Back in 1989, I was 21, married and pregnant. I lost my husband. I was already getting free prenatal care from the local charity hospital. After a stay of four days in the hospital due to complications, during which I lost my job, I came home to find an eviction notice taped to my door. No job, no prospect of getting one while visibly pregnant… so I applied for welfare.
I come from a middle class background, and graduated from a large public high school where there was an about equal mix of white, black, and asian kids, along with a handful of latinos. I knew kids from all backgrounds and income levels, but in 1989 I really experienced poverty for the first time. First I lost my telephone. Then the electricity was disconnected – and remember, that means cold showers in a cold apartment, in the winter. I was often hungry, and when I did eat, it was Ramen noodles. (You can’t eat any cheaper than 12 for a dollar.) This was my condition when I went to the welfare office to apply. I stood in line all day – more than once – to show that I met the requirements, and I met people who frankly shocked me. One conversation between two well-groomed women I’ll never forget:
Woman #1 – D.H. Holmes [department store] has Girbaud on sale for $99 dollars – you want to go?
Woman #2 – Yeah, mama’s watching the babies until tonight so I can look for a job.
It’s hard to express the rage I felt. They were in line at the welfare office talking about buying designer clothes – Girbaud was the big thing in the late 80s. I was tired, hungry, and sick. Sick of feeling like crap from living off of noodles, salt and fat, sick of being cold and sick of being dirty. Until you have been truly poor, you have no idea what a luxury it is to be clean. If you have hot water, soap, and clean clothes, you are blessed. Remember that.
I had plenty of time to chat with other women and hear their stories. Most couldn’t even conceive of any life other than the one they had – often their aspirations included things like government housing, and having another baby in order to “get a raise.” One woman whose benefits would soon be cut off because her child was about to turn eighteen hoped to get an on the job injury so she could collect social security. What can you say to a statement like that?
I learned that there is a constant subset of people who will always be poor because they don’t have the vision and the willingness to work to improve themselves. Does my assessment sound harsh? Tough. I’m talking about people who don’t speak standard English – that cuts them out of pretty much any good job right there. Anyone who doesn’t speak standard English need only listen to the radio or television and practice pronouncing words properly. You can also pick up decent grammar that way, just by emulating people who do speak well. The only requirement to do this is to be able to hear, and willing to try. Being functionally illiterate is a bigger challenge, but it can be dealt with – even before the Clinton welfare reforms, when I was in the system, help was available to those who wanted it from a variety of programs, both private and governmental. But the root problem was that these people had no hope, and didn’t seem to want any. Even today I have no idea how to address that; the government can’t give people hope, only a handout. When Jesus said, the poor will be with you always, He wasn’t kidding.
As angry as I was at those two women in line, they did me a favor. I realized that without hope for the future, they simply couldn’t think or plan ahead. They were incapable of being anything but poor, as long as they were restricted by their hopelessness. I learned that the way for me to get off of welfare and out of poverty was to plan – and to plan to work. The Anchoress was entirely correct when she wrote,
The message “you can, if you try” was a louder, clearer and more spiritually sustaining message than “you can’t, so just give up”… When folks feel good about what they are doing, when they feel like they have some control over the direction their lives take – they have hope. And hope is not simply a feeling. Hope says, “awake, O Sleeper, arise from death!” Hope is the builder of bridges, the tamer of winds, the harnesser of ideas and possibilities. A poor man with hope is immeasurably richer than a wealthy man without it, because he carries within him the spark that can alight a thousand tomorrows.
There were other people who inspired me; like the woman who worked three menial part time jobs, and attended a literacy class at a Methodist church three nights a week. Because of her jobs, she didn’t qualify for a cash benefit, but she did take food stamps and Medicaid – she needed it to survive. She said she wanted her kids to grow up seeing her working because she wanted them to have a better life. I’ve often wondered how things worked out for her family, but I’m pretty sure they did okay. She had a plan, and hope to help her carry it out.
I finally jumped through all the hoops and was approved for a cash benefit, food stamps, and Medicaid. The case worker mentioned in a very offhand way that I could get some job training if I wanted. With a baby to support on my own, yes, I was interested. She was surprised – evidently very few people took advantage of it, because the stipend was only $10 a day. You mean I get paid, too? Sign me up! This was my first formal computer training – basically a secretarial course – and the skills I gained I used to get a series of clerical jobs, then as a computer trainer, help desk, technical writer, and eventually I started a web development company which has been my living for the last five years or so. (Along the way I remarried and my husband adopted my daughter.)
As the Anchoress points out in her post, welfare reform could have been Clinton’s legacy, and it would have been a good one. I know the changes implemented during his term have helped. And while I lean toward libertarianism in some areas, I do believe that we need to have a welfare system. I think it should be comprehensive including a thorough assessment, and based on that assessment, require skills training from everything from speech, how to dress and conduct yourself at work, useful job skills, financial management, and child care provided during training. Measurable progress should be a requirement for continuing to receive benefits and training. And then, having given people a second chance to acquire the skills that their parents and the education system should have taught them in the first place, having given them every reason to hope – cut them loose.