Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hi, I'm USA Today Bestselling author Jennifer Armintrout, and I'm on "welfare".

It started this morning with a facebook comment. Not on my own page, but on someone else's. And it was more than one comment. This person's diatribe read as follows:

look at china.... 1 child per family. they should do that same thing here. would help regulate the baby making machines on welfare and food stamps.who abuse the system.[...]that is why the first amendment is so wonderful brittany. People can have opinions that differ from others. I feel that any mother that has to get on WIC, state aided insurance for their children, or receive any help from the federal or sta...te level, cannot afford to take care of the children they already have. Which is where I differ from most peoples opinions. I know what its like to grow up poor, and going to bed hungry at night. i also know what its like to only be able to sit in front of a kerosene heater for heat, and only take cold running watered showers. Too often i see mothers driving better cars than i do, and are able to eat better than i do. The only point i am making is, if a person is adult enough to make such decisions as having children, make sure you can afford to take care of that child, without the aid of these programs. When our parents were our age and having children, they never lived with their parents, nor did they ever ask for help. At least mine never did.

Setting aside the fact that this person advocates population control, i.e., complete control over a woman's fertility whether she likes it or not... no, wait, let's not set that aside. They're talking about how great the first amendment is while arguing for the destruction of personal freedom? How do you even wrap your mind around that kind of logic?

No, wait, original point. I read this person's comments and they really hit home. Because I'm on government assistance.

When I started writing, my husband, son and I were hanging on by our fingernails. Because we couldn't afford daycare but fell above the acceptable assistance level, I stayed home with my infant son while my husband worked fifty hours a week to make ends meet. My first contract, for Blood Ties 1, 2, and 3, was a lot of money at the time. 18k for three books. I was super excited, because now I could afford Netflix. Let that sink in. I could finally afford a nine-dollar-per-month dvd rental service, and it was a big deal in our house. So, we weren't the poorest people in the world, but we definitely weren't middle class or anything. We were barely working class.

When it was time to negotiate the contact for my next book, I was super psyched. I had an agent, so I bet I would get, like, 20k for three books this time! After negotiations, I ended up with a $200,000 advance for four books. We lived of off that for four years. We bought a house. Not a big one, but still, we owned a house. We bought a car. We decided to have another kid. Royalties that came in were high. My husband quit the job he hated and went back to school. Everything was fine.

And then it wasn't. When things took a downward turn, I didn't immediately panic. "We can hold on until Joe finishes school and gets a job. We have savings. This will blow over." I waited for a year for things to just "blow over", and they didn't. Our savings dried up. I got a job at McDonald's. My husband quit college and went back to work at the same job, this time at half the pay. Our resources were tapped out. I had to apply for welfare.

I'm not proud to say that we've been on foodstamps and energy assistance for a year now. I'm not proud to say that because of my pride, I waited until we were destitute to take action and seek the help that my government offers. We lost that house, which was, incidentally, the house I lived in during my teen years and held a lot of memories. I'm not proud about any of this. But pride doesn't feed your kids or keep them warm, so I can't afford pride.

And yet, the attitude persists that people on welfare are there because they're bad people. I don't think it's morally repugnant to do what needs to be done to provide for your children. In fact, I think a bad person is one who will let their children go to bed hungry when other options are available, simply because they value their pride and appearance over the well-being of their kids. That facebook commenter reserves the right to her opinion, and I reserve the right to mine.

I don't think anyone actually sits down and says, "I'm going to have this baby that I can't afford because life is more fun when it's hard." I don't think anyone actually says that they're going to intentionally live off of public assistance, and if they do, it's not much of a life, so don't envy them. In order to recieve cash assistance in the state of Michigan, you have to look for a job for forty hours a week. That's forty hours a week of pounding the pavement, filling out applications. You also have to tell the places that you're applying that you're on cash assitances, so they can sign your form to prove that you've been out looking. That's right, you get to tell a stranger that you're on welfare, and open yourself up to the derision of people like our facebook friend up there. In public. I
n the end, you get something in the area of a hundred bucks a month for a family of four.

There's a story that I hear all the time, from literally everyone. A woman goes to the checkout at the grocery store. Usually, the woman in question is described as "black" in a whispered voice because apparently black people put hidden mics around the houses of white conservatives to catch them being racist or something. I don't know, I don't get the whispered "black" that almost always accompanies this story. But I digress. This woman goes up to the checkout with some kind of luxury item in plain view. Many times, it's a brand name purse or expensive-looking manicure. She heaps piles of exotic groceries onto the belt: t-bone steaks, lobster, organic produce. Somehow, she also gets alcohol and cigarettes in there, and she whips out her assistance card and waltzes out with those groceries, six screaming kids in tow. On rare occassions, she actually is overheard telling the cashier how great it is to keep having babies and getting free stuff, so she's never going to work. Almost always, the person telling the story was standing behind her in line, their meager peasant rations pitfully malingering at the feet of the welfare queen's bounty.

It's all bullshit. For one thing, this story is so widely repeated that it just can't be true. I'm not saying that you didn't see a woman with an expensive purse using a foodstamp card. In fact, I often carry my Coach purse, which I bought five years ago, because it is sturdy and if something happens to it, there's a lifetime guarantee on it. What I'm saying is, I was a cashier. My husband was a cashier for almost seven years. Neither of us has ever seen this woman who gleefully hands over her foodstamps and chats loudly about how great it is to commit welfare fraud.

I'm going to break this down for you. Let's pretend you really, truly did see this woman with her expensive clothes or nails using her foodstamp card. Perhaps she bought those clothes before she became poor. It's possible she has to dress a certain way for her job. And if she is buying steak or lobster, maybe it's her birthday. Or maybe she's cooking for her boss or parents or something and she doesn't want them to know how bad it's been.

No one is omniscient. None of us can know what every single person on welfare is thinking or feeling. But what it is about simply needing help, asking for it, and receiving it that makes so many people assume the worst about a person? Maybe instead of worrying about how many people are abusing the system, we could say, "Thank god that's there to help people in need." Maybe we could say, "Thank god I don't have to ask for that kind of help, only to be looked down upon."

I'm Jennifer Armintrout, USA Today Bestselling Author and public assistance recipient, and I am a good person. And so are a lot of people in the same boat with me.

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