By JASON DePARLE
The New York
April 20, 1999
MILWAUKEE -- She had practiced
her lines and prayed with her mother. She had bought her children new clothes.
After 10 years on welfare, Michelle Crawford was leaving her rundown home to speak
to the Legislature, at the Governor's personal request. She clenched her notes
so tightly in the back of the car, it seemed she was trying to choke them.
not much of a talker," she said, drawing anxious breaths and jumbling her
words as the Wisconsin countryside flew past.
later, she stole the show.
Standing beside the man she
nervously called "Government Thompson" -- Wisconsin's Governor, Tommy
G. Thompson -- Ms. Crawford explained how his showcase welfare program had transformed
her life. "Today, I'm working as a machine operator, providing for my family,"
she said. Then with flawless timing, she pointed at the gallery where three of
her children were watching.
"Now," she said,
holding an emphatic finger in the air, "I tell my kids that this is what
you get when you do your homework."
prime-time, televised performance -- her poise, her humor, her confident smile
-- filled the chamber with cheers and transformed her, after a life of defeat,
into a potent symbol of success. In one resonating moment, she became the most
celebrated beneficiary of the most closely watched welfare program in the country.
Thompson recently drew a burst of applause as he retold "her inspiring story"
to a room of conservative supporters at a welfare conference in Washington. She
recalls him saying, " 'I want to run for President,' " when they met
three months ago. " 'And I want you on my team.' "
Crawford's odyssey, from desperation to distinction, from welfare to work, is
indeed a powerful, inspiring story. It is also an incomplete one, at least in
its official telling. In a series of interviews over the last several months,
Ms. Crawford offered a far more complicated account, depicting a life that is
much more difficult than her admirers realize and less steady than the Governor
In sharing her fuller story -- in explicit, even
harrowing detail -- she said she wanted even the most troubled women to know that
they, too, could move forward. "I want to tell other girls, hey, if you're
going through something, I've been there," she said. "I've had those
things thrown in my face: 'You'll never be nothing.' There's women out there scared."
the Legislature heard, Ms. Crawford is indeed off welfare and on the job at a
plastics factory outside Milwaukee. After years of severe anxiety and depression,
her diligent record recently earned her a raise of 48 cents, to $8.20 an hour.
But she continues to struggle with panic attacks, unpaid bills and barbs from
co-workers and relatives who envy her achievements.
his Washington speech, Mr. Thompson again praised the effect her work was having
on her children. But only a few days earlier, her 19-year-old son threw her life
into new turmoil when he was arrested and charged with possessing cocaine. It
is his second such charge in the last four months. He has pleaded not guilty in
In the past, such pressures have overwhelmed
Ms. Crawford. She was hospitalized briefly for what she described as a nervous
breakdown as recently as a year ago, and she said her troubles had been brought
on in part by the pressures of the very program, Wisconsin Works, or "W-2,"
whose virtues she now represents. Before leaving the system and landing her current
job, she was required to work for her welfare check of $673 a month, a requirement
she fiercely resented.
"To me, it was just like slavery,"
she said. "I couldn't be with my kids."
most worrisome, Ms. Crawford's success has brought new strains to a volatile marriage.
Her husband of two years, Donald Crawford, is an aspiring minister who plays New
Testament tapes when he drives her to work and warns, "If you put God first
in your life, the Devil won't have time to get in." He is also a recovering
addict who says he received the Holy Ghost in prison three years ago, where he
was facing a possible 20 years for his role in torturing a man he suspected of
At least four times last year, the Crawfords'
relationship erupted in violence. Twice, Mr. Crawford was led away in handcuffs
for striking his wife, who has been beaten by a succession of men for two decades.
But once it was Ms. Crawford who was placed under arrest, for hitting him in the
head with an iron and threatening him with a knife.
was going berserk" from financial and family pressures, she said. She said
she hit her husband to defend herself, after he restrained her by grabbing her
Despite their fights, Mr. Crawford sometimes supports
his wife's work life, through prayers, rides and baby-sitting services. But he
also worries that his role as the breadwinner is being usurped.
don't like it, because I'm the man of the house," he said.
tensions in their life were on full display one recent afternoon. Inside the house,
Ms. Crawford was frantically phoning for details of her son's arrest. Outside,
Mr. Crawford angrily complained that his wife had failed to tell her admirers
about his contributions to her success.
that lady in there out of a lot of rough stuff," he said.
kick me to the curb, like, 'I did it all by myself.' " Worried that she would
call the police again, he accused Ms. Crawford of "telling lies on me."
He added darkly, "I don't like liars."
When Getting a Job Is the Easy Part
an interview following his recent Washington speech about Ms. Crawford, Mr. Thompson
said he knew nothing of her violent marriage, her son's arrests or her history
of emotional duress. When sharing the stage with her in January, he said, he did
not even know she was married. Mr. Crawford had left the house two months earlier
under a court order.
Speaking in a somber tone, Mr. Thompson
said he was saddened but not surprised, since many women on public assistance
struggle with similar issues. A four-term Republican who is seen as a national
leader on welfare, he went on to say that Ms. Crawford's problems made her achievements
all the more impressive.
"It's a richer story; it
shows how complex and how difficult this is," he said. "People start
out with some real difficulties, emotionally as well as educationally and culturally.
To overcome these things, it's not easy dealing with human frailties. Michelle
is very much a success story and continues to be so, even more so because she's
been able to overcome these adversities."
the president of YW Works, a state-financed welfare agency that offered Ms. Crawford
a remarkable array of services, views the story as a warning against the simplistic
view that "all you have to do is go out and get a job." While "getting
a job certainly helps," she said, policymakers should remember "it doesn't
make all the problems go away, and sometimes it intensifies problems. The public
needs to understand how hard people's lives are."
her moments of panic and doubt, Ms. Crawford can also summon reserves of uncommon,
even eloquent, resilience. In pushing poor women like herself to find their hidden
talents, she said, Mr. Thompson "did a good thing with W-2."
A Hard Start
Abuse, a Miscarriage And Mental Illness
fourth of 13 siblings raised on welfare, Ms. Crawford, 39, has struggled all her
life. Her family moved to Milwaukee from Arkansas when she was a young child,
on the tail of a vast migration of Southern blacks chasing hope in the industrial
But her father left the home when she was 7, and
her mother was still decades away from settling down. "My mother was running
the streets," she said. "When I was 15, I ran away. I told her I wasn't
taking care of all the kids."
Soon she had children
of her own. After an adolescence marred by sexual abuse at the hands of a relative,
Ms. Crawford left high school, found a rough young man and followed him to Chicago.
They had a child when she was 18 and lost another a year later. "He beat
it out of me," she said. "It was a miscarriage." Two more children
followed, and too many beatings to count.
to Milwaukee and sought peace in pills -- the Devil's doing, as she sees it now.
She drank. She battled urges to hurt herself. Depleted in body and soul by the
age of 24, she left her children with her mother and entered a mental hospital
for five months. It took three years to grow strong enough to get her children
By 1993, when she met Donald Crawford in a training
class for welfare recipients, she had two more children, another violent boyfriend,
and a headful of worries. She admired him from across the room, but felt sure
a man that tall and fine -- 6 feet 2, with a wide, winning smile -- was already
He paired with her during interview rehearsals,
showing her how to impress an employer with a firm, confident grip. He drove her
home. He said he liked her. In 1996, he offered her a ring.
thought he was joking," she said. "Nobody ever wanted to marry me."
Struggles of His Own, And a Similar Past
Mr. Crawford had problems of his own. Like his wife, he came from a large family
of Arkansas migrants, with 11 siblings. Like his wife, he dropped out of school
and battled an addiction -- cocaine, in his case. Though his father had enjoyed
a steady life as a janitor and a preacher, Mr. Crawford has been on and off of
welfare, and in and out of jobs. By 1996, he had found a sideline helping an associate
Early that year, they suspected a boarder of
stealing their cocaine. They stripped, bound and gagged the man, beat him with
a 2-by-4, poured boiling water on his naked body and whipped him with a cord,
according to an account the man gave the police 10 days later. Despite his injuries,
the victim said he had stayed in the house for a week after the assault, until
the men, accusing him of stealing a coat, stripped him, scalded him and beat him
some more with a hammer and a pipe.
Mr. Crawford said the
associate was the main assailant, but acknowledged, "I had a hand in it."
his knees in the cell where he was being held for the crime, Mr. Crawford wept
and prayed for divine intervention. "I said, 'Lord, forgive me, it's all
in your hands," he said. "The Holy Ghost came and filled me with the
Spirit. Ever since then, nothing's turned me around."
Crawford was released a few weeks later. The victim, who told the police he feared
being killed if he testified, failed to appear in court. Mr. Crawford proposed
shortly after his release, and Ms. Crawford accepted the following year. They
married in July 1997.
a Reluctant Start, Glad to Be Working
The state began its
bold remaking of the welfare system two months later, requiring virtually everyone
on cash assistance to work for their benefits.
was sent to a work site where her duties involved picking up trash. She felt humiliated.
After a life filled with insults, she says, she felt like the program equated
her with the garbage bags in her hand. "It felt like they were punishing
us," she said.
Problems in the program collided with
problems at home. Mr. Crawford had rented an upstairs apartment to tenants who
began selling drugs. He got an eviction order. They got a gun. The Crawfords constantly
quarreled -- about his disruptive relatives, her resentful children, and a pile
of unpaid bills.
In February 1998, Mr. Crawford was arrested
for grabbing her by the throat. In March, she went to jail for hitting him with
the iron. No one has been seriously hurt in their fights, and the charges were
all dropped before trial. In May, Ms. Crawford sought professional help, returning
to a psychiatric hospital for a night.
"I had a nervous
breakdown," she said. "I just didn't want to live no more."
followed next was an extraordinary collaboration, between a creative agency and
a tenacious client. YW Works, one of five private agencies that run the welfare
program in Milwaukee, initially made Ms. Crawford's work assignment the pursuit
of her psychiatric care.
After a month of intensive outpatient
therapy, the agency sent her to a plastics plant it had just bought to train poor
clients. Though she started in housekeeping, her supervisor noticed her unusual
drive. Others goofed off when vacuum cleaners broke, but Ms. Crawford grabbed
a broom. By August, the supervisor had promoted her onto the assembly line.
every day passed peacefully. Failing to take the medication that helps control
her mood swings, Ms. Crawford erupted one morning and denounced her supervisor
as a racist. He calmed her down, sent her home, and by the next morning she was
back on the line, molding minnow buckets. "They really put up with me,"
Ms. Crawford said. "They were like family to me."
October, her supervisor drove her to a job interview, and she fell to her knees
when she was hired. "I said, 'Thank you, Jesus' -- I'm going to be paying
taxes, too!" Off of cash assistance since the fall, Ms. Crawford receives
$65 a month in food stamps and the coaching of a job retention specialist employed
by YW Works.
When the Governor toured the training plant
in January, Ms. Crawford was invited to join a group of clients meeting with him.
I didn't like it -- but it worked for me," she said, offering him a hug.
Soon after, Mr. Thompson startled his aides and Ms. Crawford alike by inviting
her to join him onstage at his annual State of the State Address. "There
was an instant chemistry between us," he said.
days after their first, brief encounter, Ms. Crawford was standing before the
Legislature. "I thought I would always be on welfare," she told her
statewide audience. But now, "my kids see a difference in me," she said.
"I ask others to take a chance on W-2 workers. We won't let you down."
the end the speech, Mr. Thompson recalled, "There wasn't a dry eye, including
myself -- I even get teared up now when I talk about it. It was just so emotional,
so right, and so correct."
Not everyone thinks so.
Her co-workers resent Ms. Crawford's celebrity, and her mother and sister are
furious. Ms. Crawford's sister was recently evicted after losing her welfare benefits,
Ms Crawford said, adding that her relatives match her admiration for the Governor
with equally potent spite. Her mother and sister "hate Thompson's guts,"
Ms. Crawford said. "They said it's wrong to say those things about W-2, because
W-2 is messing up other people's lives."
home, her husband, too, chafes at her prominence, and the three children still
living at home, Lorenzo, 14, Lavita, 11, and Yolando, 7, often chafe at her husband.
"I'm trying to go straight in the Lord," he said recently. But his anger
flared just a moment later, when he noted that in her defining hour, Ms. Crawford
"didn't say nothing about me."
Mr. Crawford was
arrested last November, after another fight. But despite the order removing him
from the home, Ms. Crawford let him return after her January speech. She praised
him in a recent conversation, saying, "He doesn't hit women; he's a Christian
man." In dreams, she sometimes sees him in white, standing in a pulpit. "We
need each other," she said. "You just can't do things by yourself. You
need a helping hand."
Through six months' crises,
one thing has held steady: Ms. Crawford's devotion to her job.
was scheduled to tell her story in Washington on April 22 before a Congressional
panel. She wanted to arrive in a limousine and meet "important people."
But her son's drug arrest cost her two days of work, and Ms. Crawford is sagging
from the pressures of the publicity.
She plans to spend
the day making plastic valves instead.
"I like getting
up in the morning, going to my job," she said. "I just feel good about
© 1999 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.