billie Jean now admitted a hankering for some peach-scented stationery at the drugstore. Henry gave her a dollar, then peeled off a dollar for each one of the kids. While Cynthia was purchasing some thread, Henry and I admired what had to be the world’s largest American flag across the street in front of the American Dream Mobile Home Center.
The following day the Polks bought a used washing machine ($35), a new water pump for the Buick ($27), and paid $92.82 to the gas company and $65.80 for water and electricity. They ordered a telephone, which cost $45 for deposit and installation, plus an extra $5 for the privilege of having their number unlisted. They spent $108 for a new supply of food stamps. Cable TV installation cost $4.95. They selected a used 25-inch color TV in a dark oak Mediterranean-style cabinet, paying $55 down and signing a lease-purchase agreement to pay $59 a month for 18 months (or a total of $1117). Then they bought another bucket of chicken, filled the Buick with gasoline, and went to see The Town that Dreaded Sundown at the drive-in. Two days after the arrival of the welfare checks, the $617 had been reduced to $60. It would be even tighter in future months when the combined AFDC and SSI checks would amount to only $392. Meeting payments on the car, TV, and utilities would eat up $300. There was definitely going to be a problem figuring out how to find $108 for the purchase of food stamps. When Cynthia mentioned this, Obie Polk, Henry’s older brother, said: “Do what ol’ Granny Tate used to do. She always carried a six-foot coil of barbwire in her apron. She be out gatherin’ wild onions or poke salad, she’d come across a holler log and figure there’s gotta be a rabbit in there. She’d just throw that barbwire in the holler and twist that little dickens out and have him for supper.”
“Yeah,” Henry said glumly. “Only I ’member one time it wasn’t no rabbit, it was a ol’ rooter polecat. She musta used a gallon of tomato juice and cedar oil getting that stink off her and the dogs.”
“Some days it don’t hardly pay to try,” Obie admitted. Obie had more or less moved in with his brother’s family. It had occurred to Cynthia that her brother-in-law’s residency might qualify them for extra food stamps, but it had also occurred to her that an extra boarder might disqualify the family for the Section 8 rent program; she decided to let it go. It was never clear where Obie got his money, but he always had a few bucks in the pockets of the green twills that he always wore. One day in early February, Obie came home with something he called a “dowsing instrument.” He had paid $25 for it. It looked like a cheap, finger-size piece of hollow aluminum dangling from a cheap chain, but Obie believed it could be used to detect the presence of water, oil, and precious metals. He opened a badly soiled copy of a magazine called Treasure Hunting Unlimited and pointed to a diagram for aligning dowsing instruments with the shadows and the rays of the sun. “Exactly halfway between the marks is where the treasure is buried,” Obie read.
“What treasure?” Henry asked.
“Them nine jackloads of Meskin silver buried by the Old Confederates Home,” Obie told him. All the kids started yammering at once, but Henry told them to shut up. “Obie,” he said, “You’re touched is what you are.” Obie looked hurt. He took his dowsing instrument to his cot in the dining room and stashed it under a pillow. “Don’t pay no ’tention to Obie,” Henry told me. “He’s a little touched is all.” Henry took his Bible from the top of the new color TV and walked to the bedroom.
One warm day in late February, Henry loaded his two boys in the Buick and we started out to visit his old friend, Troy Tucker. Troy, who is 72 and nearly blind, lives with his wife Sara in a picture-perfect one-bedroom fieldstone house they built themselves. The house sits on a ridge of cedars and boulders, hidden from the neighboring $100,000 homes and the highway that connects Westlake Hills with South Austin. Three dogs and about two dozen brightly plumed red-and-black chickens scrabble about the carcass of an ancient Dodge truck on blocks. Next to the house is the Tucker family cemetery, where four generations of Troy’s people are buried. Years ago Grandma Tucker, who was born just below the ridge on Barton Creek, owned more than 1000 acres around here, but the family had sold it off a little at a time to stay alive and now all that remains is the cemetery and the three acres where Troy and Sara live. The most Grandma Tucker ever got for her land was $20 an acre; now it sells for up to $12,000 an acre. Troy had been one of the best rock masons around until failing eyesight and various other infirmities forced his retirement. “My wind’s gone,” he told Henry, who out of respect for the old man insisted on hunkering on the floor by Troy’s rocking chair. “When your wind’s gone, that’s it.” Troy had worked hard all his life. He remembered working a full year cutting wood along the Blanco River, and when the boss had subtracted his food and shelter only $394 remained. “That was for a full year’s work, mind you,” Sara said. Troy had never paid any Social Security. He had no savings, no retirement. He and Sara lived on two $125.90 SSI checks a month, plus $92 worth of food stamps which cost them $62.
They talked about welfare, and about how bad it was to lose your health, and about the rock they had worked, then Henry got around to what was really on his mind. He asked Troy: “You ’member that big ol’ cave we found that time when we was building that wellhouse across the river from Deep Eddy? Big sucker . . . with that big boulder in the middle of it mostly covering up that ol’ Indian well?”
Troy said he remembered it.
“You’d drop a rock down that well, you couldn’t even hear it hit bottom it was so deep,” Henry went on. “It was lined with cedar posts, like maybe it had been a ladder at one time?”
Troy said that was as he recalled.
“Well, me and the boys gonna go look for it,” Henry said. “I been telling this man here about it, by golly I’m gonna find it for him.”
“It’s still there,” Troy said. “I don’t ’spect anybody come and moved it.”
It was almost dark when we stopped searching for the cave. For the better part of three hours we had climbed steep bluffs and bellied along the edges of sheer limestone cliffs with nothing but air at our backs, through cactus and dense underbrush, climbing and dropping back and climbing again until we had covered every inch of the cliff as carefully as a hungry man might eat an ear of corn. We located several smaller caves with blackened ceilings and strange isinglass formations, and we happened across some rich man’s trolley tracks used no doubt to transport family and guests from the hilltop mansion to the lake below, but we didn’t find anything like the cave that Henry Polk had described. “Let’s go back and look again,” Buddy Boy suggested as we rested and picked stickers from our hands near the wellhouse that Henry and Troy Tucker had built years ago. Henry’s face was beet red and he was blowing hard. As a matter of fact, so was I. He swallowed some nitroglycerin tablets.
“It’s gotta be there,” he kept repeating. “They couldn’t just come and move it. I know it’s there. We’ll come back some other day. We’ll find her yet.”