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Working for Pennies – The Harsh Realities of Being a Welfare Recipient

By Kathy Henry

One of the biggest misconceptions in American culture is that welfare recipients are living large at the taxpayer’s expense, receiving thousands of dollars per month while driving Cadillacs and other expensive cars. This myth is so not true. How do I know? Because for the past two months, I have been on welfare and let me be the one to tell you: being on public assistance sucks!

August 3, 2011 will be a day in infamy I will never forget because it was on that date that I received my last unemployment check and officially became one of the 99ers, a term for unemployed people in the United States, who have exhausted all of their unemployment benefits, including all unemployment extensions. After applying for over two thousand jobs, I found myself in the position of having to apply for Public Aid or be faced with disconnection notices and phone calls from bill collectors who cannot speak English. If someone had asked me five years ago if I would be in this position, back on welfare, I would have laughed because I went back to school and received a Bachelor’s degree. I thought people who have degrees are supposed to be protected from economic turmoil. I graduated five years ago, from Roosevelt University, with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a 3.6 grade point average and I am proud of myself for that accomplishment. I know that some folks turn their noses up at people who pursue a liberal arts degree but I learned valuable critical thinking skills, how to analyze and solve problems in a creative manner, and most importantly, about social stratification and inequality and I have no regrets. I also have over ten years of transferable experience in the administrative/clerical field and an ability to work with all types, fools and all. However, even with all those wonderful qualities, I cannot find a job to save my life.

When I made the decision to apply for welfare, I tried to keep positive about my situation. Millions of Americans are suffering from either being unemployed or underemployed so at least I was not alone in my troubles. But I cannot lie: Feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy run through my veins on a daily basis and a rage is building in me. A rage against a society that tells individuals that a college degree is the path to economic prosperity, but does not disclose how centuries of social inequality have kept and will continue to keep some of  the best and brightest out of the workforce. A rage against rich, clueless politicians who believe that recipients of  unemployment and welfare benefits are sitting on their butts swigging alcohol and smoking dope. A rage against myself for waiting so long to get my life together and having to deal with the consequences of perhaps being considered passé in the workforce.

I was a teenage mother who did not get my GED until I was twenty-six and my Bachelor’s degree until I was thirty-five. The entire time before both these changes took place, I was told by society that if I educated myself, I would get myself and my children out of poverty. Guess what? It did not work because I am back on welfare receiving $318 dollars per month. I did everything society told me to do and I am in the same position I was in nine years ago when I made the decision to attend college and that is a shame.

If I did not have children, there is no way in hell I would have applied for welfare. But when you are a mother, one has to make sacrifices, so I swallowed my pride and applied for cash benefits. By signing the Personal Responsibility contract in return for public assistance, a welfare recipient in essence signs her rights to being an adult away. Recipients must work for their cash and going to school is not an option.

Yes, welfare recipients must WORK for their cash benefits. I know that people believe in the myth of women laying up on welfare, eating bon-bons and spitting out a baby every year while collecting those fat government checks but that is a load of malarkey.

On August 22, 1996 in the Rose Garden of the White House, President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as welfare reform, dismantling the sixty-one year program of federally guaranteed cash assistance to needy families or what is known as welfare. Welfare recipients have five years to receive cash assistance and after that, it is a wrap. The debate surrounding welfare reform was dominated by white male politicians and journalists and focused predominately on minority women and their families living in poverty because minority women are the only ones in America who received Public Aid (sarcasm). Although President Clinton had the right idea, he and others did not take into account what would happen if the economy collapsed and finding a job would be the equivalency of hitting the lottery.

It burns my soul that I am back on the dole, working for $318 per month, which is equal to $79.50 per week at six hours per day, after everything I went through to better myself. If I refuse to go to any of the job sites my caseworker sends me to, I will be sanctioned, meaning that my monthly benefits will be cut in half to $159. So the next time a hardworking tax payer complains about welfare recipients and how they are living well, eating lobster and sh*t, think about me, the college educated single mother who took care of her children, saw two of them graduate from high school and one from college, only to find herself and her youngest child still poverty-stricken and broke as hell.

Also, if anyone knows of any job opportunities in the Chicago-land area, please let me know.

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