f l a m e . o r g

organized flames


Posted on February 25, 2014

There are a lot of people discussing what should happen with welfare, to which I am including housing assistance, food stamps, and other forms of direct-to-the-person assistance. I am also including disability in this group because it is just another form of assistance.

My Past

Many do not know some parts of my past, mostly because I don’t like talking about them. They are what helped shape my opinions on various topics, and defined me in other ways, but parts are quite uncomfortable to discuss.

I grew up on welfare. My mother worked hard, but could not keep a roof over our heads and put food on the table. She applied for and received a low-rent apartment through assistance programs, food stamps, and the shameful mark I had to personally carry from the time I was 6 years old until I left high school: the dreaded “free lunch program” card of shame.

I know my mother was happy to get assistance because that meant we could survive. Our family was also poor in general, so little assistance would or could come from them. It’s not like we had rich friends to help us by giving us a room to share in some unused wing of their mansion. Had she not pushed through the then strong social stigma of asking for and receiving assistance, I honestly believe I would not be here today.

Oh, I’m not sure I’d have starved, but I was well on my way to becoming a criminal. I’d likely be dead or in prison. My mother said I was just hanging out with the wrong crowd, and she was quite right, but I selected the crowd as much as they selected me. I shudder to think what my life would have been had my mother not been as brave and dedicated as she was.

The Shame of Welfare

Taking a hand-out is shameful. It is hard to accept a hand-out when you think deep down inside you don’t deserve it. It’s unearned. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. And it was made so by the system itself, where you have to expose yourself to scrutiny by the social workers. Then you have to pay rent, interacting with the people who know you’re one of their least desirable tenants. Then you have to pay for food with funny money – yes, that was when they printed food stamps on paper – which made everyone around you know you were poor.

And then came the dreaded free lunch card at school. I had to go ask for it each week. My friends could buy a full month at a time, but I had to go and stand in line, have them check on a list, and hand me a specially colored card that did the same advertisement to all around me as the food stamps did for my mother: here is a poor child.

Every one of my classmates knew I was a poor child. Some (who were not so poor themselves) were friends anyway, but many teased me for not being able to afford things like fancy notebooks, fancy pencils, or things like new clothes for school.

“Unnecessary” Things

My mother did save up every penny she could and bought me something not everyone had access to. My grandmother died, and left her a bit of money, which she used to purchase a computer. We’re talking ancient TRS-80 Model I here. Oh, and we had a TV. It was black and white.

We had to hide these from our welfare social workers, however, because by their terms, these were assets and should be sold. They were right, they were assets. They would have taken them away as unnecessary, but they would be wrong.

I watched educational TV. I’d even skip school to watch PBS. I learned stuff. I loved learning. I loved reading. I also loved taking the TV apart, but I also put it together again.

With that computer, I learned to program at a very early age. I sold my first program to a small business at age 12. This was a major turning point in my life, and as I’m very much a computer expert today, was the most critical to where-I-am-now.

The welfare system would have demanded we starve, or we live homeless, or we sell those things that made it possible to escape the hell we were in.

So, what?

I think I came out quite OK. I am not so full of ego that I believe I did this all by my own efforts. I got help. I got lots of help. I used that help to, today, pay back society in more ways and with larger magnitude than I ever took in the form of welfare.

The reason I’m sharing this is in reaction to the hatred that is spread all over Facebook and other media sources about drug tests, cutting programs for the takers, and dealing with the minimum wage issue. I’m sharing this part of my darker past because each time someone posts about how wrong it is to let a welfare person live even a bit of a happy life, I become more angry.

Welfare is not an easy life. It looks like it until you’ve lived on it. Some people will game the system, sure. However, from stats released by the USDA, the rate is a mere 1%. That’s $0.01 for each $1.00 spent on the program. That is very, very low.

Drug tests are not the answer. Putting 99% of honest welfare recipients through more shameful and more dehumanizing acts to receive assistance won’t save a single penny. It will help fewer people, and it will not reduce the already low fraud rate by very much. It will cause more people to be denied, though, and that is also shameful. Even if some welfare recipient smokes a joint, why does it matter in your life? That small pleasure barely offsets a day’s misery, and it’s cheaper than a movie. Why punish them for something when we let congress members off for cocaine?

If you want to cut welfare spending, support the increase in minimum wage. Support education for low-income families. Support a way out.

The reason so many people are “working poor” is because they do not want assistance, but they also want their kids to survive. Raising the minimum wage is the best way to increase tax income and reduce expenditures on welfare at the same time. People would make more, and pay more in taxes. People would make more, and not need assistance. People would make more and not qualify for need-based assistance.

And most importantly, people could live without as much shame.