Welfare Brat

Mary Childers

Bloomsbury USA




272 Pages



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From an early age, Mary Childers loves her family fiercely but refuses to repeat her mother's or older sisters' mistakes. She doesn't believe that school is optional and that "men are the source of all happiness and all despair." The child of an absent father and a single mother who schemes and struggles to house and feed her brood, Mary is the third of her mother's surviving seven children, who were fathered by four different men. If her mother's romantic charisma can occasionally brighten their dim, roach-infested two-bedroom apartment, her alcohol-inspired moodiness and irresponsibility can leave her children hungry and desperate. Determined to live differently, Mary finds refuge first in books then in work. Self-sufficiency, she realizes by the age of twelve, is her only reliable ticket out of Bronx neighborhoods increasingly characterized by arson, rampant crime, and racial conflict.

In a culture where fatherless children are the norm and academic achievement and hard work are often scorned, Mary seems to alienate her family and friends at every turn. Yet she blazes her own bumpy path out of the tight circle of poverty. With this lyrical and often humorous examination of her early years, Mary Childers addresses the issues of welfare dependence, childhood resilience, the American work ethic, and a popular culture that values sexuality more than self-esteem.


Praise for Welfare Brat

"Exceptional . . . A classic American success story, Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick come true, told here utterly without self-congratulation or sentimentality."—The Washington Post

"Childers' tale of growing up white, Irish-Catholic and on welfare in the Bronx rises above cliché and melodrama with humor and uncommon grace."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Whatever preconceptions we may have about 'welfare moms' and their families, some will be challenged and some confirmed by this feisty autobiography."—The Boston Globe

"Childers makes clear that she made the journey at considerable emotional cost . . . It's that complicated awareness, a sense of loss mingled with a feeling of triumph, that makes Welfare Brat stick in the mind."—Columbus Dispatch

"Welfare Brat is a powerful book that draws you into all the anger and love and astonishing hope and futility that course through a family struggling in poverty. With poetic prose that sings and moans, Mary Childers strips away the mythology, the pity, the phony notions of heroism that usually mask the realities of being poor. It's also a page-turner that makes you think and think, even after you put it down."—David K. Shipler, author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America

"Every page of Welfare Brat startles the reader with recognition, not only for those of us who grew up in poverty, but for everyone who remembers the vulnerability and hopes of childhood. Read this beautifully written story and wonder—aloud even—how we as a nation were ever brainwashed to villainize children on welfare."—Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie

"Here's a refreshing antidote to a baneful myth of our time: that welfare programs breed feckless parasites. Mary Childers shows how the monthly checks kept her family going, enabling her and most of her sisters to become productive adults. Welfare Brat combines wry humor—one chapter is called 'Sex and the Inner City'—with revealing insights into how the other half lives."—Andrew Hacker, author of Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal

"Mary Childers's honest, sharp-edged rendering of the generational ripple effect of poverty and abandonment makes Welfare Brat a mother-daughter story of intense love, conflict, and reconciliation. This plainspoken, gusty account of growing up poor and white in the Bronx is news from a familial and economic war zone in which too many children of all races still battle to survive and thrive. Childers reminds us that kids who achieve against all odds struggle with charges of disloyalty to the families and neighborhoods they leave, yet those same kids often return to become the last, best hope of trapped siblings and blighted childhood streets. Welfare Brat is a startling testament to societal failure and personal strength."—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Motherkind, Machine Dreams, and Black Tickets

"Clear-eyed coming-of-age story traces the author's girlhood in the Bronx of the 1950s and '60s, and her iron determination to claw her way out of the system. Childers was born into a large Irish Catholic family: one mother, several absent fathers and numerous half sisters. The pope's position on birth control meant that Childers's mother, Sandy, would never abort a child, and her drinking, loneliness and poor impulse control kept the Childers clan ever increasing. The author reports on the many small moments that added up to her unhappy childhood. There were the nights of searching for her mother in the bar and the days she had to fight to attend school rather than babysit the younger children. And there was the growing instability of the world outside. Crammed into a small apartment in one of the few neighborhoods they could afford, the Childers girls (and later one boy) had a front-row seat for watching the crumbling of the Bronx. In her dry, clear voice, the author reports on the growing crime, the flight of white neighbors and the racial tensions that played out in school and on the streets. It's clear that this sense of distance came at a cost to Childers: The day she left for college, her mother told her she might as well never come back. These tangled family relations, the tensions of wondering how the latest financial crisis can be solved, Sandy's raffish but undeniable appeal, the author's slow but inevitable escape from her family's undertow, the difficulty of seeing her less determined siblings going under—it all makes for raw, magnetic reading . . . [A]n eloquent work. Childers's very specific portrait of a time and place makes for a valuable piece of social history, as well as a potent personal tale."—Kirkus Reviews

"Childers describes her journey from a childhood growing up on welfare in the Bronx, one of seven children with four different fathers, to her life as a consultant with a Ph.D. in English literature. Her family had no phone and occasionally no electricity, and little food; and their mother often disappeared, leaving Mary in charge of her younger siblings. Something in Mary and her sister, Joan, makes them realize that they must break the cycle of poverty, and that the key is education. Mary is placed in accelerated programs, completing junior high in one year, and entering high school in 1966 in the tenth grade. Along the way she babysits to earn her own money, joins a gang until she perceives their hatred of minorities, experiences racial hatred herself after Martin Luther King's assassination, and eventually gets a full scholarship to a small college in western New York. Remarkably free of bitterness as she matures, Childers begins to focus on how hard her mother tried, instead of how often she failed."—Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Mary Childers

  • Mary Childers is a human resources consultant for colleges and universities. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature and lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.