The Welfare Kid

Because I had less than I needed, I fight the impulse to give them everything they want.
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When I think about what I am grateful for in my life, one thing always tops the list -- that my husband and I are able to provide for our kids. I am enormously thankful that they don't want for food, clothes or shelter. We can encourage their interests, take vacations and save for college. I pinch myself almost every day. Why?

Because I was a welfare kid.

I started out with two young parents, scraping by. Their divorce, as it often does, changed all that. My brother and I lived with my mother and she wasn't able to take care of two young kids without help. She ended up on welfare, which meant we did too. I don't know exactly how that happened, and even if I did, it wouldn't be my story to tell. I'm sure there were missteps and mistakes and questionable choices, but for me, the "why" was irrelevant.

I learned how to use food stamps, and became adept at finding supermarket bargains. To this day, I have a taste for inexpensive frozen chicken potpies. During the school year, my first stop on Monday mornings was the cafeteria where I would pick up my week's worth of free school lunch tickets -- the unique smell of overcooked peas, tater tots and grey hamburgers clinging to my clothes as I joined my classmates in homeroom. I hid the strip of tickets in my desk, simultaneously thankful and ashamed.

There were times when we didn't have soap or shampoo and I frequently looked unkempt. My clothes were purchased on sale at discount stores. Both my brother and I learned not to ask for much, because there wasn't much to go around. Budgeting became second nature, and I worried about bills.

I was achingly aware of the disparity of my circumstances compared to my classmates. I envied the kids with the cartoon lunchboxes containing sandwiches with the crusts cut off and bright green grapes, whose clothes were freshly laundered and whose days seemed bright and carefree. I moved quickly from resentment to resignation. There wasn't much choice.

A few weeks ago, Larkin Warren wrote a fierce and unapologetic description of her experience as a "welfare mom." Anyone with a preconceived notion of what it means to be one of the "freeloaders" "taking advantage" of "government largess" should take a minute to read her story and then read it again. Larkin Warren is nobody's stereotype and, as an adult, she made a choice accept government assistance -- a choice she made proudly to ensure she could care for her son. She had the perspective and support to understand precisely what she was doing.

It's different for kids.

Whatever you might think about adults using the frayed social safety net this country still has, there is no arguing against how awful it is to be a child caught in the system. I was insecure, worried, and old before my time. I wondered if we'd have enough money for groceries and I ducked my head to avoid being noticed when my clothes were dirty or too second-hand. I scratched absently at my greasy hair. I compared myself to the kids who had enough, or more than enough, and wondered why that couldn't be me. I bore the burden of my mother's frustrations and desperation. I understood making do and just barely getting by.

Still, I was lucky. I was never homeless, and my extended family made sure there were extras now and again, whether it was a bag of groceries or new school clothes. In my teens I moved in with my father and my life became stable, reliable, and secure.

That time, however, is never far from my mind. I never want my kids to experience what I did, and at the same time I want to teach them to be thankful for what they have. As a parent, I want to protect them from the hard knocks life sometimes brings, but still raise them to be aware of their good fortune. Because I had less than I needed, I fight the impulse to give them everything they want. I know that won't do them any favors.

Most importantly, I never want them to think that being poor means someone deserves their contempt, or that being needy is the same as being lazy. I can't bear for them to grow up thinking that people who rely on government assistance are victims unworthy of their compassion or attention. Mitt Romney might teach his kids that lesson, but my kids will hear a different message.

When he's old enough, I'll tell my 4-year-old that there may be people who scam the welfare system, but unethical or criminal behavior isn't limited to the less fortunate. There are liars and cheats among doctors, lawyers, financiers and, gasp, politicians. Being privileged doesn't mean you're pure, anymore than being disadvantaged means you're a cheat. Sometimes, people are lucky and sometimes they're not. We'd love it if people overcame all the obstacles in their way, but sometimes, no matter how hard they try, they can't. That doesn't mean we throw them to the wolves.

I'll happily explain that we pay taxes that help provide housing, health care and food to those who can't afford it on their own. I'm proud to chip in to build roads, provide educational enrichment for kids (Long Live Big Bird!) and make higher education affordable. I'll finally tell him that I am where I am at today in part because the government thought it should support me at times when I couldn't support myself. I hope he'll understand.