By LARKIN WARREN
Published: September 21, 2012
I WAS a welfare mother, “dependent upon government,” as Mitt Romney so bluntly put it in a video that has gone viral. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But for me, applying for government benefits was exactly that — a way of taking responsibility for myself and my son during a difficult time in our lives. Those resources kept us going for four years. Anyone waiting for me to apologize shouldn’t hold his breath.
Almost 40 years ago, working two jobs, with an ex-husband who was doing little to help, I came home late one night to my parents’ house, where I was living at the time. My mother was sitting at the card table, furiously filling out forms. It was my application for readmission to college, and she’d done nearly everything. She said she’d write the essay, too, if I wouldn’t. You have to get back on track, she told me. I sat down with her and began writing.
And so, eight years after I’d flunked out, gotten pregnant, eloped, had a child, divorced and then fumbled my first few do-overs of jobs and relationships, I was readmitted to the University of New Hampshire as a full-time undergraduate. I received a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, a work-study grant and the first in a series of college loans. I found an apartment — subsidized, Section 8 — about two miles from campus. Within days, I met other single-mom students. We’d each arrived there by a different route, some falling out of the middle class, others fighting to get up into it, but we shared the same goal: to make a better future.
By the end of the first semester, I knew that my savings and work-study earnings wouldn’t be enough. My parents could help a little, but at that point they had big life problems of their own. If I dropped to a part-time schedule, I’d lose my work-study job and grants; if I dropped out, I’d be back to zero, with student-loan debt. That’s when a friend suggested food stamps and A.F.D.C. — Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
Me, a welfare mother? I’d been earning paychecks since the seventh grade. My parents were Great Depression children, both ex-Marines. They’d always taught self-reliance. And I had grown up hearing that anyone “on the dole” was scum. But my friend pointed out I was below the poverty line and sliding. I had a small child. Tuition was due.
So I went to my dad. He listened, did the calculations with me, and finally said: “I never used the G.I. Bill. I wish I had. Go ahead, do this.” My mother had already voted. “Do not quit. Do. Not.”
My initial allotment (which edged up slightly over the next three years) was a little more than $250 a month. Rent was around $150. We qualified for $75 in food stamps, which couldn’t be used for toilet paper, bathroom cleanser, Band-Aids, tampons, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothpaste or, of course, the phone bill, or gas, insurance or snow tires for the car.
At the end of the day, my son and I came home to my homework, his homework, leftover spaghetti, generic food in dusty white boxes. The mac-and-cheese in particular looked like nuclear waste and tasted like feet. “Let’s have scrambled eggs again!” chirped my game kid. We always ran out of food and supplies before we ran out of month. There were nights I was so blind from books and deadlines and worry that I put my head on my desk and wept while my boy slept his boy dreams. I hoped he didn’t hear me, but of course he did.
The college-loan folks knew about the work-study grants, the welfare office knew about the college loans, and each application form was a sworn form, my signature attesting to the truth of the numbers. Still, I constantly worried that I’d lose our benefits. More than once, the state sent “inspectors” — a knock at the door, someone insisting he had a right to inspect the premises. One inspector, fixating on my closet, fingered a navy blue Brooks Brothers blazer that I wore to work. “I’d be interested to know how you can afford this,” she said.
It was from a yard sale. “Take your hands off my clothing,” I said. My benefits were promptly suspended pending status clarification. I had to borrow from friends for food and rent, not to mention toilet paper.
That’s not to say we didn’t have angels: work-study supervisors, academic advisers and a social worker assigned to “nontraditional” students, which, in addition to women like me, increasingly included military veterans and older people coming in to retrofit their careers. Faculty members were used to panicked students whose kids had the flu during finals. Every semester, I had at least one incomplete course, with petitions for extensions. One literature professor, seeing my desperation, gave me a copy of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin to read and critique for extra credit. “But it’s not a primer,” he cautioned. (Spoiler: she walks into the ocean and dies.)
With help, I graduated. That day, over the heads of the crowd, my 11-year-old’s voice rang out like an All Clear: “Yay, Mom!” Two weeks later, I was off welfare and in an administrative job in the English department. Part of my work included advising other nontraditional students, guiding them through the same maze I’d just completed, one course, one semester, at a time.
In the years since, the programs that helped me have changed. In the ’80s, the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant became the Pell Grant (which Paul D. Ryan’s budget would cut). In the ’90s, A.F.D.C. was replaced by block grants to the states, a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. States can and do divert that money for other programs, and to plug holes in the state budget. And a single mother applying for aid today would face time limits and eligibility requirements that I did not. Thanks to budget cuts, she would also have a smaller base of the invaluable human resources — social workers, faculty members, university facilities — that were so important to me.
Since then, I’ve remarried, co-written books, worked as a magazine editor and finally paid off my college loans. My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well. We pay for sidewalks, streetlights, sanitation trucks, the military (we have three nephews in uniform, two deployed), police and fire departments, open emergency rooms, teachers, bus drivers, museums, libraries and campuses where people’s lives are saved, enriched and raised up every day. My country gave me the chance to rebuild my life — paying my tax tab is the only thing it’s asked of me in return.
I was not an exception in that little Section 8 neighborhood. Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?
Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.
A writer who was the co-author of Carissa Phelps’s “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time,” and is at work on her own memoir.