When we lost my husband's income in 2011, we never thought we'd still be in this situation two years later.
He spent his first summer of "unemployment" taking a small business course. He had been helping me with my sole proprietorship for years, but the time he took to turn it into an LLC and smooth out some of our operations allowed our revenues to take a leap. Unfortunately, it was not a high enough leap to support us entirely.
Because he still had the unemployment compensation last spring, we decided to take another kind of leap and enroll him in a teaching certification program. For years he'd wanted to do a more service-oriented profession and leave the corporate world, where he felt less and less sense of purpose. We were assured that his unemployment compensation would last through his job retraining, but in the fall, right before he embarked on the (unpaid) internship part of the process, the Legislature decided he'd received unemployment long enough--that he and all the other lazy n'er-do-wells should quit milking the public. We were pretty unprepared for this and as he was in the middle of his program and already committed to the internship, we just dove into the darkness and prayed for the best.
Since then, we have continued to work hard at our business, I've taken on additional teaching hours, get speaking gigs as often as possible and pray that my upcoming royalty statement will actually have a check in it. And since September, we have received food stamps, help from our church, friends and families, grants from the electric company, and charity medical care.
I had a "friend" refer to any kind of tax-supported social program as government theft, chastising me for receiving "stolen goods," which was not only immoral, but "bad for the soul."
Yet I am not repentant about being a "welfare mom." I believe that this passage is here to teach me something, not only about humility and gratitude, but about what many folks endure for a lifetime. Though I have no doubt that our situation will turn around, not everyone is able to break out of poverty. Those who are in it longterm often simply give up, beaten down by a culture that blames them for their situation.
I know this from sitting in waiting rooms for hours, queuing for my turn to get help from overwhelmed social workers. I know it from filling out forms that assume I am out to cheat the system. It's hard not to succumb to shame as one answers those questions--as if maybe I should just go home and figure out something else (like, say, homelessness.) But this is my time to endure short-term humiliation for longterm good.
I can't tell you how grateful I am that there is a safety net. Our church has gone above and beyond in helping us, but there are so many in need. That's why we as a caring society must continue to make it a priority value to help the poor, just as we make it a priority to provide roads, schools and police officers to our community. When we had a corporate salary income I did not feel robbed supporting such things with my taxes.
Even if we had NO compassion, and believed that the poor were all drug-abusing parasites who should simply go away, the fact is "the poor will be with us always." And that fact is a challenge to us as human beings. What are we going to do about that? It's not only the job of the church (though it is the job of the church); it is the job of any civilized society to make a safety net available. Without the safety net, the community itself is weighted down by poverty which begins its insidious crawl through every infrastructure.
Because of the safety net, our family will make it to the other side of this relatively intact. Without it, we would be moving into the home of a friend, sending two of our kids (who are living with and helping us) to find their own friends to live with. We'd be so behind on our bills right now that we may never be able to crawl out. Our car would have been repossessed long since. We'd be choosing between electricity and food.
None of this would be conducive to growing a small business, starting a nonprofit, or any kind of focused job retraining. None of it would be conducive to our continuing to contribute to our community. It's hard to help the swim team when you're drowning.
I will hear that we are the "exception," that we actually do believe in work, but that the majority of social service recipients are criminals. I hear stories of welfare cheats every time I am brave enough to talk about this. Every time. It's as if the person I am talking to doesn't hear me. They breeze right over my experience and tell me about their friend, whose son was told to say he was homeless so he could get benefits he wasn't entitled to. Or about Octomom, or some other media welfare sensation. Or about something they saw in a reality show.
My "honorary daughter" is doing a degree in social work and here is the statistic she shared with me: Yes. People do cheat. There are numbers for that. The numbers are 2%-4%. 2%-4% of welfare recipients are actively cheating the system. The other 96%-98% of us are invisible--the people for whom a temporary hand up makes the difference between a tough but achievable transition and years spent climbing out of a hole. I'm 50. I don't have years to spend climbing when I've worked so hard to get to this point. We had our legs knocked out from under us by a job loss and we have the opportunity to make something good come out of that. Or to let it flatten us.
My two cents.