Have the Checks Come In? A Review of Dash\’s Rosa Lee

Reprinted with permission of the Capital Research Center, Washington, D.C., in one of whose publications a version of it previously appeared.

The word “crisis” is much overused in America these days, but there really is no better word to describe the problems afflicting the nation’s inner cities. The social pathologies are overwhelming: illegitimacy, crime, drug use, unemployment and despair. These pathologies seem to grow more intense with each succeeding generation.

However, for most Americans, and certainly most white Americans, those who suffer have no names. The death of one person, Joseph Stalin supposedly observed, is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic. So too with the lives being destroyed, both literally and figuratively, in urban America.

Leon Dash, a reporter with the Washington Post, has now given us a name: Rosa Lee Cunningham. For six years he followed the life of the 50-something great-grandmother and her family members as they lived, and died, in the nation’s capital. His newspaper articles won a Pulitzer Prize; he expanded the series into a book, Rosa Lee.1

It is a horrifying story. The parents of Rosa Lee, as he calls her throughout the book, were sharecroppers, moving to Washington, D.C. when she was a child. She got pregnant early, marrying but quickly separating from one of the six men who fathered her eight children. Prostitution, drug use, drug dealing, theft and shoplifting – all vividly detailed in the book – became ways of life for her and her children. She maintained the same lifestyle, in front of Dash, until her death from AIDS at age 58.

The welfare state fails at every step. In Rosa Lee, we see how the public schools leave her and her progeny untouched by education. How the criminal justice system repeatedly cycles her in and out without adequate punishment. How poverty payments underwrite her, and her children’s, worst behavior. How government, despite all of its power, is unable to right her wrong moral values. How those around her are more impressed by her celebrity status than offended by her absent conscience. And how she learns nothing from the horrific consequences of her behavior.

Dash met Rosa Lee while she was serving a seven-month sentence for selling heroin. He wanted to write about the explosion of the urban underclass; a jail counselor suggested that he talk with Rosa Lee. The two soon developed a friendship – and for four years Dash worked full-time with Rosa Lee and her family.

He tried to maintain journalistic distance, but to no avail. He was inextricably drawn into her affairs, helping her sort through bills and even driving her away from a grocery store where she had shoplifted food. Yet, at the same time, he avoided offering any moral judgment about her behavior. He wanted to be an objective journalist but, having abandoned his objectivity, he nevertheless failed to offer the sort of guidance that one would expect to receive from a friend. It might not have mattered, yet Rosa Lee clearly respected him, perhaps more than anyone else in her life. When she was falling back into drug use, when she was underwriting her children’s drug use, when she was shoplifting and when she was otherwise wrecking her own and her family member’s lives, Dash apparently said little. He had no duty to reach into the inner city to find a family to save. But having so reached, should he not have tried to save the family he found? He was dealing with human beings, not laboratory rats.

In fact, he once asked Rosa Lee why she allowed her children to constantly (and successfully) harass her into giving them money for drugs. She ended up begging him to hold the rest of her money, but he refused, observing: “I don’t envy what she faces until the remaining $610 is gone.” When he probed her to learn how she rationalized stealing, she became uncomfortable and asked him if he thought she should stop. He responded: “I’m not getting into whether your should stop. I’m only asking you how do you justify it?” Too bad he failed to answer her question. Maybe it would have been for naught, but maybe not.

Of course, in the end the primary responsibility for Rosa Lee’s life remained her own. Dash blames sexism and racism, which were evident in her life. He reviews the difficult experience of her impoverished parents, new to the city. Yet none of her decisions was inevitable. Rosa Lee chose to steal, use drugs, sell narcotics and involve her children in her illicit activities. Indeed, of her 10 siblings, only two others followed her way of life. Eight fought to overcome the barriers that they all faced and succeeded in entering the working and middle classes. As Dash puts it, “They, like many others who grew up poor, learned the importance and value of personal responsibility, and it gave them the edge they needed to invent a different way of life.”

The next generation, however, has not done nearly so well. Only two of Rosa Lee’s eight children escaped a life of degradation and desolation. Her pernicious influence may be one reason so many failed. This said, her own mother’s mistakes did not doom Rosa Lee’s siblings. So why her? Probably more to blame is the welfare system, which offers far more benefits and encourages far greater dependence today than when Rosa Lee was growing up a half-century ago.

Perhaps the most telling moment in a book filled with telling moments is how Rosa Lee’s drug-addicted daughter, Patty, invariably greeted her mother on the day the welfare check was to arrive in the mail: “Mama, have the checks come in yet?” Here the parent is appreciated neither for her love nor for her hard work to provide for the family, but for her access to the public dole.

And that money, intended by the government to meet its recipients’ basic needs, went for far different purposes. Rosa Lee’s children routinely begged for handouts, stole her cash and raided the pantry for food to sell – all for drugs. She exacerbated the problem by acting as the great enabler, even announcing to her children that she was moving on to SSI, which provides higher benefits. When Dash asked why she set herself up for even more intense manipulation, she responded: “I’m glad I’m in the position to give it to them. I don’t want my children to say what I say about my mom, ‘Oh, I couldn’t get nothing from my mother! I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t do that.’ Mr. Dash, what else could I use my money for?” What else? How about saving it for a grandchild’s education, spending it to move into a better apartment, using it to buy rather than steal clothes, putting it toward any number of other good purposes or even giving it to someone who really needed it? All Rosa Lee could think of was financing her children’s drug habits.

Of course, the government helped plunge Rosa Lee into dependence by throwing her out of one of the few private homes in which she resided. When she was 19, she lived with her mother and children in a home owned by her grandfather. “Nineteen-year-old Rosa Lee thought it was a great apartment,” writes Dash. “It was the first place she ever lived that had electricity and an indoor toilet.” This was not good enough for the District of Columbia, however. The city condemned the property and moved all three generations into public housing.

Equally appalling was an educational system that did not work. Rosa Lee and Patty were both illiterate. Rosa Lee couldn’t even understand the directions on the medication that she was taking. Patty was unable to verify the accuracy of a transcript of her confession to the police. The two sons of Rosa Lee who escaped their mother’s way of life succeeded with the help of an occasional individual and counselor, not the public schools. Eric complains that his teachers knew that he couldn’t read, but, “They didn’t try to do anything about it. They were transferring me to higher grades because of my age.” There wasn’t even a pretense: “It was like they didn’t care. I could sit there in class and go to sleep. They wouldn’t bother me.”

Welfare compounded the problem by subsidizing utterly destructive behavior. Rosa Lee routinely gave Patty money to buy crack and other drugs. Rosa Lee enjoyed extensive taxpayer-subsidized medical care to deal with her drug use and other self-inflicted health problems. At the same time, the criminal justice system responded to her repeated lawlessness with short sentences or probation. And no attempt was ever made to rescue her children from her abusive “care.” To the contrary, Rosa Lee was actually awarded custody of her grandchild when Patty went to prison.

Having helped speed Rosa Lee and her family down the road to utter ruin, the law proved to be incapable of rescuing her. Prostitution is against the law, of course, but that prohibition had no apparent impact on the activities of her and her daughter. The latter even propositioned Dash, offering sex for $5.

Drugs are also against the law, but the so-called “drug war” failed to stop pervasive substance abuse and trafficking. She and her kids seldom lacked the cash to buy, and supplier to sell, whatever they desired. When daughter Patty couldn’t afford crack, she drank alcohol instead. Rosa Lee was in and out of treatment programs, but to no avail. In response to constant drug raids on her apartment, she hid her stock in a neighbor’s apartment. She learned to watch for the cops when she was selling on the street. Yet, she acted like a helpless grandmother when standing before a judge for sentencing.

The law could do so little because, ultimately, Rosa Lee chose a life of degradation. And she chose it because she possessed no moral compass, no sense of right and wrong. At age nine she was stealing lunch money from her fourth-grade classmates. She graduated to stealing money from people’s coats at church, to prostitution and shoplifting, to selling drugs, to selling her daughter’s sexual services and enlisting her children and her grandchildren in shoplifting, drug trafficking and even looting (during he 1968 riots in Washington, D.C.). She introduced her children and their friends to the world of drugs when they asked.

Decade after long decade went by, but her conscience never awoke. True, Rosa Lee appears shocked when Patty tells Dash that her mother was her role model. “Mama, don’t get mad at me. Ain’t that the way you did it?” Patty asks, when confronted about her prostitution. But the moment passes quickly. Rosa Lee is simply oblivious to the consequences of her behavior on others. Patty sat in bed watching Rosa Lee sell her body. Son Alvin recalls the humiliation of being strip-searched as cops looked for his mother’s drug stash during repeated police raids on the apartment. Rosa Lee fusses at her children as their lives disintegrate, but then subsidizes their drug use, bails them out when they owe money to drug dealers, and continues to model the very same irresponsible behavior that is destroying them.

Her seared conscience is all the more glaring because Rosa Lee attended church regularly, brought her young kids and grandkids when they were young, and could bring a congregation to tears when singing a gospel tune. Yet she stole from those seated next to her and even used church to justify her crimes. She explained one shoplifting venture as necessary to ensure that her granddaughter wouldn’t have to attend church in a “dirty looking coat.” She had no answer when Dash asked, “Is there nothing in the religion that you and your granddaughter were baptized into that tells you that what you were doing is wrong?”

This moral indifference is even more evident in her children and grandchildren. The failure to perceive that there is a right and wrong wreaks its devastating impact on them. Rosa Lee, despite a life of reckless indifference to the consequences of drug use, prostitution and petty theft, seemed to retain some loyalty to family and friends. Daughter Patty, however, did not. For $20, Patty let four men into her boyfriend’s apartment. She went off to buy crack with her few pieces of silver. They bound and gagged him, and beat him to find out where he hid his money. Then they shot him in the head.

Nevertheless, Rosa Lee can’t understand how Patty, who said she only expected them to rob her boyfriend, could be charged with murder: “She didn’t kill him! She was drunk. I know Patty when she gets drunk. She’s just like a little child. I don’t think I ever let her grow up. She was my first daughter, and I kept her kind of under me.”After a court appearance, Rosa Lee complains to Dash that Patty wasn’t in the apartment during the killing. The prosecutors are “trying to give Patty a lot of time, and she didn’t shoot that man.” In Rosa Lee’s world, no one was ever responsible for anything.

At the time of her death, Rosa Lee’s eldest son already had died and Patty, her eldest daughter, had gone to prison on a plea bargain. Four of her other six children were involved in drug abuse and crime. Her grandchildren were following the same pattern. In short, the greatest tragedy of her life was not that Rosa Lee failed to live up to her potential. It is that she led so many others down the same path. While one wants to feel compassion for her, it would seem more important to express revulsion at her conduct.

That is not, however, what happened when Dash’s series began running in the Washington Post. In the very community that Rosa Lee had done so much to damage, she became a celebrity. Reports Dash: “In the following months, Rosa Lee does a lot of public speaking around Washington. Her audiences include drug treatment officials and physicians at her methadone clinic and other drug treatment programs, as well as parishioners at numerous churches. Because of the photos that ran with the series, strangers recognize her in McDonald’s and on the street. Most tell her that they learned something from reading her story. Some tell her that they did not like her story and wished she hadn’t cooperated with me. Rosa Lee beams when she tells me about the supportive strangers who come up to her. She dismisses her critics with a sneer, a wave of her hand and a profane characterization.”

But this is not all. When they meet for lunch in January 1995, Dash writes, “Rosa Lee tells me she has been collecting a lot of money when she speaks at churches. ‘After I talk about my life, people come up to me and slip five and ten dollar bills into my hand,’ she says. ‘They tell me to have faith in God and everything will be all right.’” She and Dash go on to joke about his suggestion that she give him ten percent as her agent.

The positive public response to Rosa Lee’s story suggests a social sickness even more pervasive than that illustrated by her story alone. After 58 years of life, Rosa Lee stood unrepentant amid two generations of human destruction left in her wake. She offered no apology, no admission of fault, no recognition that she had done anything wrong. Yet the drug addict who constantly fell back onto drugs spoke to drug treatment groups. The church member who stole from fellow church members spoke to churches. The thief who shoplifted from stores owned by strangers was acclaimed by strangers. The mother who used her money to buy drugs for herself and her children was handed cash by religious people. And Dash, after having chronicled her persistent and horrific behavior, can only joke about her new source of cash, rather than, say, suggest that she spend it a bit differently than she has in the past.

There is but one bright spot in this otherwise bleak tale. Two of Rosa Lee’s children escaped, despite her best efforts to the contrary. Alvin and Eric refused to join their mother in looting during the D.C. riots and shoplifting local businesses; they would not help their siblings commit crimes. In general, they were embarrassed by their family’s dependence on welfare, avoided drugs, opposed their mother’s thefts and desired an education. They made mistakes – while still in high school, both fathered children. But both grew up. They also worked mightily to help their mother, without success. One of their many low points occurred when Eric was working as a D.C. correctional officer at the city jail, only to come across his mother, locked up for shoplifting.

What can one learn from Rosa Lee’s story? Leon Dash tells us that “she was caught up in a tragedy for which, it can be reasonably argued, she was partially at fault, but, at the same time, one that was foreordained.” But how could it be foreordained if she was partially at fault? In fact, Dash’s account proves the opposite. Eight of Rosa Lee’s siblings lived productive lives. They certainly did not hook their children on drugs and involve them in crimes. Even two of Rosa Lee’s kids succeeded despite her pernicious influence. Yes, the many perverse incentives created by the welfare state encouraged her to take the road that she did. But she nevertheless chose that road, and, even as the consequences of her travels became apparent, chose not to leave it.

Rosa Lee should be required reading for anyone who thinks that mere tinkering with the welfare system can solve the problem of poverty. Rosa Lee did not represent all members of the underclass, of course, but her behaviors are common enough to make our inner cities a catastrophe. Crime and drug use are tearing apart families and communities. Children are bearing children and murdering children. There is probably no greater human tragedy in America today than that so many people feel trapped and helpless in a world of expanding potential.

There is obviously no easy answer, but it ultimately must revolve around individual responsibility. That means teaching right and wrong. And it means holding people accountable, to ensure that they bear the costs of their actions. Government now subsidizes irresponsible behavior, and in so doing, makes it more difficult to teach basic moral values. That must change. Rosa Lee demonstrates that not only is welfare reform necessary, but that it must be truly radical.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Leon Dash, Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1996), 288 pp.

Posted in: News Series, Welfare and Other Social