A New Look at Women on Welfare
by Ondine Geary and Jenny Owens
"Come on in," Judy* casually calls from the dining room table where she is laying out the children's dinner. We step into the small kitchen of her apartment and join the family at the table. Judy seems tired, but her young children are bursting with energy, happy to see their mother for the first time all day. She had just returned home from working at her assigned job, one of the requirements for receiving welfare benefits. Just above the table where they were eating, five framed pictures decorate the wall. All had been drawn by her children, each one illustrating different family members. Judy tells us about the people in these pictures enthusiastically. By the way she speaks of them, it is clear that her children mean the world to her. "I thank God every day that I've got six beautiful children. I thank God every day that they are healthy, and I don't stress over the little stuff anymore like I used to. As a single mom, I've learned with age and experience that stressing over the little stuff is not important. What's important is that you're making it, and that you can keep your kids happy, and that you can keep that love going."
Judy certainly has a great deal to worry about. She, like many women on welfare, has an extremely difficult time making ends meet. Judy explains, "I struggle, especially right now. I received a 447-dollar check last Saturday, and I had maybe fourteen dollars in my checking after I paid the bills, and did laundry, and bought diapers, and all the things we had to have here. I have even said before, ‘you know, I can't live on this; there's no way I can make it on this.' I catch myself telling the kids ‘Don't waste toilet paper, now. Mommy can't afford that, and don't waste that toothpaste'." These same concerns are expressed by another woman we spoke to. Sandy has one child and wants more than anything to be working again. She explains, "I went through September with no income at all. That's where my bills piled up, and now I've got disconnection notices from everybody. I've called all my utility companies and explained to them. I've made the least payments that I can, but it's stressful. It's very stressful. I get frustrated all the time." It is difficult for Sandy to not be able to buy her daughter the things that she would like. She has had to tell her daughter with an air of resignation: "When you go to the toy section, you aren't getting anything anymore."
Heather, married and a mother of three children, says: "We have really altered our lifestyles for this right now." Both she and her husband, like 1,300 other Knox County residents, are unemployed and looking for work. "Your choices are extremely limited if you have no degree," Heather says. This is the first time that she has had to turn to public assistance, and she hopes to be off of it as soon as possible. Sandy is also working toward the day she no longer needs public assistance: "I'm doing everything I can to get off it. Last night I went home and for two and a half hours, I called every company in the Yellow Pages starting with the A's. By the time I got to the D's, my neck was sore and my ears were burning. I can't stand it. Being on welfare stinks. My daughter couldn't join the band this year because I didn't have the money for it. I can't conceive of how anybody would be happy about being on it."
Though the desire to be working is great, there are many barriers that stand in the way. These women, like most others, find it extremely difficult to balance the responsibilities of home and work when they are employed. They often want to place children first, but the job sometimes demands otherwise. Judy says: "You start getting overwhelmed, and it's like you try to keep your wheels turning and you can't. A lot of women, they fall into depression and they find themselves not being the mom that they know that they can be, and then that leads them to quit their jobs." She also feels that when looking for work some employers are reluctant to hire women with young children, making the search for employment more difficult. "When you go to apply for a job, mostly, they want the job to come first. A lot of times if you tell them you've got children, they're like, ‘Oh, are they in school?' That's the first thing they will ask you, because if they are in school, it's not like the kids are going to be a threat to your job." Often, when women do find employment, there are other barriers that prevent them from staying employed. Many do not have transportation and can not afford daycare.
Yet another barrier they face, and quite possibly the strongest, is the image of welfare recipients. "What do I picture when I think of a welfare recipient?" Heather asks. " I picture extremely low income, if any income at all. Their kids, if they have kids, have dirty clothes, dirty faces, dirty hair, like they haven't been bathed properly. A run down house, and then a lot of times, it's like the parents don't care about where the kids are. That's what I picture." None of the women we spoke to fit this description. Yet this stereotype is a common one. We have all heard it before, and we each hold our own. "I just want to say, ‘hey, if you only knew what was going on here, you wouldn't judge people,' " explains Sandy. Seeing as how women make up the majority of those receiving welfare benefits, it is understandable that the stereotypes are often applied more to women than to men. In general, women face more difficulties with employment. Their experiences of economic struggles in a small community make them a unique group, illustrating that diversity exists here in realms beyond ethnicity and religion.
Kim has been working at the Department of Human Services (DHS) in job development since September. She co-teaches a job search class offered by the employment skills resource center, Opportunity Knox. She explains a few of the common misconceptions, "They're lazy. They're dirty. They don't want to work. They'll steal from you." These ideas come, she says, from the community not knowing, from being uninformed. Kim admits that she herself readily accepted the stereotypes before coming to work at DHS. Sandy attributes the images to something more. "I mean, this is a hard-working community. It's a blue collar town. Everybody struggles, everybody makes ends meet. They all do what they can, and I think when they see somebody on public assistance, it's like, ‘Well, they're worthless. We're out here busting our butts and they're not doing anything.'" There is a real sense that anyone can "make it" if they only try hard enough. The fact that these women are not "making it," then, must be due to laziness or an unwillingness to get tough and work hard.
"I had a lady tell me that I was pathetic because she knew that I was on public assistance," Judy says. "I told her that I didn't think that pathetic was the right word and I just smiled at her. I just blew it off, not gonna let people like that get the better of me because she doesn't know. She doesn't know, she's never been here. Who knows, her husband might get killed; she might end up having to go to public assistance, she might not have all that income. I think people that judge everybody on public assistance are the ones that never had to use it." Yet this is not entirely true. The images are so widespread that even those on welfare sometimes judge others, assuming that the stereotypes are valid. As Sandy says: "I honest to God thought I was going to come into the job search class with a bunch of welfare addicts. I mean, I don't want to say that I'm better than anybody, but that's what I thought. And that's the wrong way to perceive, but that comes from living in the community. That comes from living in this community."
Sandy, Heather and Judy are also aware that it is these images they are being judged against. Regardless of the numerous barriers that may lie before them, they feel ashamed to be in the situations they are in. As a result, many women try to hide the fact that they are receiving public assistance. They attempt to avoid discussing the subject at all. Sandy has not let anyone in the community, besides her child and boyfriend, know about her situation. In explaining this, she says, "I think if I allowed people know...people would definitely look at me different." Heather tries to conceal her status too. "I'm embarrassed that I'm on it. I'm ashamed of it," she says.
Food stamps, however, cannot be hidden. Standing in the check-out line at a grocery store, those small pieces of paper are a huge source of embarrassment and frustration as Judy, Sandy, and Heather. Heather has felt the need to start going to a smaller grocery store: "Normally, I would shop at Krogers or Big Bear. But with the food stamps, I've been going to Neff's, and it's just embarrassing. What if I see somebody I know behind me, who is an upperclass person, and here I am whipping out food stamps. They're going to look at me like, ‘God, you've turned into scum.'" Sandy goes out of town to buy groceries. She refuses to shop with food stamps in Mount Vernon because she does not want to be seen. Yet, regardless of whether or not she knows anyone in the store, it is "a very, very tough thing to deal with." Sandy says: "I'm okay until I get to the register and then it's like, you know, I can feel my face get hot and flushed because I'm so frustrated about it. I don't like doing it. And I just want to get it done and over with. And I found that I get real shaky. At that moment, my self-esteem drops. But as soon as I get out of the store and I load the groceries in the car, I start building myself back up." For many, the humiliation is as dispiriting as the economic hardship.
This humiliation and shame stem mostly from the idea that the community perception of people on welfare is negative. "I think they view us as losers," remarks Heather. Mark McClintock, who heads the Job Search classes, tries to disassociate Opportunity Knox with terms like welfare and public assistance because of the stigma that is attached to them. He says, "I think there is some general stereotyping, people feeling that people in this day and age, no one should be on public assistance. ‘There are jobs for everyone. Look at the paper, there are two pages every day just here in Mount Vernon. Everyone should have a job'--that kind of thing." There is a strong sense that the poor are responsible for their poverty. Consequently, those of lower income feel ashamed of their predicament.
Yet this does not paint a complete picture. Mark says that "there are certain groups and individuals and employers that are not like that." There are avenues which offer support and encouragement. Many of these are institutions located in the Knox County area; New Directions, Moundbuilders, Freedom Center, Salvation Army, or Interchurch. For Judy, a great deal of hope is found in the support she receives from people and organizations in Knox County. "There are a lot of people in Mt. Vernon, like with Opportunity Knox, that know there is a whole other side and they see it. So they know it, and they are there to help people rise and overcome it, and I think that they are doing a fantastic job. I've met more wonderful people in Mt. Vernon than I've met anywhere in my life, and I've been quite a few places and lived quite a few places. Here, they all seem to care."
There are certainly positive aspects to being on public assistance in a small community versus a large city. As Mark explains, "I do think that in Knox County, you're not quite as lost in the numbers. Maybe not as many community resources, but I think the ones that are here are trying to give a little bit more individual service. This is a small town, and accountability is a two-way process. When I go to the grocery store or whatever, I don't want people upset with me because of the way I've treated them. I want to have a long term relationship, and I feel in Franklin County there are just so many people that are numbers, that get lost. You never see them again, there is no follow up. There is almost no way for you to express human concern on a long term basis." Again, Judy finds encouragement from community: "The people here make you not want to be [low income]." She finds the support offered to be "inspirational and helpful."
Still, these positive aspects do not wholly override the negative. The support offered by some groups does not wash away the feelings of embarrassment, and it is more difficult to hide one's economic status in this small community. Judy says: "I think that if I was in Columbus, I'd blend in easier, just for the simple fact that you don't see too many people driving a car like mine in Mt. Vernon. But in Columbus, they're everywhere." Mark agrees that it is more difficult for one's economic status to go unnoticed in a small town: "As they say, everybody knows each other, and you don't get away with too much here in Knox County that either a neighbor, or a friend, or a relative, or a co-worker, or somebody isn't going to find out about."
There are some hardships that no community, large nor small, can ease. Jill is a case manager who works at DHS, assessing clients when they come in to determine their barriers to employment. She has learned a great deal. "I think I have a lot more understanding because I can sit down and talk with them and see exactly what their issues are, and helping them to work through them has helped me understand them a lot better. You know, it's not just lazy people wanting to sit home and eat bon-bons, watch soap-operas and draw a check. That's not what it is. A lot of people with some serious stuff going on." Kim's experience supports this. She says, "some of them just have so many barriers, and it's amazing. I think if I had those, I would go nuts. I wouldn't be able to handle them. It's just amazing some of the barriers that they have to go through. And a lot of them aren't their fault." It is clear that an unwillingness to work is not what is keeping many on public assistance.
The hardships these women face are all too often the result of circumstances over which they have little control. Those we spoke to repeatedly expressed that unemployment could disrupt anyone's life, that any person in the community could find him or herself in this predicament one day. Mark says just that: "All of us aren't too far from that set of circumstances and it could be any one of us walking in that set of shoes." Jill further expands on this notion: "They're just not any different than you or I. To meet them on the street, you wouldn't know a lot of them are on public assistance. A lot of them are going through tough times. Many of us are two pay checks away from being right where these people are. I mean, I am. If my husband and I lost our jobs, we'd be heading to the welfare office because you just can't live on nothing."
"I know what a lot of people think about people that are on assistance--that
they don't want to work, they are lazy, they're stupid. I've heard so many different things. I'd be the one to
stand up and say, ‘Look, I'm on public assistance, and I'm not stupid, and I'm not lazy. It's something that somewhere
down through your life you may end up being there.'" Judy told us, illustrating that the common perceptions
of welfare recipients have no truth in her experiences. It is also clear that these stereotypes have little relevance
to any of the women's lives. This is often the case; stereotypes prove inconsistent with reality. Yet, there are
ways in which we can combat these stereotypes. There are small roles that we can each play even if it is being
more aware and offering a little support. As Kim says: "I would just like to see more community awareness
and involvement. People complain about the welfare system, well, do something about it. Help us out. Give them
a job. Trust them. Have faith in them. Give them the experience. Give them a chance."
*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals.
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