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


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. Right now I have two small children, work part-time from home so we don't have to pay childcare and my husband is a full time student while also working. Needless to say times are tough, the end is in sight (he'll be finished with his undergraduate work in a year and a half), but right now we're stretching every dollar we have.
    Anyway, we talked about it and last week we reluctantly applied for a foodcard (they don't actually have stamps anymore). Until he's done with school it is help that we desperately need and I am so thankful that it's there, but I still can't help feeling a little ashamed.
    It's nice to hear someone else being so honest about it. Thank you.

  2. it is such a huge shame that we feel shame for this. we were not sitting our butts at home smoking cigs and eating Doritos while our kids crawled on dirty floors in dirty diapers. no. we worked long hard hours, scraped by, and some of us needed a little help. i sure did. and i know those faces and looks you speak of. it brings them right back to the surface. wow. so strange how visceral a response i can conjur at this moment. so yay you for taking care of your little fmaily the best you could. and yay you for you being real and honest...

  3. So glad you shared this. We too had a time where we could have really used assistance. Nearly qualified for WIC and it would have really helped (but just missed the cut off). We had friends who did use it. I believe strongly that we, as a society, should have that net -- without judgment. Glad it was there for you. Love that you kept the last stamp.

  4. I received assistance, too. I had to quit my job to take care of my husband (he was blind, diabetic and schizophrenic) and our two kids.

    I hated to do it, but my friends kept telling us that I had worked, paid taxes, so had already earned the help.

    I eventually went back to school and raised the kids alone. They're both hard working, kind young men.

    It just goes to show that accepting help doesn't mean you'll use it forever...

  5. sorry, didn't mean to press 'enter'... I meant to say you have all my respect and admiration for your strength and dignity.