I committed welfare fraud to take care of my family.
And I would undoubtedly do it again.
I AM the “welfare mom” you feel contempt for.
I had my first child at the age of sixteen (as it turns out, birth control is not 100% effective. Who knew?).
I graduated high school (surprise!) while also taking community college courses and working, too. I then went to a university, but left early to have a major reconstructive back surgery to correct a potentially fatal spinal deformity I was born with. Life happens.
I married at twenty years old. My new husband also had a young child. Two years after we were married, we had a child together and became young parents of three.
Shortly after that, I had my tubes tied because I did NOT want us to be young parents of four.
I worked full time and had since I was a teenager. My husband worked full time as well. We were self-sufficient and taking good care of ourselves and our family. We didn’t have any surplus funds, but we were making do. Struggling a bit, but always figuring it out.
After some discussion, we discussed going back to school – we were tired of struggling and wanted to better our lives and our children’s lives – and I told him to go back first because he knew what he wanted as a career: He wanted to be a firefighter. I was fine doing what I was doing, for the most part, and I had a decent earning potential for someone with no degree, so it made sense. I would go back later.
I continued to work full time in office jobs. He had some income through his new college’s work-study program while going to school full time, and a good portion of his schooling was paid by student loans. But we took on more expenses with his schooling, and our kids were in daycare a little more than they already were as a result.
And we were still struggling. And it just got worse.
Once my paycheck hit the bank, it was immediately gone again after paying rent for a small but acceptable three bedroom apartment in a low income complex. We couldn’t afford to pay for daycare, but without daycare, I wouldn’t be able to work and there’s no way he would be able to continue school. Without him going to school, we knew there was no way we were climbing out of our current situation. There was a lot of “Catch 22” happening.
So we finally swallowed our pride and applied for government assistance. Anything we could qualify for that would help, we applied for it.
And thankfully, we qualified for a lot because we were just that broke.
We were granted daycare assistance, food stamps, and medical assistance.
We were relieved.
We were also ashamed.
As someone who wore the “teen mother” stamp on her forehead, I LOATHED the fact that I was now a “welfare mom”.
While I was dating my daughter’s father in high school, I had the term “white trash” hurled at me for the first time by my daughter’s wealthy great-grandmother, and I felt like I was easing more and more into that role. Proving her right. Because now I was a “welfare mom”.
I worked full time, I kept a clean house, as clean as you can with three small children and no time to yourself – this seemed very important to me.
I didn’t want to LOOK like a welfare mom…whatever that means.
I did everything I could, but I couldn’t escape the label. And it pissed me off. I kept telling myself this was only temporary.
I was not a “welfare mom”. I was a mother and I was doing my damn best.
But even with help, we struggled.
Children are expensive. LIFE…is expensive.
We received food stamps each month, but we were still juggling this bill and that bill – a lot of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” going on – to keep food on the table and a roof over our head.
I cut every coupon; store coupons, manufacturer coupons, “double coupons”, and I shopped at the discount store that honored all competitors’ coupons. One time, with my coupons stacked up, the store actually had to pay ME to buy two giant cans of Nestlé’s Quick. I’m still proud of that one.
We made it work, for the most part, but we had to be very creative with the food that lingered in our pantry, especially towards the end of the month…that alone makes me certain I would do well on the TV show “Chopped”, as I am now a culinary wizard who can make a dinner out of ingredients that do NOT make sense together in the real (read: not poor as hell) world.
But what about soap? Shampoo? What about toothpaste? A new toothbrush? What about toilet paper? Tampons? What about band-aids? What about…everything that doesn’t qualify as a “food stamp eligible” product?
You can fill your shopping cart with $300 worth of Oreo cookies and cream soda if you want – but you can’t buy toiletries. The food stamp program, thank goodness, is available…but don’t get me started on how broken it is.
So I shopped strategically. Back when food stamps were printed on paper bills, you got actual US Currency back in change, so my trick was to bring my calculator, make sure my grocery total was, for instance, $25.01. Or $32.03.
I would use the change to buy soap. To buy store-brand toothpaste so my kids’ teeth didn’t rot out of their heads.
And, by doing this, I was committing welfare fraud.
It was illegal to knowingly ‘work the system’ to get change back, but without that fraud, my kids wouldn’t have had toilet paper most months. I worked the HELL out of that system with my calculator and careful shopping. And my children were able to bathe with actual bars whatever brand of soap was on sale for the cheapest. Though I think we splurged and bought Elmo Bubble Bath once or twice.
Where was my paycheck going? To rent, to water, to garbage service, to electricity.
Most of our utilities were turned off now and again for a day (or two) at a time when we didn’t juggle right. Add one more thing to make us feel like the worst parents in the world. Sorry, I know the shower’s cold, try to pretend it’s not. It’ll be warm again on Wednesday. I hope.
Wait, what do you mean the water won’t come back after you flush? Oh. Ok that should be back tomorrow, I need to make a call. No, I guess you don’t have to wash your hands for dinner tonight, just get to the table.
My paycheck went to diapers. To baby wipes. Ointment for diaper rash for my young son’s sensitive skin that would burn if a damp diaper sat on him for more than 3 seconds…which sometimes it had to because, TADA!…not enough money for diapers sometimes, so I had to try to “make them last”.
But I worked full time. When I picked my children up on Friday evenings at daycare, I would look at the log and they had been there for 50 hours that week.
Again, I was ashamed.
My paycheck went to car insurance and to gas for our barely running car so that I could CONTINUE to work full time. And get our children to daycare or to the doctor when they were ill.
Oil changes for the car? Hardly. THAT was a luxury. New tires to replace the bald tires that are most likely completely unsafe? Please.
“Must be nice…” I remember hearing once when I had a steak from that marked down section of the meat section that had a few grey spots. Yup. I was going to split that brown and grey steak 5 ways for a stir fry dish with the ramen and the head of broccoli in my cart. Living it up!
Never mind the fact that I’ve glued the sole back onto my shoes five times with glue I borrowed from my in-laws because I couldn’t afford new shoes. Or glue.
My daughter would often fall ill with ear and upper respiratory infections, and, due to an allergy to any sulfa-based medication, her prescriptions were usually in the vicinity of $100. Our doctor visits were paid for, but our medical assistance did not have prescription benefits. Those were out-of-pocket expenses.
So I would buy that expensive cut of meat you hear about welfare moms buying. “Oh look at that, must be nice to be on welfare. I CAN’T even eat like that and I work for a living.”
But, like I mentioned once or twice, I did “work for a living”…and I still had to buy that meat, usually a roast that was somewhere middle-of-the-road expensive but not TOO ridiculous, so that I could return to the store later and return it with some excuse about the wrapper being open or the meat smelling spoiled…for cash, i.e. commit welfare fraud, so my daughter’s ear infections didn’t damage her hearing or travel to her brain tissue – an actual risk I had to worry about because of the severity and frequency of the infections.
I felt like a leech on the system. Because that’s what we’re told we are when we accept government assistance.
I felt like a thief. Because, in a sense, I was a thief. I committed a crime.
And, I will repeat: I would undoubtedly do it again if it came down to taking care of my family – or not.
With social media bringing everyone’s opinions on all things, I hear people offer helpful advice like, “They should just go get a job.” And “it must be nice to live high on the hog on my tax dollar”. “Oh, what’s it like not to have to work for your things while everyone else does?” “Oh, your job doesn’t pay enough? Tough shit, get a better one!” “Go to college!” “Back in MY day, we…”
I hear things like that and remember missing so much of my kids’ lives due to the hours I’d have to put in. I’d think of the time we ate nothing but freezer burned turkey-ham for a month because, after having to replace the alternator in our car, we couldn’t afford a decent protein, not even marked down slightly grey hamburger in the discount part of the meat section, so we grazed on the “free turkey-ham!” we got with a store promotion during the holidays. Turkey-ham and eggs. Turkey-ham sandwich on bread from the discount rack. Turkey-ham and store-brand mac & cheese. Turkey-ham and ramen…so much ramen.
It’s been 20 years and I still can’t stand ham. Even the “good” ham.
I remember when I heard that food stamps were replaced with cards to be swiped like credit cards. There are so many great things about that, but the first thing I thought of was, “HOW DO THEY BUY TOILET PAPER NOW??” There’s no way to “shop smart” to get change back. I can’t even imagine what to do without that little “food stamp hack”.
I’ll never forget the day I was told that they would now close my case. I no longer qualified to receive benefits because I had worked through that period of my life and was finally a little more stable on my feet. It was a little scary “no longer qualifying for assistance”, because I certainly didn’t FEEL financially comfortable, but things had definitely improved and it felt great to get there. Government assistance had assisted me to reach this point.
That part of my life is currently behind me, but I remember how it felt to need help…and to be thankful, regardless of my shame about it, that it was even available.
I know that I am human, life is unpredictable, and who knows? Something catastrophic could happen, and I could find myself NEEDING help again.
So could you.
And every time I hear someone, with their wise words on how the poor – the working poor and those unable to work due to their own unique circumstances – should “do this” or “do that”, I take a deep breath and try to find the best way to inform them:
While it’s REALLY easy to look at a situation from the outside and pass judgment on that “welfare mom” you just saw put something other than the aboslute cheapest package of processed food they could find in their cart and what they should be doing instead of being lazy beneficiaries of your tax dollar…
You probably don’t know shit.