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How the welfare system was my saving Grace

*I wrote this in 2014 and posted it as a note on Facebook. The note section has since been removed from Facebook so I am going to post any that matter to me here to keep them. 

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” -Maya Angelou

Since becoming an adult, I have become more and more aware of political discussions. I have made friends from both sides of the political spectrum and can relate, and disagree with any of them. A topic that constantly strikes a nerve with me is the discussion of welfare. So many people are quick to give an opinion on the lazy, worthless, ungrateful disappointments in our society that milk the government for everything they are worth and take advantage of hard-working taxpayers. People are so quick to talk about the broken system and the broadening gaps between societal classes. And how handouts only hinder people from doing things for themselves.

Well, I am not saying that in some cases, those assumptions may very well stand true.  But I can, for a fact say, that those assumptions, those judgments, those uninformed and out of touch opinions, cannot and should not be applied across the board. I am living, breathing proof of how welfare can save a life. How welfare provides chances. How welfare creates opportunities that otherwise would never exist. While some may be cussing the system for “wasting” their tax dollars on welfare’s degenerate recipients, I count my blessings each and every day. So here is my welfare story, how welfare was my saving Grace.

I grew up relatively poor. In my mind, I think I grew up extremely poor. But I know that even with the limited resources my family had, there were families who had it worse. There is always someone who has it worse.

People rant that welfare is a broken system. That once you are taught to abuse it, you will always abuse it. Well, then I guess my family does not fit into the typical mold. Both of my parents come from considerably well-to-do families. Both of my parents grew up in homes with working parents, with solid jobs. Their parents were not milking the system. Their parents were not teaching their children how to evade societal norms and get everything for nothing. So my parents were not part of an endless welfare cycle.

As young adults, my parents made poor decisions. Those decisions amounted to what essentially became growing up in a state of poverty for me and my sisters. Like so many children who are brought up being a product of the welfare system, there is not a way imaginable that anyone can blame the mistakes of my parents on me or my sisters.

Growing up, there were times that I remember not having much to eat. At least every other month we would spend a day or two without power because the bill didn’t get paid. We didn’t have all the extras that our peers had. I was lucky to have clean clothes, let alone new clothes. I was the middle child, so I got the leftovers from my older sister, leaving my younger sister to fight for scraps.

We got by on the minimum. We had nothing fancy. Everything from the furniture in our house, a small, double-wide trailer, to the car we drove was second hand and crumbling at the seams. My dad always knew someone who could swap parts to get some other piece of metal running again to get us from place to place. Never in my childhood did I experience the new car smell. I was more prone to smells of mold and rust. But we got by.

It wasn’t that my parents didn’t work, because they did. My dad always had some new business venture. He was always selling something or opening up some new store. My mom, always right there by his side to support him, even if it meant that week’s grocery money went to an investment rather than to garnish the table. My purpose in writing this is not to bash my parents. They were loving and warm, and in my opinion, did all they could with what they had. They may not have been quite ready to have kids. They were still kids themselves after all. Whether it was mismanaging what little money we had, or being a little too interested in drugs or alcohol, regardless of the reason, there my family was, left to turn to welfare.

I knew from an early age I was poor. The kids at school made damn sure to remind me too. Kids are mean. So when you think of the big picture, remember that third grader who is secretly tormenting the kid in the desk next to him because his clothes carry a stench of cigarette smoke and discount detergent. Don’t forget that.

My entire childhood living in that trailer,  I only invited one friend to my house. The only person I knew was a friend and didn’t care where I lived. She didn’t mind the heap of garbage on the front porch, or the mounds of dog waste scattered in the yard. It always seems that way you know. Even though a family cannot afford a meal, they seem to always need a dozen animals to try and feed too. Shannon was her name. She is still my best friend to this very day. I am sure she wondered about my house. About the holes in the walls that let the outside air in. About the smell of whatever residue leaked out from my parent’s bedroom when they would disappear from time to time. About the broken-down vehicles we were warned to stay away from because of the rodent infestation they were sure to have, but my parents never cared to tend to. Or about the pit of dead animals covered by nothing more than a piece of plywood. Despite my attempt to hide my family’s embarrassing secrets, everyone knew. Everyone always knows.

When I was growing up there was no quick way to get through the grocery store check out if you were using food stamps. I remember when food stamps were actually paper money. Similar to a checkbook and colored like monopoly money, I remember how horrified my mother would be pulling out to pay for our family’s food. My sisters and I would scamper to the car, praying none of our friends would recognize us or our mother. Back then, there were also limitations on what you could get. I can remember on more than one occasion sneaking some sweet treat in the buggy, longing for that snack, only to see my mother’s face turn an ungodly shade of red and the cashier reject it because it was not covered with food stamps. Nine times out of 10, mom didn’t have the cash to pay the difference, so she had to walk the item back to the shelf.

The grocery store was not the only stage that our dependence on the government was obvious. We grew up with Medicaid. And once again, the welfare systems were not quite as evolved as they are today, and health care for those relying on Medicaid was considerably different than those with real insurance. I cannot even tell you how mortified I was when the Medicaid tooth bus came to our school. I was plucked out of my classroom and forced to walk with my head held low to the dentist on wheels, specifically for kids on Medicaid. Only a handful of other kids had to stomach the embarrassment, as our peers snickered as we left the room. Not to mention the level of care varied. The filings I got in my cavity covered teeth are a brilliant sparkle of silver. Real dental work was at least camouflaged and looked some shade of ivory to match actual teeth. But not mine. Yet another reminder of my second-class status.

It was not just dentist work. I was fortunate enough to need glasses. So after struggling to find an eye center that accepted Medicaid, after my exam, do you think I got to shop through the rows of shiny frames on the walls? Well of course not. Instead, I got to pick from the rejects. Five or six pairs that the optometrist pulled from under his desk. And everyone knew what type of glasses those were. So there I was, just a helpless kid, wearing the marks of my family’s poverty on my face; my own scarlet letter.

It gets even worse too. At least in my opinion. Lunchtime was the absolute worse. Some days I didn’t even get lunch because of the crippling fear of going through the lunch line and being outed. The only way my sisters or I had lunch was because we qualified for free or reduced meals. It varied from year to year, which group we were in. Some years it was completely free. Others we had to pay .40 cents. While everyone else was dishing out dollars for their lunches, I would walk through empty-handed, or sliding pennies to the cashier while the person behind me stared a hole in my neck. The things you could get were limited too. I was terrified I would grab something that I was not supposed to get and the cashier would snatch it up like contraband. More times than not, my account was negative on the years we had to pay. Even if it was only a few cents. That was more than we had. But then, you got a crackerjack prize for not having any lunch money. You couldn’t get the warm pizza, chocolate milk, and all the fixings like the other children. Oh no. You got a peanut butter and honey (jelly cost too much) sandwich and milk, white milk, not chocolate, that was considered a treat. So once again, I was forced to walk to the lunch table with my head dragging the ground mortified by the shame I was carrying in my hands. So most days I avoided lunch. I was too cool to eat. I would rather talk with my friends than waste time eating cafeteria food, at least that is what I hoped everyone thought. When in reality my stomach was turning flips.

Despite these things, despite all the other horror stories I could bore you with, I was a straight A student. I was in the academically gifted classes. I was always at the top of my class. As I got older and fostered more of a resentment, I lashed out and had behavior issues, but always excelled in the classroom — even if my assignments were completed in the principal’s office.

I continued to excel in high school. Made A’s most of the time. Was always in honor classes and did pretty well as long as I gave at least minimal effort. Here is where I show how despite being showered with governmental handouts that I am the exception to your stereotypes.

I got my first job before it was even legal to work. My dad’s friend hired me to take tickets at a local tourist trap. I was paid under the table and in cash. That is when I was finally able to start buying name brand clothes. Probably the first time I ever had anyone other than a family member give me a haircut. The first time I ever owned anything. Don’t get me wrong. There were times in my childhood when my family was riding high and could afford better things, and during those times, my parents gave us what they could. They put us first and we were on top of the world — but those times were few and far between. But until I was able to work on my own, I never had anything consistent. Even from then, when I was 13 or 14, I started to help my parents with their bills. I used to be angry with them for taking it, but looking back, I should have given them every penny.

From the time I was 12 until this very day I have had a job. Most times, I have had multiple jobs. Right now, I have three jobs. I worked in tourist shops through high school, then made my way through college with waitressing gigs. I would work at multiple restaurants, most weeks 50-60 hours a week, all while going to school full time. I didn’t have any other choice. But my government dependency did continue, as I was only able to go to college through financial assistance. I was lucky. I got grants and loans and worked and made it through college — even if I am still $30,000 in debt. But I did really well too. Sure I had some hiccups and may have acted out a time or two. But I did it. I graduated with a BA in English. Immediately after college, I got a job utilizing my degree, and still use it today.

Welfare saved my life. I am who I am today because of the opportunities afforded to me by these programs. I was not and am not my parent’s mistake. Just because my parents relied on the system, I was not instilled with a desire to do the same. I am not living an endless cycle of government handouts.

I work three jobs. A huge chunk of my weekly pay goes to the $30,000 in debt I have built up in college loans. I hardly get to see my kids, and forget any type of social life because I have to work to make ends meet. I currently qualify for government assistance. Do you have ANY idea how hard it is not to just give in and let the system take care of me? It is just a matter of a few signatures on a piece of paper. But I don’t. Because I am capable of doing it on my own. It is a struggle — but I am far from suffering. Others are worse off than me, and I remember that daily.

I am who I am today because the people before me helped me. Whether it was willingly or because they were taxed to do so, I made it here because of other people. So my life’s mission is to always be willing and ready to pay back that debt for the rest of my life by helping other people whenever it needs to be done.

I would give the shirt off my back if someone needed it more than I did. And I realize that so many times growing up, I watched my dad do the same thing. I would get so mad when my family had to go without something because my dad found a family that needed help. He knew what he was doing and that he was benefiting from something he probably didn’t deserve. He wanted to make that right, and he did in his own way.

I will continue to do that. I will continue to work every single day to earn what I have. Just because I am a product of the welfare system, does not mean I have a single thing to be ashamed of. I can do more with little, and fight harder, and work longer than the majority of people I come into contact with. I have experienced and triumphed over more in my short 25 years on this Earth than most people could ever even fathom.

I don’t think my story is an isolated incident. I believe that a handout, a helping hand, can teach people more than to become reliant. It teaches people appreciation. It teaches people value. It teaches people resilience. I didn’t learn those things because I had an easy childhood. I am fortunate to have learned those things through trials and tribulations and I would not change it for the world.

Many may look at my upbringing as a stereotypical story of depraved system abuse. But I look at it as being the very reason the welfare system was created in the first place. To give people a chance at life.

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