Earlier this week, I participated in a discussion that really unnerved me. The discussion revolved around comments that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made regarding the American people. As other members of the forum chimed in and agreed with Governor Christie, slamming entitlements and vilifying those who received them as lazy, I could feel my blood begin to boil. I kept my emotions in check though, and asked myself why such comments had the ability to affect me. The answer was simple: I can’t let her go.
In my thirty-plus years of existence on this planet, my life has taken interesting turns. But regardless of the changes there is someone who remains with me. From the AP classrooms of my public school to corporate America to the plains of Northern Tanzania, a little girl has come with me. She is a little girl who came of age on the wrong side of the tracks. She is a little girl who used to pray that her classmates wouldn’t see her at the store as she bought her groceries with food stamps. She is a little girl who shared a one-bedroom 650 sq. foot apartment with her grandmother. She is a little girl who bit her lip in dismay every year as she did her back to school shopping at Kmart. She is a little girl standing with her Grandma at the local welfare office,filling out the applications and explaining them to her Grandma. She is the little girl sitting next to her Grandma during her annual reviews, mute with rage as the case worker berated her Grandma spoke to her with utter disrespect and condescension. That little girl was me.
My life did not start out this way. Prior to age ten I had little dealings with “the system”. My Mama had done everything the “right way”. Within days of graduating high school she joined the military and married my father, who had joined the Marines. I was born within the bounds of wedlock to parents who were employed full-time in stable careers. By the time I was two years old they would divorce and my Mama would have full custody of me. And though she was a single parent, I never wanted for anything. On the contrary, my early years were quite idyllic, as my Mom took care of everything that I needed. But later events would shatter that life. When my Mom fell prey to drug addiction and her second marriage fell apart, that sent all of us into an unknown world. My Grandma would become my guardian and was eligible to receive welfare benefits on my behalf.
There is a serious misconception regarding the nature of public assistance in the United States. President Ronald Reagan’s myth of the welfare queen has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. When people hear “welfare”, “government assistance” or “benefits”, they tend to picture pot-bellied, slovenly people spread out on their sofas, flipping channels as they pop bon-bons in their mouth on the taxpayer’s dime. This misconception is so far from the truth that it makes me want to laugh and cry.
There was nothing luxurious about my life as a child in a household that received welfare. To care for me, my state gave my Grandma a whopping $342.50 per month. This amount stayed the same for the eight years that my Grandma received benefits. Even if one was so inclined, it is not possible to live like a baller on less than $500 a month. And we did not. There was never a day where we splurged or spent frivolously in my household. There was never a day when my Grandma told me to always expect such assistance. On the contrary, she constantly preached to me pf the necessity of going to college and working as soon as I was old enough to do so. And at sixteen years old I got my first job. With the exception of my daughters early years, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in the workforce.
The life that I live now is quite different. The inner city that shaped my adolescence is a memory, as I now live in the suburbs. And though I find myself in a position quite similar to that of my Mom when she was young-divorced and rasing a daughter with absolutely no input or assistance from my ex-husband-I am doing it all without benefits. I do not receive food stamps, welfare, child support, housing subsidies or assistance of any kind, as I’m fortunate enough to have a full-time job that allows me to take care of my family’s needs. But I absolutely refuse to look down upon or condemn those who may not be in the same position that I am, who are unable to provide adequate food and shelter for themselves and their families. My life has changed, but the little girl inside me keeps me from looking down upon others and gives me compassion for them. I will never forget where I came from.