I’m a Welfare Mom

I’m on “welfare”.  Whatever that means.  None of the social services that I’m participating in are called “welfare” and there are thousands of social welfare programs in the United States.  However, many are socially acceptable while food stamps are “welfare”.

If you live in a country that provides comprehensive social programs (read: everywhere but here) I have to explain the connotation of that word “welfare”.  It is said like the lowest and most disgusting thing ever.  People here say “she’s on welfare” they way they’d say “she kills baby seals”.

The response I’ve gotten from some people because I’m using social assistance has been…eye opening.  People you think are your friends become vicious.  This made me hesitate to write about it.  Especially since one of those people is my Dad.  I don’t think he would agree with any reason under the sun for quitting a job and going on welfare.  I was afraid he’d be embarrassed if anyone he knew read this.

Then a few weeks ago Gina, over at The Feminist Breeder, mentioned her difficulty with WIC (Woman Infant Child, a national child nutrition program run by the USDA) and (as they tend to do with EVERYTHING Gina says) the response was…eye opening.  Half the people thought she should be ashamed that she wasn’t growing her own food in her backyard (in Chicago. in February.) while the other half thought she was “milking” the system.  That’s when I knew I had to speak out about my own experiences with social welfare (I’m actually not going to talk about WIC specifically because it needs its own post).

My Experience

The Monday after I resigned from NASA I was sitting in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services applying for public assistance.  It is a first come first served thing where you get a number and sit around for hours trying not to make eye contact with anyone else.  I, as usual, was writing a blog post in my mind about the experience.  Like how I hid my iPhone behind my purse because I thought I should feel shame to have an iPhone and be getting welfare.  Everyone else was hiding their phones too. Or how the waiting room had primarily white people, a handful of black people, two Hispanic families, and one middle eastern family with a translator.  All ages were represented.

Five hours later a woman called my number and led me back to her office.  She never made eye contact with me.  At her desk I was seated behind her while she typed away on a computer, asking me questions to verify my information.  I didn’t even see her face until I tried to make small talk.  By the end of the meeting we were talking about our favorite novels because that’s how I roll :).  I wonder if she has disdain for people on welfare or some people really are rude or maybe her workload is just insane.  I know the crappy DOS program she had to use was insane.

So, here is what my family of five was eligible for:

  • $786 in food stamps
  • $627 in cash assistance
  • Ohio Medicaid for the kids (Ohio Healthy Families)

Because I worked the first week of October our benefits would not start until November 1.  I was so relieved that my kids would have medical coverage and that we wouldn’t go hungry.

Am I embarrassed?

Maybe a little but at this point because of the treatment at the office – like I’m not human. But, I am not ashamed.  I am a productive member of society.  I have paid taxes for years into our social welfare system and I plan to pay into it for years to come.  I’m well educated and I think I’m a benefit to society.  And, most of all, I’m glad I live in a society with social welfare programs.  It is no secret that I’m a socialist.  All the way.  I want it all.  Give me Sweden.  Thanks.

I “put myself in this situation” because I quit instead of getting fired or laid off.  To some people this makes it unforgivable that I’m using social assistance.  No one even took the time to ask why I felt the need to quit – to some there would be no reason ever acceptable to quit a job.  I was really attacked about this – people said I quit to stay home with the kids or because I didn’t “like” my job.  I was told to “man up” like everyone else.  I’m happy I live in a country that has escape clauses for people in bad situations.  I don’t want women to endure horrible situations because if they don’t want their kids will starve.  But, I’m going to focus on peoples’ reactions to welfare in general and not my reason for being on welfare since it relates to how thousands of people are treated daily.

I Encounter the Policing of the Poor

My first encounter with what I call “policing the poor” was on a message board of moms.  The topic of welfare reform came up and I thought I’d share my experiences and specifically my amounts of support to give us a frame of reference for discussion.  Bad move.  The attacks came in three forms:

1. “I think food stamps shouldn’t be able to buy pop or chips or cookies.” These comments were all about policing the nutrition of the poor.  The feeling that if “my money” is paying for it they should have to eat healthy.

Being poor or needing social assistance means that these people should have their choice taken away?  I’m all for a healthier diet for everyone but food stamps is not a license to start dictating behavior.

2. “I hate when I see someone using food stamps with their hair and nails done and on their iPhone and driving a Range Rover.” These comments were all about policing the enjoyment and finances of the poor.If you need social assistance then you should not be happy.

It doesn’t matter that getting out of a phone contract can be more expensive than just maintaining.  Or that the Range Rover is paid off.  Or that your cousin did your nails for free as a pick-me-up.  Or maybe that person has only been on welfare for a few weeks.  If you happen to live in a half million dollar house and drive a lexus the government does not make you sell all those things and live in an alley before your kids can eat.  Welfare is a helping hand to fill the gaps while someone finds a new job.  Besides who are you to judge their choices?  My husband and I discussed it and decided we would give up our cable internet connection before our phone plans because we don’t have a land line and that ensured our Internet access which helps us find jobs.  You can’t tell just because someone has an iPhone in their hand that they are abusing the system.

3. “I work and don’t have health insurance for my kids.” These comments were about how many people are working but get no assistance.  People out of work should not be better off than someone who is working.

I hear ya.  I think the underemployed and underinsured is a huge problem.  This is why I believe in a) a living wage, and b) universal healthcare.  It is sad when working can be less desirable than welfare but it happens every day!  Mere weeks after our initial benefit approval we had the $627 cash assistance terminated and our food stamps dropped by $300 because my husband worked a double shift on Thanksgiving and made $100 extra in his check.  Isn’t working more hours the right thing to do?  The system penalizes doing the right thing

The Cult of the Employed

I heard a lot of “you are using my hard earned money”.  This is baffling to me.  It isn’t your hard earned money – it is the fee you pay to be part of this society.  I don’t hate taxes, am I the only one?  We pay our “societal membership dues” for the betterment of all.  You use social welfare programs too:

  • public schools
  • public libraries
  • public roads
  • public parks
  • unemployment compensation
  • disability compensation
  • child care tax credit
  • earned income credit
  • pell grants (for college)
  • Stafford loans (for college)
  • social security
  • farmer and corporate subsidies

When someone gets a pell grant (which is need based) do you get upset because “your hard earned money” is going to someone that should have worked harder to save that money?

For some reason only “welfare” is marginalized.  That is – cash assistance and food stamps. Could it be because it is disportionately women and children?

How much of “your money” are all these welfare moms using anyways?

There is a wonderful way to visualize where your tax dollars go.  It is called, funnily, Where Did My Tax Dollars Go?  You can put in your income and filing status and get an actual bill of where your tax dollars went.  Here it is for Married Filling Jointly and making 50K a year.

The actual amount “you” paid for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) is $128 (1.5% of total taxes paid).  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (cash assistance) cost you $32 (.4% of total taxes paid).  And of that money only 27% is the actual “cash” assistance the rest is job programs, child care supplements, and administration.

By contrast – paying for unemployment compensation cost you $336 while “middle class welfare”, e.g. programs like mortgage tax credits, education tax credits, etc. far exceed assistance for the poor.

I found lots of conflicting information and it is hard to get current statistics but anywhere from 60 to 90% of welfare recipients use assistance for less than 2 years.

Why We Need Welfare

The amount of social assistance programs a country has the lower its child poverty rate.  Period.  The US has an alarming child poverty rate. In 2005 the numbers were (via UNICEF);

I do not think this is something to be proud of!  According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, poverty actually results in a loss of 8.2 “years of perfect health” — exceeding the effect of smoking.

[box]Research finds that experiencing poverty during the first three years of life is related to substandard nutritional status and poor motor skills. Childhood poverty is also related to “age-normed growth stunting” (low height-for-age) and “wasting” (low weight-for-age), common indicators of poor nutritional  status.  At the other extreme, poverty is also associated with obesity among children.  As they get older, poor children are more likely than other children to have chronic health problems such as asthma and anemia.  Low-income children and adolescents are also more likely than higher income youth to have a physical impairment that restricts their activities.  Adolescents living in poverty are more likely than their higher income peers to get involved in risky and health-compromising behaviors, such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity.  Health problems associated with poverty during early childhood become  risk factors themselves for developmental problems in later life, including problems in the achievement,  cognitive, language, social-emotional, and physical domains (source).[/box]

The fact is we all benefit from social programs.  Poor, wealthy (tax breaks), families, corporations (through subsidies), farmers (subsidies), and we all benefit from a fed, healthy, educated populace.  The vilification of one type of assistance (and one type of recipient) stems from misguided beliefs about the burden on society and fraud (vendors commit over 90% of the fraud in welfare eta: the number is 93% as per a study done in Mass.).  Who suffers? The Children.

Being poor, down on your luck, a mother, a woman…does not convey the right to police every decision and making broad assumptions about a woman using a “food stamp” is just asinine.  You can’t know her journey and you should know the alternative.


17 thoughts on “I’m a Welfare Mom

  1. This is a wonderful post. It's so easy to kick people who are already down. The same people who walk around with their panties in a wad because they saw someone buy chips with a food stamp card don't even bat an eyelash about corporate welfare, the disparity in income levels, banks fraudulently foreclosing on homeowners, etc. If a person wants to be righteously indignant, there are so many more worthy targets out there who are stealing unbelievable amounts of money from us all.


  2. Excellent (and brave) post.

    I think there is some sort of massive brainwashing that is going on in the US – when you hear the vehemence against things like socialized healthcare, welfare recipients, etc. together with the taken for granted attitude (by many non-wealthy people) that the wealthy essentially should not have to contribute and should absolutely get away with just about anything. It is an actual insanity and a tragic one at that.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and these figures…I hope they change some perspectives.
    My recent post Mindful Mama Carnival – Call for Submissions {March}


  3. Thank you for sharing this. I use social services due to being disabled and I desperately want a child. I am told that bringing a child into the world when you are disabled and using government services is cruel and selfish and terrible. All I have ever wanted in life is to be a mother. But being impoverished, apparently, socially disqualifies me from being a good parent. I'm in my mid-30s and time is ticking, and I still haven't made up my mind as to whether I should fulfill my dreams, or continue to live without anything that matters to me just because I have a disability and I'm poor. Being single just furthers the argument about what a terrible person I am, for even considering motherhood.

    I am so tired of feeling ashamed of my existence.
    My recent post Hope is Worthless


  4. Your post actually makes me feel very sad….sad that we still can't get it together as a culture to put the needs of children first.

    I live in Canada where we have 50 weeks of paid maternity leave, payable to any woman who has worked for 600 hours in the 12 months prior to birth. We receive a Universal Child Care Supplement that is not dependent on income and we receive a Child Tax Credit that is indexed to income and # of children. And we have universal health coverage.

    I wish that all the benefits of being a Canadian meant that we have no child poverty, yet on the graphic you provided, we are at 15%! It is heart-breaking. I would love to be in a position to BRAG about Canada, but we have nothing to brag about with 15% of our children still living below the poverty line.

    Than kyou for making me more aware of how I can help, simply by not judging and by showing empathy. That I am not 'down on my luck' today does not mean that I might never be, and I would do well to be more grateful and less judgemental.


  5. Thank you so much for this article! I'm here today via Anktangle's Sunday Surf. When we applied for healthcare assistance so our son could have surgery at 1 (we have private insurance where we would have to pay the ~$,8000 out of pocket), I was appalled at how applicants are treated. We didn't qualify, because we had too many assets, but it was eye-opening to experience the hot shame when I was on the phone hearing them explain to me how worthless we were for even asking for help. Fortunately, the hospital stepped in and paid for the surgery for us (!). But ever since then, I've been doubly aware of how much prejudice and stigma there is out there for anyone who dares to seek assistance. Thanks so much for writing about this so openly.
    My recent post Wordless Wednesday: Vampire baby


  6. What a great post, thanks for sharing. We tried applying for assistance in the past when my husband had his work hours reduced *by half*. As a family of 6, we didn't qualify for anything. How could that be? We were *just* getting by with the help of generous family, yet we somehow weren't poor enough to use the system that we had paid into? Amazing. And I always kind of felt the "why don't you just go out and get a job?" vibe from people as if it were really that simple. *sigh*
    My recent post Friday Photo Dump


  7. I told my wife I wouldn't argue on the comments page when she sent me the link to your article, so I will just leave this here. Give it a chance, it's only 4 minutes long.


    • I watched it and I don't mind a discussion of fundamental social reform – only the judgmental assumptions people make about those using the system. So, no problem with you posting your point of view. I am familiar with libertarian views on social welfare and I do disagree. I am a socialist so that shouldn't be surprising! 🙂 I believe in wealth redistribution and I believe in it under coercion. I do not however believe in states and states rights – I am a federalist in that manner. I believe you pay a fee (tax) and in return you get benefits of membership: police, fire, public schools, public libraries, and other social welfare programs. The video never addresses why george won't give to oliver? George benefits from Oliver's children going to college (and, for that matter not starving) and one day George could fall on hard times and need help. From each according to his ability to each according to his need.


  8. Truth be told, the first time I got on 'welfare' was when a friend took me to the DSHS. I had no idea what I was in for as I did not grow up in America and had never heard of such a thing before. So I received medicaid and TANF for about six months. We struggled even then, and we continued to struggle after, but we didn't consider going back for a long time.

    I don't believe there's anything wrong with one parent being the breadwinner while another stays home with the kids. I think it's perfectly natural and even necessary. We struggled terribly to keep going like that, even without help, but we were overwhelmed when my SO fell down some stairs and was injured. We couldn't afford a chiropractor or medical insurance through his workplace and it wasn't getting better on its own. I had no job, and even though I considered looking for one, he was incapable of watching our child. He could barely even walk and couldn't stand to be awake because it was so unbearable.

    It's easy to look at someone on welfare and assume just about anything imagineable. Most of the time, people would probably get it wrong. It's not to say I haven't seen people with food stamps who look like they just stepped out of a salon, but would it really be fair to assume they spend as much in the salon per month as they get in food stamps? Would it really be fair to assume anything? I don't think so.


  9. Sigh socialism…

    When will we ever see the rise of mutualism? Where are my cooperatives, where is my individual labor ownership and free-market?


  10. This is a great post and something that EVERY judgmental person needs to read! I get so sick of the whining and complaining people do about this subject. Yes, there are people who "milk the system" but it's not fair to generalize and assume everyone does. No person should be made to feel less than just because they get assistance.

    And no, you aren't the only person who doesn't hate taxes. 🙂
    My recent post Writers, Pick Your Battles, and Your Markets


  11. Pingback: I Was On Food Stamps and I Have an iPhone | The Chittister Family

  12. Pingback: Still a Welfare Queen - Baby Dust Diaries | Baby Dust Diaries

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