Thursday, November 3, 2011

True Confessions of a Welfare Queen

I don't know how the conversation even started, but it ended with me deciding that it was time to come clean. There was a period of time, when the Girls were very little, our family needed help with the basics. Anyone pulling in less than $900 a month with four people in the house would need it. So Dave and I sought help from the government and applied for federal assistance. I've mentioned it in passing my students a few different times, and they usually approach it with skepticism. Their basic sentiment: Why would you need welfare?

Before the Girls were born, we received W.I.C., which is an awesome and probably underappreciated program. The women who ran our local program were generous and took the time to get to know us. They never failed to check in to see how things were going and made suggestions that worked with the program. After the Girls were born, Dave worked full-time at a hotel overnight balancing the accounts so that we wouldn't need to pay for day care. Even with that, it still wasn't enough. I don't which one of our parents suggested welfare, but we talked it over and decided that we didn't have many other options.

There was an interview process involved; we thought we needed to take the Girls, which was a mistake. They went with us once (hell, I only went once to tell you the truth . . . Dave graciously went every time it needed to be done) and once was enough. Even that first interview was brief: here's your paperwork, fill it out, bring it back, we'll see if you qualify. So we did . . . and we did. In 1991, we qualified for $239 a month in food stamps and free medical care for the Girls. To us, $239 was like hitting the lottery. I budgeted for our first shopping trip with the stamps, had a list of healthy dinner items, and even splurged for jarred plums for the Girls since pre-made baby food was a luxury for us. We started checking out, and the cashier was making conversation with us and oohing and ahhing over the Girls. Until I pulled out the food stamps to pay for our groceries. The cashier turned icy, rude almost. I hadn't changed . . . but her perception of me had. No longer was I a mom chatting about the goofy things her kids were doing. Now I was some free-loader taking advantage of the system. A welfare queen.

It didn't get any easier as the time went on. We never went shopping in our town if we could avoid it. God forbid that people knew we were on public assistance. Going to the doctor wasn't much easier. Of the three pediatricians in the practice, one was blessing but the other two basically saw us for the medicaid card that paid for their services. Luckily, the Girls rarely had to see the other two. After they repeatedly came down with ear infections, their pediatrician suggested tubes in their ears. "You could go to Cincinnati and get them allergy tested first, but as soon as they see you're on public assistance, you'll be stuck in paperwork hell." We took her advice and avoided the Queen City and stuck close to home.

Every once and a while, after Dave's quarterly meeting with our social worker, Vikki, it would be determined that we either made too much money and the food stamps would take a three-month "vacation." Because of my careful budgeting, I had enough food stamps to get us through most of those months (minus the splurge for baby food). When it became clear that we had officially reached the threshold for food stamps, I decided to save the final one. There wasn't a real reason why I saved it, but I wanted to be reminded that while I was and still am extremely grateful for the safety net of public assistance, I never, ever wanted to go back to that. I remember what it is like to sell your CD's to pay for your electric bill. The terror goes through your body when you think you might have to live in your car.  How you're positive that everyone around you knows you need help.

The real reason I kept it? So that I could always say I remember what it felt like . . . that disdain from the cashier or the tolerance from the pediatrician.

- Jill