I Was Your Welfare Queen
It was just about two weeks ago now that I received my first paycheck from my new job. Although most people would register the check on the smaller end of income, I was pretty proud of it. I had landed a job that would allow me enough financial freedom to call up my local income support office and close my food stamps account. I had been waiting for this for a long time.
Several years before I got that check I remember staying up late with my boyfriend to watch Ron Howard's “Cinderella Man”. It was truly a heart-wrenching tale of a man literally fighting to keep heat on in his house and food on the table for his family struggling through The Great Depression. Earlier in the film, Russel Crow's character is forced to hold his hat out for donations from friends and acquaintances. You can see this man's heart breaking as he swallows his pride to keep his family alive. He also hung his head and forced himself to ask for assistance from the government. After winning a fight, he triumphantly returns to the office to pay back the money that they allotted him to get through the month. I have to admit, the scene made me cry. I knew I might never be able to pay back everything the government had given me in assistance, in one lump sum, but I relished the day I could close my food stamps account and work a job that, with enough time and taxes, could pay what the government had so generously given me.
I want to go back even further. I want to tell you why I was on welfare. I am doing this to paint a better picture, not to make excuses or to quiet the rage of those who are against the system in general. I do not owe anyone an explanation. The circumstances that land people in the welfare office are often embarrassing and difficult to talk about. Because of this, it is never anyone's right to ask why you are on welfare. It is up to the office itself to asses your situation and determine your eligibility. For those who have never gone through the process, I can assure you that the hoops you need to jump through are many, and they are high.
I was in the welfare office because I was eight months pregnant with the child of an abusive man who had never worked a day in his life. I was trying to finish my college degree and ended up being the sole breadwinner in my home, supporting someone that neither had the will or decency to try and find work. He promised things would change, and I was naive. Two years after the baby was born, I had kicked him out for good, realizing that it would be easier for me to raise her alone than being tied to a sinking ship that was dragging me further and further from breaking the surface. I had TANIF (cash assistance) briefly, which helped me put diapers on my daughter. I had food stamps which helped to feed the both of us. We had medicaid which covered the birth of my daughter, and made sure she was vaccinated. I got child assistance so I could attend classes and work full time, struggling to keep our heads above water.
In 2012, I graduated with my Bachelor's degree and was accepted into a program in Texas that would help me pay for my master's degree as long as I agreed to teach Special Education at low income school after graduation. I continued to go to school and work, but finding any sort of substantial employment was difficult. I also began to notice just how differently welfare was viewed in Texas. No matter what I did, I was never right. I've heard people complain about how most food-stamps recipients only buy junk food. I've had strangers comment that fresh produce was expensive and I should be stretching my food-stamps further. I've been told that people on welfare's medical expenses are a strain on the government. I even had an acquaintance tell me that it was rude of me to exercise when the government paid for the calories I was burning. I've been praised for not terminating my pregnancy and raked over the coals for asking for help to feed my child. My point is, I felt like I was stuck in a battle I was never going to be able to win.
Despite all this, I had many friends who were very “anit-welfare”, but “pro-me”. I was told that I was the exception to the rule. I was the “good one” who was using the welfare system to better myself and become a “valuable member of society”. I was praised for not doing drugs and going to school. I was praised for my healthy lifestyle. I was praised for my strong and intelligent child. In all honestly, I didn't deserve any of it. Yes, times were hard, but we pushed through. I am grateful every day for the help that was available to me. The problem is, I wasn't any different than the many other people I have met who are struggling and on welfare. I honestly have trouble recalling one instance where I saw or ever heard of someone who was blatantly abusing the system. I did research and time and time again, found articles refuting the idea that people on welfare were drug abusers, or non-citizens or intentionally tricking the system.
Somewhere along the line, someone had created an imaginary threat dressed in the guise of the welfare recipient that painted them as lazy, abusive, drug-addicted people without citizenship or any sort of moral compass. Where were the other welfare recipients I knew? The ones who were forced to feel shame at needing help when they were doing the best that they could? And where were these hypothetical people dancing their way down the street to the welfare office, high on drugs popping out extra children to stay below the poverty line? Where were the welfare queens? I looked around and all I saw was me and people like me. I also saw the droves of people demanding the extra expense of drug testing the poor only to find less than one percent of them testing positive. I saw people willing to bankrupt the system in order to catch these imaginary abusers. I saw plainly in the welfare system, the rules excluding non-citizens from receiving benefits, and yet there was still public outcry to get "the illegals" off welfare.
I met soldiers who still had to apply for food stamps in order to adequately nourish their families. I read the statistics of the high percentage of homeless vets in the streets without adequate medical care. People who literally put their lives and sanity on the line for this country. I listened and spoke with case workers who told about hundreds of people in difficult situations just looking for a leg up. I saw scores of friends I loved working their tails off to make it in an ever-starving job market.
Where was this mythical welfare-queen when all I saw were people like me? I am not the exception to the rule. I was one of many. I was your welfare queen.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”