It was 1974 when my marriage ended. I was young, only 24 years old. My husband refused to pay child support and I couldn't force him — I couldn't afford a lawyer and he threatened to sue for custody of our son if I went after him. My parents — who hadn't liked my husband in the first place (probably because he had braids and lived in a schoolbus), who didn't approve of my having children so young and who didn't want me to be a bad influence on my younger siblings — refused to let me come home.
I had no job. I had no savings. I had no health insurance. I had a 1-year-old son, and I was pregnant.
Admitting I needed help
I was stricken. I needed prenatal care, plus I had to pay for the birth itself and then well-baby visits after he was born. Nearly everyone I knew advised me to get an abortion. Some people even advised me to give my son up for adoption so I could get a job.
I grew up in an upper-middle-class family where welfare was considered a refuge for lazy bums who couldn’t be bothered to take responsibility for themselves. I had a college degree, so I thought I should be able to find work, though it turns out a B.A. in English didn't qualify me for much. I worked briefly as a live-in housekeeper, but when they found out I was pregnant, they let me go. I spent every day searching newspaper ads, but I found nothing. There were also no daycare centers in my city, Worcester, Mass., for children under 3, so I had no place to put my son while working an office job, even if I could have afforded it.
I felt ashamed to be asking for help, but I logically knew that I needed to. I spent weeks scribbling down budgets, trying to make the numbers work, but they wouldn't. I also knew I had been working since I was 16, I would be working soon and would pay taxes again. I told myself that government assistance was similar to unemployment: I had paid into the system, and now I needed it.
Luckily I had a friend named Jill, who I met while a student at Clark University. She was on public assistance and was a founder of the local chapter of the Welfare Rights System. Just knowing someone who was in the system made it a little less scary.
If I hadn’t known what to ask for, I would have been in a lot of trouble. Social workers in Worcester — and really everywhere — weren't consistent or helpful. Two people could go in the welfare office and one could come out and have a check, foodstamps and more, while the other would be denied, and they didn’t even know you could appeal the decision. Sometimes the social workers were told to act as though the money was coming out of their own pocket. It was a way to keep the rolls down. But with Jill's advice on what I had a right to, I went into the office, and came out with food stamps and a monthly check.
My luxurious life on welfare
I lived in a tenement apartment with lead-painted walls. It was the cheapest option besides subsidized housing, which had a waiting list of several years. Once heat and rent were paid, I had $10 per month left for everything that food stamps didn’t cover — laundry soap, tampons, everything. And this was in Massachusetts, which had one of the highest welfare allotments. I don't know how people in other states survived.
Because my check came once a month, I really had to budget wisely to make it last. The first month the money dwindled so fast on little things like a pacifier and a surprise fee from the bank that I nearly ran out two weeks in. But I devised a system: I had these little envelopes that I labeled with heat, rent, milk, phone, household items and emergencies. When I cashed the check, I would divide the cash into the envelopes.
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A lot of things about welfare were counterintuitive. You couldn't have a roommate because to qualify you had to be the head of the household. When I moved into my tenement apartment, I had only my grandmother's rocking chair, a table, a crib and a sleeping bag. I got emergency assistance — an additional welfare payment — to buy furniture, which came in the form of a voucher for the cheapest couch at the cheapest furniture store in the city. So if the price of the couch went up between them giving you the voucher and you arriving at the store, I wouldn't have been able to buy it. But I also couldn't use the voucher anywhere else, so I couldn't get a cheaper used couch at Goodwill.
Being a welfare mother entitled everyone to make judgements about me and my choices. Once when I was in the grocery store, the woman in line behind me saw my foodstamps and peered into my cart. "Mushrooms," she sniffed. "Fresh beans when canned are half the price. Artichoke hearts, for heaven's sake!" When my son fell down and hit his head, a social worker was entitled to question me on whether I was abusive. And everyone from the divorce lawyer I tried to consult to a stranger seeing my food stamps in the convenience store would call me a "lazy welfare mother" to my face.
I mostly associated with other people and mothers who were on welfare, like my friend Jill. We supported each other, babysitting each other's kids, buying bulk food to share, starting a garden and organizing to get what we needed from the welfare office. My friends even cleaned my apartment for me while I was in the hospital giving birth to my baby, cleaning up the lead dust workmen had left behind so it was ready for me when I got home with my healthy baby boy.
I joined a women's folk dancing team, which was technically free, though it cost me in gas and costumes that I had to sew. I had to find something to get me out of my tiny apartment. I didn't tell anyone in the dance group, all normal, middle-class students, that I was on welfare. I was afraid they would look down on me and not want to associate with me if they knew. But dancing gave me an escape from my normal life, a taste of transcendent moments that were — at that time — all too rare.
How I got off the rolls
I often fantasized about a rich Prince Charming, but it didn't work out that way. (I did find out later that marriage is the most common way to get off of welfare.) Instead, I plotted my career, waiting until my two kids both started school, four years later.
I decided that it would make sense for me to get trained as a teacher, so my work hours would coincide with my kids being in school. The annual salary of $8,000 seemed like a lot of money in 1980. I realized that I only needed a couple more classes to be certified. And during a surprising call, my mother invited me back to Maryland to be near her and my father. I found a job at a school in Baltimore. When I went to the welfare office to cut off my checks, the social worker looked at me and said, "Good luck. I have a feeling you're going to make it."
In that teaching position, I worked my way up to $15,000 a year. But even though I was no longer on assistance, the salary of a teacher wasn't enough to lift a single parent and two kids out of poverty. I wanted to try something different. I thought that if I could fix computers I would always have a job, so I convinced my parents to pay for night classes at a technical college. There I was, in my mid-30s, in a classroom with all boys just out of high school. In those days, women weren’t commonly hired for jobs like that, but one of my teachers recommended me and got me a job.
That was eight years after I had first gone on welfare. Since then, I've worked up to a position as a computer security engineer, making in the low six figures. I have a comfortable 401(k) and an emergency fund. My children, who are in their late 30s, are both professionals — one is a web designer, and the other is in medical school. He’s going to be a primary care doctor. I paid for their college. It was a struggle, but I did it, all on my own. I never did remarry.
The reality of the 'welfare queen'
The reality of the 'welfare queen'
I used to hear people talk disparagingly about people on welfare, and I would just walk away. I didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want them to know about me. But, over time, I came to be embarrassed. How would anyone know that the stereotype wasn't true if they didn’t know my truth? So that's why, 10 years ago, I decided to write a book about my experience.
Since I’ve started working on the book, I’ve been more open to confronting people. Sometimes my story changes their mind. For instance, after telling a women about being told to give up my children and not wanting to, she said, "Wow, I thought mothers had more children to get a bigger check. Now I know that’s not true."
I’ve had people say, "Well, that’s just you and the people you knew, but others take advantage of the system." I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know I met a large cross-section of people, and I never saw that attitude. Who would want no discretionary income a month? It’s not something to aspire to, and fighting for your benefits is not easy.
I’ve had people say, "I didn’t know white people were on welfare." But did you know the percentage of white and black people on welfare is almost equal?
Once a friend posted on their Facebook wall about my book, and somebody said, "You and your children should have just died instead of take money from the government."
But I’m not out to slam anyone, because I had all these misconceptions in my head, too. Sometimes I even have to remind myself.
How welfare changed me
Those four years on welfare made me a better person. They made me realize I could do things I didn’t know how to do, and people were so generous with food and clothing, it changed my view on life. Now I feel the need to pay it forward and I give a lot of money away.
Today I budget very precisely, even with my six-figure income. All those years I would walk through a department store and know I couldn’t afford to buy anything. I’ve never quite lost that. I have a mindset of, "I could buy that, but eh, it’s not that important to me."
I think that my acts in the decade since then have more than repaid the little benefits that I received. What I pay in federal taxes each year is more than everything I received.
What would have happened if I hadn't gotten welfare? We probably would have died. Or, I would have camped out with my kids on my mother's lawn until she took us in. But many people don't even have that option.
Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes. Some people can get that from their parents, but some people need the government. Families with young children face a particularly hard struggle, but these children are the next generation of doctors and engineers and teachers who will carry on our society. Investing in them is an investment in America's future.
Barbara Morrison, author of "Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother," is a computer security engineer in her early 60s who lives in Baltimore, Md. She is the author of a poetry collection entitled "Here at Least" and is currently working on a novel. Visit her website and blog at bmorrison.com.
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