One of the most difficult question that I often struggle with as a budding new writer is, how much of myself I am willing to share with my readers. But no matter how difficult the subject is, good or bad, I will always choose to reveal if it could help someone. Even now as I write these words, I feel the bitter taste of betrayal in my mouth. Still, the part of me that wants to divulge the fact that up until recently I was a welfare recipient is stronger than the part of me that is afraid of people’s judgment.
Needless to say, I already know what most people think and feel about people on welfare. Yeck, I was one of those people who once judged and believed that most people on welfare are a bunch of deadbeats, uneducated, and lazy people with no dreams and aspirations sitting on their butts collecting food stamps and cash. But this is far from the truth. It’s a misconception and a narrative that has been on repeat about people on welfare for decades. So, I can’t say I am surprised that some people are narrow-minded in their thinking when it comes to people on welfare. I realized that many people are not aware that 25% (1 out 4) of children in the United States are enrolled in the food stamp program. The National Center for Children in Poverty reported, “More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level.” The same report also stated that “In most cases these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet.”
From welfare to work may be four meaningless words to many, but for me, it was a journey that I had taken once too many times. The first time I found myself on welfare I was young, newly married with two toddlers attached to my hips. Coincidentally, it was around the same time welfare reform was one of the top priorities for the Clinton Administration. In 1996, Congress replaced the traditional welfare programs known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF was designed to help families in need become self-sufficient. With the new change, states receive federal block grants to operate their programs and meet the goals of TANF that include: reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation. The introduction of ‘Jobs Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS)’ program, and the ‘Emergency Assistance (EA)’ program. As part of the new TANF requirements, during that time I enrolled in a training program to acquire the skills I needed to attain employment. Eventually, hard work and determination persevered. It was a great accomplishment for me when I started working and was able to move out on my own without the help of welfare. In essence, working gave my girls and I a new beginning. Nevertheless, despite all I had accomplished: college student, full-time single mom, and a seemingly striving career, I was overworked, and still struggling.
Despite all the progress the federal government have made over the past decades to help low-income families, the fact remains that there are still several key issues still confronting mothers, and other welfare recipients as they transition from welfare to work. The first is the issue of education and training. Due to lack of good education and training programs, many welfare recipients families who enter the welfare system for the first time and manage to leave to become self-sufficient are still unable to support themselves. They are several reasons why. One reason being many TANF recipients often find themselves returning to welfare because they take on less-than-stable jobs that are often low-wage work. The second issue is not having access to affordable, quality child care that could be the difference between being employable and unemployable. As a result, for many there is not enough financial incentive to make up for the loss of benefits and help participants move from TANF to work. Studies have shown that low-income families on the borderline of poverty who are dependent on welfare have the most difficult time coordinating work and child care schedules. Experts believe that the working poor is also the least likely of all income groups to receive assistance with their childcare costs. The third is the issue of health care, and being able to maintain health coverage and housing subsidies without fear of losing one or the other and in many cases, both.
The final issue is the lack of case management to monitor and eliminates barriers to childcare issues, medical problems, and even substance abuse. What’s more is the startling fact that more studies have shown that since the insertion of TANF the programs now lifts far smaller fraction of poor families and children out of severe poverty than AFDC did over twenty years ago.
Several years later, with strong professional skills, and college education under my belt I was laid off from the career that I believed would take me into retirement. Honestly, I saw it coming, and I blamed it on my lack of passion for what I was doing, underlined by the sudden recession. After I lost my job, and unemployment benefits barely paid the rent and other bills, I was faced with difficult choices. I once again found myself a welfare recipient, because I had no other choice when Congress voted against extending the unemployment benefits. During the time that I’ve had to travel back and forth from one office to another trying to get help and pull myself by my bootstrap, I’ve encountered many obstacles. The first obstacle was the non-existent human factor. Anyone who has ever been to the Department of Social Service in any of the tri-state areas seeking assistances will tell you (if they are not too embarrassed) that it is an uncomfortable and intrusive experience. Often people are treated unkindly and looked at with disgust. The social workers are often hard, uncaring and judgmental, which was surprising at times, considering the social workers are in the ‘human service’ business. But now and then if you were lucky, you’d get a nice case worker who treated you like you are human. I once had the privilege to meet one such case worker. Machete was, to say the least, a breath of fresh air. I knew right away that she was new, unaffected by time and the disillusion of helping the needy. She gave me the human factor that I desperately needed in my time of need. By the time I was done with the whole process I had forgotten that I was being stripped of my dignity and pride. She had a smile the whole time that melted away my defenses and shame. The second obstacle was, I did not know how the system worked. There were and are so many rules and regulations that govern welfare, it makes for a system that does not work, and a process that is slow and outdated. More often than not, cases are mishandled, and paperwork goes missing or gets lost. I once met a mother of three who took time off from her job at Toys R Us after working two shifts to drop off papers to her case worker because she was in fear of losing her case.
Once again, just like the first time I was on welfare, I was required to look for work and or enrolled in an education program. Since I had no desire to stay on welfare longer than necessary, I welcomed the opportunity to change my current state. That’s when I walked into the office of Suits For Success Hudson County, a Not For Profit Organization that provides professional attire, and career development tools to help disadvantaged women and men thrive in work and life. That day, I believe my life changed for the better, despite the looming reality that I was on the verge of losing my apartment and becoming homeless. Still, I was focused and determined to attain full employment. Every day I thrive as a volunteer at Suits For Success, showing everyone that I was determined to succeed no matter what. At that time, one of the mottoes that adopted was ‘dress like the person you want to be.’ Today I am gainfully employed, and even though I eventually lost my beautiful apartment, I am still grateful that I was able to change the trajectory of my life for the better. When I think about where I’ve been, I am often reminded of this quote: “Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.” For me, the best was getting hired to work for the same organization that helped me ‘thrive in work and life.’ I am proud to say that I love my job because I get to help people who are in the same situation I was when I walked into the office of Suits For Success.
One blogger on The Economic Collapse wrote, “Back in the 1970s, about one out of every 50 Americans [received] food stamps. Today, close to one out of every six Americans [receive] food stamps.” My story is not a unique one, in fact, it’s one of many. Too many to speak of, but I am hoping by writing my story I can give voice to the unfortunate many who find themselves at the mercy of government assistance. Stigma aside, this is one issue that should not be pushed to the side. We have to start the conversation because everybody that I’ve met on this journey in the same situation I shared says the same thing: the system doesn’t work. People like my friend Linda who said, “I can’t even tell my family because they will think I am a lazy bum, what I need more is a job,” agrees with me.