Mary Childers' large, fatherless family moved from one dilapidated apartment to another. Even when the family seemed to be trading up, moving out of a basement flat to a walk-up with a little more space and a smattering of trees nearby, the neighborhood's true character slowly revealed itself, becoming just as depressing or dangerous as the last. "We're the John the Baptists of Urban Decay, alerting our fellow man to what's coming," Childers writes in her memoir Welfare Brat. Having watched her sisters follow in her mother's footsteps of choosing the wrong men and inevitably becoming pregnant, from an early age Childers devoted herself to breaking the cycle and becoming the first in her family to attend college.
Knowing that Childers succeeded, eventually earning a doctorate in English literature, doesn't make her story any easier to read. It is a sad one, especially when she writes about ignoring her own birthday because there are too many other expenses among them the October birthdays of three of her siblings between September and Christmas. Or when she describes her sister's stunned reaction to a surprise party and sums up the peculiarities of her family: "In some households, Where do presents come from?' is a more perplexing question than Where do babies come from?' "Welfare Brat is more than a memoir of growing up with the weight of the world and the baggage of Childers' family on her shoulders; it is also a portrait of New York in the 1960s and America during the era of the "Great Society." Childers and her family move into neighborhoods as other whites are fleeing, and she touches on the friction between ethnic groups, between generations and between traditional and slightly more progressive Catholics. Despite the tension of the times, Childers feels fortunate to have come along when she did, writing: "I had the good luck to come of age when people in the United States approved of a war on poverty rather that what Herbert J. Gans calls the war against the poor.'" Rather than becoming dependent on the system, Childers used every opportunity to escape it.