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Archive for January 6th, 2008

Terri Scofield is a board member for the Hunger Action Network of New York State and was a founding member of the Suffolk County Welfare Warriors. She responded to some negative comments in the Albany Times Union blog regarding the Welfare Challenge being undertaken by Mark Dunlea an Albany based anti-hunger activist.

Her comments based upon her experience on welfare are compelling and worth reading.

Sometimes the staff at the Alliance will be asked why we do what we do or what motivates us… Read on and you will understand.

Details about Mr. Dunlea’s Welfare Challenge can be found in the previous post. Here…

“I can speak with some authority here, as I was on and off welfare 6 times over 5 year period when my son was small: At the time a welfare grant was worth much more than it is today – my son & I subsisted on a grant a bit less than 60% of the federal poverty level. The first thing that struck me when I went to apply was how similar to me most of the 60 people sitting in hard plastic chairs in the waiting room were: we were mostly white, mostly women, all with a child or 2 in tow, and an overwhelming number of us domestic violence survivors. How do I know? When you’re stuck in a noisy waiting room for 4 to 7 hours, there’s nothing to do but talk with the folks around you.

After filling out forms and waiting for hours, you go in for an interview – they want to make sure your life sucks so much that doing their job by providing the welfare grant that amounts to less than 1/2 the federal poverty level would actually be an improvement. It’s a humiliating and invasive exercise that is absolutely soul-deadening.

Back then, the shelter allowance portion of the grant was $358. per month, about $40. short of what you’d need to rent a room in a crack house with a shared bathroom down the hall. I’ll never forget how scary it was to live in neighborhoods like that, and how heartbreaking to have my son learn his colors by picking up crack vials – “Mommy, red! “Look, mommy, blue, a blue one”! And don’t let yourself get distracted chatting up another poor mom – the kids get even a tiny residue of crack in their mouths, consider them dead. The cops have better things to do in these neighborhoods than transport some “welfare slut’s” kids to the Emergency Room.

I think what was most horrific during those years was losing my full citizenship status and being treated like a second class citizen deserving of scorn and derision from everyone from landlords to supermarket clerks to welfare workers, even strangers on the street. I’ll never forget the 3rd time I was on welfare. My son was turning 5, and I’d spent the previous couple of months scrimping carefully, planning meticulous menus built around whether we could stop at a food pantry or soup kitchen, whether the guy who knew I was poor would give us bruised fruit and wilted vegetables from the farmstand, etc.I went to Finast on a double-coupon day, armed with both store and manufactures coupons, and calculated carefully: a pack of hot dogs, a pack of buns, 4 ears of corn, ’cause the kids are small and I can cut them in two, cake mix and frosting, a big bag of potato chips, and a much-coveted bottle of soda! My son was so excited standing on line at the checkout: “Billy’s coming, right mom? And DJ, and Kevin, I hope I get a water pistol and Ninja Turtle pajamas…”

Finally, our turn, and I line up the items on the belt, the coupons on top; if my calculations are right, I’ll be due $1.28 change, but in the days before swipe cards, you didn’t get money, they gave you change in Food Stamps, and it didn’t include change.I count out my Food Stamps while the gum-popping cashier sighs and grabs the microphone: “I need FOOD STAMP change”!And half the people in line behind me search for another line.

Suddenly, a voice from behind me sneers nastily “Well, I WORK for a living, and I can’t afford to throw a party”. I’m so embarrassed, right in front of my son… I’m afraid I’m going to cry, but instead I get mad and turn to the lady. I grit my teeth and quietly say “Lady, you don’t know a thing about me.

My son is 5 today, and you’re damn right I’m making sure he has a party”. I point out the window to my 11 year old van. “see that Dodge van out there? It’s got 160, 000 miles on it, and it’s noisy as hell, cause only 5 cylinders are firing, but I can’t afford a mechanic”. I hold out my keys “Why don’t we trade lives for a week? Which car is yours”? And now I’m crying, even though I was pissed off, giving her the satisfaction of knowing she’d humiliated me in front of my son. “Would you like to trade lives for a week, see what it’s like? I’ll drive you car and work at your job and live in your house, and you can have my van and live in my apartment. Then your kid can learn his colors picking up[ crack vials”. People shuffled uncomfortably, then some guy said “Leave the lady alone, who do you think you are to judge her”? and another one said something like “its bad enough to be poor, she doesn’t need you rubbing it in her face” and before you knew it, a handful of folks were castigating that awful woman.

My Food Stamp change arrived, I thanked the first guy that said something, put my bag in the cart and left, still crying a little, but feeling a bit less awful.

Now multiply that experience, a few times a month, and try to imagine what that does to ones state of mind. You people who think everybody on welfare is cheating and living a great lifestyle? TRY IT for a month or two and see how you feel!”

Terri Scofield

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