‘I Am a Welfare Mom and I Can Tell You: It’s a Nightmare Come True’

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Three years ago, my husband abandoned my two young children and me. As a stay-at-home mom, my grief was pushed to the side by the overwhelming realization that I had absolutely no way to provide for my kids. With no family to help me, an empty bank account, no job of my own, and two kids relying on me, I was terrified that we were going to end up homeless and hungry on the streets.

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As much as I was ashamed to admit it, welfare seemed to be my only option.

It was a Tuesday morning when I gathered up the courage to walk into the Department of Human Services looking for help. I got there right when the office opened, not realizing that people routinely show up hours before then to get in line. I waited six hours with a crying baby in my arms and a restless toddler clinging to my leg before I finally saw a social worker.

With my house in foreclosure and no money for an apartment, I was devastated to learn that the housing assistance program, known as section 8, had a waiting list that was more than five years long and was closed to new applicants. There was nothing the social worker could do except give me information for a shelter that offered up to six weeks of residency —  when they had room.

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If I made less than $400 a month, I was eligible for a small amount of cash assistance — less than $100 a week for a family of three — but I was also required to volunteer 20 hours a week or participate in job training. While I was not against that, with two young kids I was unable to do either as the waiting list for a daycare assistance program was six months long.

There were also hurdles to getting food stamps (also known as SNAP), thanks to an in-office paperwork delay of six months for new applicants, so I signed up for the “Women, Infant, and Children” program (WIC), which gives low income mothers vouchers to buy specific food items. But I soon abandoned that completely because I didn’t have childcare for the time-consuming classes the program required, and it proved too difficult to find the WIC-approved food items in the end. While I’m in no position to be complaining, if I wanted to keep a job, I couldn’t spend two full days a month sitting in a WIC office with my children, only to find out that none of my local stores carried the very specific items that WIC approves.

Eventually we were approved for food stamps, but despite the fact that my kids and I live far under the poverty line, a state budget crisis means that our benefit amount is so low that I am left standing in line at the food pantry just to be able to feed my kids.

The first big stepping stone in truly building a better future came when we were finally approved for subsidized daycare and I was able to begin working in what amounts to a minimum wage job. But even though I was only making $8.50 an hour, I was now disqualified from cash assistance.

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Still, I was one of the lucky ones. Due to budget deficits, many lawmakers have cut childcare assistance funding and left financially unstable parents with no way to better their lives. In Illinois, for example, 90 percent of applicants don’t qualify, even if they only make $665 a month. But childcare costs as much as (or more than) college tuition in many states; which nearly cancels out any money earned from a minimum-wage job.

As my kids grew older, and the care required for their special needs intensified, my biggest struggle has been relying on the so-called “free health insurance” provided to welfare recipients. We may have “free” health insurance, but the Affordable Healthcare Act has flooded the system with so many Medicaid patients that there simply aren’t enough doctors to see us. With two young kids who get sick often, I was crushed to learn that the pediatrician Medicaid assigned to us is based several hours from our home. Recently, even our local hospital was moved out-of-network. My son is in desperate need of specialized care, but has been on the waiting list to see a specialist for 18 months now — a list the office receptionist told me he would probably never make it to the top of because privately insured patients would be moved ahead of him.

We have free health insurance, but that doesn’t mean we have healthcare. In a country as developed as America, it sickens me to know that medical care is often unavailable to my children.

I’m in no position to be complaining about the assistance I receive, but because of how broken the system is, it’s not only leaving us hungry, sick, and stressed, it’s failing to help me get to a more stable place.

I want to get my family out of the system, but at this point I can’t figure out how. If I make even $100 more per month, my children and I will no longer qualify for public assistance and I will need to be able cover the full amount of my children’s daycare, food, and health insurance costs. I would obviously like to support my own family, but when welfare cuts people off for having a savings account, how can I ever prepare for that? And if I can’t plan ahead, how can I essentially triple my income to cover my costs in one month’s time?

I have no idea and because of that, I’m trapped. The government has given me no wiggle room, no opportunity to grow, no sliding scales that I can work with while I dig myself out of this hole. I’m stuck in a broken system that I can’t get out of, I’m a debt on society, and I’m forever surrounded by the stigma of being a “welfare mom.”

I am a welfare mom and I can tell you, it’s a nightmare come true.

America, the land of the free… homeless, hungry, sick, and trapped.

(Photos: Eden Strong)

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