The film tells the story of Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll), a single Black Harlem mother, living on welfare with six children, who finds love with a garbage collector, Rupert "Roop" Marshall (James Earl Jones). The pair's relationship is complicated by their poverty, the restrictions of the welfare system and the hostility of her children, particularly eldest son Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), who believes that Roop will leave their mother just like her previous husbands had. When Rupert is invited inside Claudine's shabby apartment, the children are rude and vulgar towards him.
Throughout the film, Miss Kabak, a social worker, visits Claudine at her home and asks her if she is employed and if she is dating anyone. Claudine always claims to be unemployed and single, to make sure to get the maximum amount of benefits, which she desperately needs. If Claudine has a job or dates anyone and receives gifts from her boyfriend, the social worker has to deduct any money or gifts from her benefits, forcing Claudine to lie. Having a husband would be even worse, and cause her to lose her benefits altogether. Claudine does have a job as a housekeeper, but her meager wages will not support the family without the welfare benefits. Adding to Claudine's stress and financial woes, her teenage daughter gets pregnant by a young man with no prospects for taking care of her or a baby.
Despite these problems, Claudine and Roop's relationship continues and the children warm up to him. Just before he is to announce his engagement to Claudine to the kids, Rupert is served papers for a court order relating to underpayment of child support of his own children; his work wages are garnished to pay the difference. Rupert is so upset that he disappears for a couple of days and loses contact with everyone. He moves out of his apartment, does not show up to work, and does not show up to the Father's Day celebration the children had prepared for him. Charles eventually finds Roop drunk at a bar and confronts him. Charles is angry at Rupert because he left his mother without any explanation and the two get into a scuffle at the bar. Later, Rupert shows up outside of Claudine's apartment, explains his absence and they reconcile.
After several hardships and debating the financial issues relating to welfare, the couple decide to marry. In the middle of the wedding, Charles runs inside the apartment with the police chasing after him for his activities at a political demonstration. The couple and the rest of the children run after Charles, leaving the ceremony, and board the police wagon. The film ends on a cheery note with the entire family, along with Rupert, walking happily hand in hand through the neighborhood.
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