Waiting in the waiting room, with the forms that detailed every tiny bit of my pathetic life and a small paper number in hand, was the most humiliating experience of my life. I sat there, feeling sorry for myself in a way that many 19-year-olds never have to experience.
I finally worked up the courage to look at the others around me. They were women. They had children. They were cold; keeping jackets and sometimes gloves on in the frigid waiting room. They were there because their employers had cut health insurance. They were there because their ex-husband wouldn’t pay his child support and they didn’t have the money for a lawyer. They were there because they lost their jobs and couldn’t keep the lights on or feed their children. They were there because he walked out one night after 15 years of marriage and there was no way they were going to get a job with a 16-year gap in their resume without going back to school.
It was then I realized that everything I had been taught about welfare was wrong. These women and their children weren’t dirty. I didn’t see anyone there with more than three children. They weren’t lazy or joking about all of the free money they would be receiving. Not a single one of them looked drugged out of their minds. They weren’t stupid. Most of them kept their heads down, staring at their laps, just as I had done. They were ashamed, embarrassed. They were wishing to be anywhere other than here.
I grew up poor. It was hard for me to acknowledge this for the longest time, because so many around me grew up poor as well. It’s hard to tell that you’re living in poverty when nearly all of your classmates are also living in poverty. And those who weren’t technically living in poverty? Their parents were still living from paycheck to paycheck. I remember the Christmas where my mother told me we had $18 for the holiday. We bought a present for each of us at Wal-Mart and the makings for spaghetti for Christmas dinner, and felt very proud of ourselves for making the money stretch that far. My mother worked 60 hours a week and had health insurance. We had a huge garden each year. We gathered the walnuts that fell in my great-grandmother’s yard each year and sold them. We lived off well water and wood heat and spotty electricity. My mother struck a deal with the dance teacher in order for me to take dance lessons with my friends. We made it work because my mother was too proud to go on welfare, but I firmly believe now that we should have been in that damn office asking for assistance. My mother made herself ill working so hard. She and I both were severely underweight. There were so many things that an extra hundred dollars a month and some commodity food could have done for us.
But, all of this is to say that I was used to making-do. I was used to going without. I was used to entering the high school football games at halftime so I didn’t have to ask my mom for the price of a ticket.
I went to college with a GED, a baby on my hip, and a scholarship that paid for it all. I took out student loans to keep gas in the car I bought for $750 and my son in preschool while I was in class. I knew how to budget, and I even had a job in the vice-president of the university’s office, working part-time. I took 15-18 credit hours each term to finish up early. I placed myself on student health insurance through the university to save my mother some of her paycheck. Then I got sick—cancerous cells in my reproductive tract—and student health insurance dropped me, and I was pre-existing now, so I couldn’t go back to my mom’s insurance, and the only option left for me to get treatment—TO LIVE—was to get Medicaid.
The system is horrific and intrusive and shameful. I won’t bore with you all of the details, but I think anyone who’s ever had to deal with this can tell you that it’s not easy, it’s not fun, and it’s something you want to put behind you as fast as you can. There’s nothing like a government office questioning every decision you make in your life in order for you to get health insurance and daycare assistance (so I could pay some of the medical bills I had already racked up). I’m not the only one to feel this way, apparently—two additional women have written about their experiences with poverty and welfare this week (and in light of the drastic SNAP cuts Congress has recently passed).
So, I can tell you, when I see the vitriol and ignorance on my Facebook feed, I seethe. When I see people who have never had to struggle for more than a matter of a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, pass judgment on the large chunk of our citizenry who struggles for years on end, I want to rant and curse and scream. Because, I am not out of the norm. I AM THE NORM. The people who accept assistance often look like me, and look like the others who’ve written on the subject recently. Don’t believe me? Then look up the numbers for how many people have actually been denied assistance for failing the mandatory drug testing in your state. And then look up the lifetime maximum for benefits in your state. I think you’ll be surprised.
You need to educate yourself. You need to hear stories like mine. You need to understand that without assistance, I would be dead. I would not have been able to finish my college education, go on to get a graduate degree, get a great job with a pension and buy a nice house and entertain the thought of sending that baby on my hip to an Ivy League school. You need to understand that assistance is there for a reason, and I am that reason.