Pride, Prejudice and Public Assistance
I come from a long line of hard-working people. I had my first job at fourteen and joined the military at seventeen. I was expected to earn my own way in the world and asking for help was very much frowned upon. If you needed something, you found a way to pay for it yourself or learned to live without it. I had a lot of opinions about Public Assistance when I was a young woman. Welfare equaled “lazy” and food stamps were for those who didn’t want to work to feed their own families. That is how I saw it, mostly because that it was I was taught. How smug I was, up on my high horse, with all my opinions and ideas about Public Assistance and those who benefitted from it. Little did I know, everything I thought I knew was about to be challenged in ways I had never dreamt of. The Bible says that “pride goes before a fall”. I believe when it came to the subject of Public Assistance, I was particularly prideful. It’s easy to be when you live in a nice townhome on base, have enough money for groceries and a car to drive. I worked as a Nanny for a wealthy couple in San Diego, filling in when “the Mrs.” went on long business trips. It was just $110 a week; pocket money, really. With two small children under the age of five and another on the way, it helped to fill in the gaps that a military paycheck didn’t cover. I was smart, honest and hard-working. I tried with everything in me to be a good wife and mother. What could possibly go wrong? Life. Life can go wrong. I was six months pregnant with our third child when my ex-husband abandoned us. He moved all the money to an overseas account, had us thrown out of base housing and made no move to pay child support. In less than two weeks, I found myself in the midst of chaos: no real income, no home and very little options. My father wouldn’t take us in and my sisters couldn’t. So, I sold everything we had and moved to Missouri to live with my Mother-in-law until I could figure out what to do next. In a matter of weeks, I found myself sharing one small bedroom with my children, desperately searching for answers where there were none. I had to figure it out and quickly, because the stone cold truth was, no one was coming to save us. I stretched my meager resources for two whole months, which is admirable, all things considered. My mother-in-law lived on social security and couldn’t support us, even if she wanted to. My sisters helped where they could, but they had bills to pay, too. In the end, one thing became very clear: I was in dire straits and no amount of hope was going to make that go away. No one would hire me at almost eight months pregnant and even if they had, I couldn’t afford the cost of childcare for two small kids. My mother-in-law couldn’t watch them all day, either. I was drowning, with three little lives dependent on me. You know what won’t feed your kids? Pride. The day I went to apply for food stamps is the first day I laid mine down. There are some things that stay with you for life. The day I went down to the Division of Family Services is one of them. I put on my nicest dress, made sure my hair looked good and walked in thinking they would clearly be able to see I “wasn’t like the others”. Even as I write the words, I am ashamed that I ever thought that way. So much pride. I was about to find out that I was no better than any other person in that room. The woman who took my application didn’t even bother to look me in the eye…just snatched the papers out of my hand and proceeded to fire questions at me, hardly allowing me the time to answer. I could feel my anger and resentment rising, but this was no time to lose my temper. The saying “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was no longer just a pleasant reminder to be nice. If you wanted your paperwork processed, you had to keep your mouth shut. Finally, as she came to the end of her interrogation, she looked at my swollen belly and sneered “Do all your children have the same father?” I was so angry, I could hardly speak. I demanded to see her supervisor, but the truth is, no one cared about my situation. They didn’t care that it wasn’t my fault or that I was a veteran or that I was the exact opposite of lazy. Did I want the food stamps or not? That was the only question on the table. I had to have them and that’s all there was to it. Like I said, pride doesn’t feed your children. That was the first lesson of many. Back then, food stamps came in a pack and looked sort of like monopoly money. To pay for your food, you had to count out the paper and hand it to the cashier while everyone watched. Once, when I was in line at the grocery store, a guy behind me said “If she can afford to dress her kids like that, you’d think she could afford to buy her own groceries.” My face turned beet red, as he and his wife laughed. I could have told them that I shopped at yard sales and thrift stores, but there was no point. He had already made up his mind about me the minute the food stamps came out. My church adopted me and my children for Christmas and were exceedingly generous, lavishing their love on us with presents I could never have afforded. Time after time, God showed His mighty hand of provision through other people and I had no choice but to accept it. It’s one thing for you to do without; it’s entirely another for your children to suffer. So, I accepted what was given with a deep humility and an appreciation I might not have known otherwise. It changed me on a soul level and I am forever grateful for it, although to this day, I can still feel the deep sense of shame that came with it. It will never leave me. As long as I am living, I will always remember exactly what that felt like. There is so much more I could write about, so much I wish I could say, but there’s not enough pages to tell you about all the lessons I learned during those years. I eventually went to nursing school, even though most people told me I’d never make it with three little kids at home. I made straight A’s in school, won the Nurse of the Year award and clawed my way out of poverty, one small accomplishment at a time. No one but me and God knows what it took for me to get back up and how deep I had to dig to believe in myself once again. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. These days, if I see someone using their EBT card, I say a silent prayer for them. I make no assumptions about their circumstances or how they got to be there. Maybe those Air Jordans that kid is wearing are his prized possessions, donated by a family better off than his own. Maybe that woman throwing microwave meals in the cart is going to school, rolling the dice on a better future for herself and her children. Or maybe the person in front of me has only ever experienced generational poverty and this is all they know. Maybe they don’t have enough self-esteem to see that they can be better, have better and knowbetter. All I know is, it will never be me that judges them. I will never look at another human being with the same prejudices I once had, because I know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. I will never forget it and I am grateful for it, even though it laid to waste every ounce of pride I once had. If that’s what it took to make me a better human being, so be it. Public Assistance exists for a reason and while it can be abused, we must not assume that everyone who uses it, falls into that category. Be kind and might I dare say, be careful, because you might find yourself in a place you never dreamed of. I would know.