For the past few months, we have been bringing you true stories of Americans who receive welfare, food stamps, and other public benefits. Today we bring you our tenth and final installment of what it’s really like surviving on public generosity. These are worth reading.

Guess what, assholes?

I live in rural Appalachia, Southwest Virginia to be a bit more exact.

In better days, my husband and I both had full time jobs in this economically depressed area. I had a set of twins shortly after our marriage, one was born with several expensive medical issues. That twin, A, was eligible for Medicaid and Social Security benefits...nothing huge, but a few bucks to help our family care for A. We’d both taken leave from our jobs to travel an hour each way to the hospital where baby A was in the NICU. We were broke and our parents were the only source of money coming in during that time.

Every time someone says “Well, if you woulda kept your legs closed, you wouldn’t need help.” Well, shithead, when I opened my legs, I was making good enough money to raise a family. Things change.

Then, after everyone was home and well enough, we both went back to work. My husband was somewhat abusive when we were dating and early in our marriage. After the stress of twins and one with special needs and medical issues, he became even more on edge. He’d hit me and I dealt with it on my own, just pushing it to the back of my mind. When I arrived home to find one of the twins covered in bruises at 11 months old, I left and moved in with my parents. He disappeared. He shows up every year or two to say hello to the children and the state enforces a small amount of child support for the twins.

When A started having seizures, I’d have to leave work to meet his sitter at the hospital. Sometimes they’d happen late at night/early morning and I’d still be in the ER/Hospital with him when it was time for me to be at work.

After one, I called my job at a Freewill Baptist organization and they wouldn’t even pick up the phone. I had to leave a message to explain why I wasn’t there. No return calls to check on me or my child or even ask when I was coming to work. After the second day of phone calls that got no response, I left a message to quit my job because I was the only parent available to be in the Pediatric ICU an hour away from home with my child and there was no end to our stay in sight.

Back on “the draw”, as people around here call it. I got a bit of shaky child support and a small social security check to raise two kids on, about 700.00 a month at best. Were it not for Food Stamps, WIC and my parents...we would have been homeless, starving and naked.

My area is so stuck in poverty, I know more people who are on public assistance than I know people that aren’t. But there is SUCH a stigma. Nobody admits they get food stamps. People tape other cards on the front of their SNAP cards so they won’t be seen using food stamps. When I got my first EBT card, my Aunt said “Oh great! Just drive to _____ County (the next County over) and do all your shopping!”. Here, if you get Food Stamps, you’re an Obama-ass-kissing freeloading son-of-a-bitch.

I’ve never been ashamed of my card. All I ever want to say is:

Guess what, assholes?

Those Food Stamps fed hungry kids. That Medicaid meant I didn’t drown in debt taking care of my sick child. That WIC kept us healthy. The childcare assistance kept me working as much as I could. All while I went from part-time job to part-time job and stayed full time in school. I’ve shoveled shit, I’ve worked a drive-through, I’ve been a cashier, worked at a call center and as a secretary.

All that public assistance got me a college degree, you fuckers. I recently graduated and landed a well-paying job to where I’ll spend the rest of my life HAPPILY paying taxes to help people like me. I wish I could give MORE than the little bit of my taxes that go to public assistance.

I would not be here, my kids would not be here...without public assistance. I would not be a taxpaying, college educated, employed and educated mother of two without public assistance.

Disabled and stuck

I live in Ohio, am 38 years old, and disabled. I receive SSDI, SSI, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid to cover what my Medicare doesn’t. I also get help with my Medicare premiums from the state. The money I get comes to about ~$750 in benefits, with $152 for food stamps. I think that Medicare and Medicaid probably cover tens of thousands of medical costs for me a year. I’ve been on disability for 15 years. My current disabilities are:

Agoraphobia, panic disorder, GAD, PTSD, depression, severe social phobia, arthritis, auditory processing disorder, fibromyalgia, concentration and memory issues (maybe due to the fibro, maybe due to something else), hidradenitis suppurativa, lumbar scoliosis, sleep apnea, seasonal allergies, type 2 diabetes, and degenerative disc disorder with sciatica.

Mind you: that is not the full list of my illnesses. That’s just the half (yes, just half) that cause me severe problems. I seriously have the worst genes ever. (And before you say that “seasonal allergies aren’t a disability”: I tested “severely allergic” to every freaking plant my allergist tested for last year, along with being mildly allergic to some dusts. I am a 24/7/365 ball of watery eyes and snot, people, with medication. Yes, it’s a goddamned disability.)

Even with everything wrong with me, the only reason I got disability was because my father is disabled and I have had severe depression since I was little. (The first time I remember being suicidal was when I was 8.) If I hadn’t gotten sick before I was 19 or my dad wasn’t disabled, I would’ve been screwed, regardless of my health.

I am trying to make my situation better. I volunteer when I can. Finding work seems impossible. I see tons of jobs: jobs I can’t do because of one or more of my disabilities and jobs where I won’t have enough “free time” to go to all my appointments. I can’t afford to go back to school because I had to have my student loans from my one year of college written off due to total and permanent disability. The only way I can get loans again is if I can prove that I’m healthy enough to work 40 hours a week and pay them back, which I can’t do.

I don’t know what to do and Vocational Rehab doesn’t know what to do. So we throw applications out to any job that might work, praying that someone will see that I deserve a chance and will accommodate me. It hasn’t worked yet.

But the truth is, even with work, I’m going to have to stay on benefits. I can’t work full-time and I don’t have the work experience I would need to get a job that would cover my bills while only letting me work part-time. And my degenerative disc disease is degenerative. There’s nothing I can do to make it better — the main branch of my right sciatic nerve is being severed and I’m an epically bad candidate for spinal fusion surgery because of the scoliosis. So my ability to work is only going to go downhill. I’m stuck, all because my brain and body crapped out when I was young.

The idea of losing my benefits is terrifying. I have epic panic attacks every 6 months when my SNAP is reviewed and it’s worse when my SSI is reviewed. I know that if I lost my benefits, me and my roommates (who are both able-bodied and working) would try to make ends meet. They pay most of the rent and all the utilities anyways and we know where the food pantries are.

But my roommates can’t help me if I lose my medical insurance. I’d lose access to my 21 prescription medications and the procedures my pain specialist does. I’d be 99% bedbound, with no psych meds and no morphine. I would be dead very, very quickly..

I didn’t ask for this and I’m not asking for much. All I want is to be able to be a productive member of society and I need benefits to do that.

Supporting a premature child

I met my current wife a little less than 9 years ago. We were dating for a very short time before she got pregnant even though she was on birth control. Not just pregnant, but pregnant with identical twins. My wife, girlfriend at the time, had to quit her job and go on bed rest almost immediately. To save you from a long and sobby story, I’ll just say that the pregnancy was horrendous and we ended up losing one of the twins at 26 weeks and the other baby was born at 29 weeks with a severe brain bleed.

We knew right away he, the surviving twin, would be facing numerous hurdles and would require lots of doctors and therapists. While I had a job making around $40,000 a year, it was not nearly enough to cover the therapy and doctor costs while maintaining a 2/2 apartment, two basic cars and paying our extremely high insurance prmeiums (1/3 of my paycheck goes right towards our insurance). We started looking for “assistance” and shortly after we began getting a small stipend of about $300 a month EBT (basically food stamps on a debit card) and $150 in living expenses. Unfortunately my wife did not qualify for unemployment due to a he said/she said battle she had with her employer a few years earlier and whether she got fired or quit. In that situation, the unemployment office sided with the employer and we had to pay back $4,000 in money she “was not entitled too.” So we were getting $450 a month, meanwhile our son was so badly affected by colic and reflux, we had to switch to a formula that costs over $100 a can. The welfare office was able to provide formula, but none that he tolerated. The colic and reflux were just a tip of the iceberg too. He had sensory adversion and the severe brain bleed was affecting his mental ability. We did contact the county we lived in and were provided with therapy sessions which helped, but not nearly enough.

We stayed unmarried so that she could continue receiving the small stipend we were getting, but even that didn’t last long. She was considered fit to be employed so about 6 months later they gave her the ultimatum of get employed or get dropped. Considering my son was going to therapy 5 days a week at a location 30 minutes away from us not to mention our neurologist that is an hour south, plus his pediatrician visits and soon to be austim doctor visits, we were not about to throw this kid in preschool and let people we didn’t know handle our kid that we knew was going to need special attention. So she went to the welfare office one last time to beg for continuation on the support, and the best answer we got was to have more children. Here I am, a productive member of society, paying his taxes, social security and medicare for 15 years and I was being denied help that my son needed. My wife and I wanted more children, but we weren’t about to use that as an excuse to reap benefits. It was around this time that we officially tied the knot.

My wife and I ended up moving in with her parents which was a big piece of humble pie. The three of us stuffed in a small room in a two bedroom townhouse with my wife’s elderly parents, one of which is slowly slipping in to dementia. I sold off anything of value including my only stress outlet, a custom mountain bike I built myself. We scoured the internet to find grants and actually found a few that provided a few thousand dollars for therapy services. One of our cars had it’s payments finish just about that time which helped a lot. About 2 years later I found an ad in craigslist for part time work in my field and started that, it was good but not steady. Sometimes I would work an extra 15 hours a week, sometimes none. It depended on demand.

3 years after our first son was born we decided to have another. My wife was having severe depression from losing our twin and we wanted to have another. So we did.

I still officially work two jobs; one full time, one part time as needed. I try and get as much of my own work as possible but it is still an everyday struggle. Our insurance costs have steadily risen over the last couple years but my pay hasn’t. Approximate costs are nearing $20,000 a year but we cannot live without it. We live paycheck to paycheck, saving money however we can while trying to show our kids a normal life.

What Social Security is for

My mother worked hard all of her life. She taught me that no matter what happens, you go to work. If your arm falls off, leave it at home and go to work. She doesn’t have a college degree, but worked in an urban emergency room for 20 years as an EMT. She worked all of the overtime her body would allow, generally 60 hours a week. She loved her career, she loved her coworkers and most all all she loved saving lives.

In 2007 my mother had a brain aneurysm rupture, and the people in that same ER that she worked in saved her life. While I am able to say that my mother not only survived, and has good spirits most days, she can no longer work. Some of her deficits include right sided weakness and short term memory loss. It kills her pride everyday that she cannot work. In 2011 she lost her husband to a battle with cancer.

My mother recieves SSD and a small long term disability check from the hospital amounting to less than 1200.00 a month. According to the state of Tennessee, she makes too much to qualify for Food Stamps or any other program. Trust me when I say she is much too young to live in SSD funded housing. She is still in her 50’s. She takes a lot of medications now, and doesn’t qualify for supplemental prescription help through Medicare. Most days she chooses between which medications she will take.

So I supplement. I pay for her phone, internet, cable, medications, gas, and house insurance. I let my student loans go into collections for a few years in order to take care of her. I have since gotten a job with my expensive education, and I can help her and pay my loans now. I will never tell her that helping he was the reason I owe an additional 20K in collection fees. Being in my mid thirties, I know that I will never afford my own family or my own home.

Everytime the government threatens Social Security my mother cries. She isn’t a sponge off of the public. She worked very hard for many years. No one expects to have a brain aneurysm rupture at the age of 47. I wish people paid attention when they threaten SSD.

Real poverty

I’m 42 years old. I was born into poverty, to a single mom. I was her only kid. It’s good that now all the things that were normal, that went without question—and indeed, if I did question any of it, I’d be put in my place—are now recognized child abuses and people are willing to call it out. No such luck for me. Real poverty means desperation, means dark, dank halls and rooms where things happen. It means terror and pain. I knew there was a world beyond it all. I could feel it in my bones. I could feel it surge through me, like a magnetism to COOL, a straight shot to freedom and that indescribable yearning for love, to be loved, to share love, to be safe. But shit wears you down. Even moreso with an undiagnosed spinal cord injury. Poverty can create a pervasive sense of mental illness that seeps into your young, not-yet-sick brain. I was born with clarity into a pit of venom. By the time I was 12 I’d inherited some of my mother’s fog, the fog that breeds mental illness. But education was my ticket. I had talent. I knew how to work, how to write, how to draw, how to sing, how to dance. I could do it all, with relative ease and skill. Not boasting. I suppose it was how I survived the many lonely and jarring years of my youth. I started getting published in High School, I learned so much about the arts in college that I landed great jobs right out school. NYC was good to me. My art, my music, and an actual career in the ARTS took form almost immediately. Suddenly I wasn’t poor. I had more than enough. but I was ill. Not that background noise of impending Crazy, or even my body’s painful, tremored whispers about the still unknown spinal cord injury. No I had been gangraped by disease my first years in the city. I had everything, or had just had it. Mono, Pneumonias, CMV, TB exposure. It felt as if there was a hole in the top of my head, where cold air wafted into my skull. That was unpleasant as well. The frailness of my body caught up to the frailness of my self-esteem. Finding out my husband had been PROFOUNDLY unfaithful —like, ATHLETICALLY GIFTED UNFAITHFUL—knocked me down for years. I became homeless, I tried to keep working, but kept getting sick. I took refuge in middle America until I heard my dreams calling me again and went to get my Masters in Vermont. Here I’ve been. Got married, had two kids, got divorced, again, because I’d become ill, this time, partially paralyzed. If it weren’t for Vermont’s compassionate and generous programs, I would most likely be dead or in a mental hospital today. I would have never found out that what seemed to be MS my whole life, (Or BS as my mother would tell anyone, as she knew if I were damaged, it was most likely by her hand.) was a rare instance in which 4 inches of my spinal cord were slowly stretched and chewed by the teeth of my vertebrae. The operation to untether my thoracic cord was over $100,000. Thank you, VT.

Since then, I’ve slowly learned how to deal with the pain, the limitations, the loss of a normal life and positive perceptions about myself. Vermont gives me and my two girls $250 in food stamps. The US gives me almost $1,400 in disability per month. There are two food shelves that give us the rest of what we need. Sure, I’m always in debt. Yes, we live ‘poor’. But I am so grateful for this life, made possible because of welfare, because of taxes. But most of all because I’m in a state that doesn’t question that the least of us deserve a home, food, healthcare. Sure, they don’t pay for dental, and I’ve lost most of my teeth. But I couldn’t work a real job, though I fantasize about how I used to be so industrious and reliable. People never tell you how it can go down hard and fast. We all think we’ll make it through to old age or die in a fabulous young body. But no one warns you about rapid physical decline and disability. It’s real easy to look at me and judge me, happens everyday I park in the handicap spot. This last Christmas I was ill, couldn’t get to the food shelf. Put an ad on craigslist asking for food, food only. I got horrible emails, shaming me. I won’t ever do that again. I’ll find food another way. I try to give back by giving away my art, but even then, it’s just garbage to some people. I’m just garbage because I’m poor. The thing is: I’m not, but I’m almost convinced of it myself. It’s exhausting, even when we are blessed with help.

A difficult separation

When the recession hit, I lost my small business and went on food stamps for 6 months and then found a job but it was not enough to pay for my home. I enrolled in college in pursuit of becoming an RN. I completed college full time while working full time and had a small infant at home. With only 3 months left to graduate, I needed to leave my job and have spouse work so that I could finish. At the same time, we lost our home (predatory lending issue) and moved in with family.

I graduated with associates degree and became an RN...but could not find work due to inexperience so I reenrolled in college for a BSN degree while also job seeking. After a year and a half my spouse lost his job and we had to go on public assistance. I went to a program and applied for 8 jobs a week 30 hours a week as did my spouse. 6 months later I graduated with my bachelor’s and finally began getting interviews.

My marriage dissolved and we separated. My daughter and I moved into an office at a relatives house and have shared a bunk bed for the past 9 months.

1 month ago, I got a job as a nurse. I reorder to social services 1 day later and provided a copy of the job offer letter and pay rate. I was told to come back with 1 months worth of paystubs. I returned 4 weeks later and rovided the pay stubs and was excited to be going off assistance. Today, I received a letter telling me that I must sign it allowing social services to contact my new employer or they will stop benefits. I don’t want benefits any longer nor do I want my employer to know i was on welfare. If I don’t sign I believe I will be ordered to appear at a hearing and investigated for welfare fraud. All I want is to be removed from assistance. Why threaten penalties when I did exactly what the goal of the program was (obtain a livable wage and self support).

I’m trying to find a rental now but must file bankruptcy to prevent wage garnishment. It does not feel good to be on assistance. When I use my families first card at stores I cradle the front of the card so no one can tell the card. I feel that I will lose my job if social services contacts the employer.

I cannot live

I am on SSI and SSD and I get 840.00 a month, out of that I have 194.00 food stamps, but when we get a raise in our Social Security, our food stamps get reduced. I live in Section 8 housing granted but my stores in Manhattan are high. I often eat eggs, soup, cereal, sandwiches. Out of the SSI and SSD, I have to pay for co pays, medicines went up and to be quite frank I cannot live I’m existing. We have the bare necessities of life. I’m left with hardly any thing. And not to mention clothes and shoes and so on and so on. I shop at dollar stores to survive and I need a winter jacket. I’m a 3X 4X and I can’t afford it. Due to bed bugs in NYC I’m afraid to buy 2nd hand clothes.

Can you please make it that our stamps don’t get reduced and we get decent raises in our checks so we can live decent and like human beings.


The full archive of our “Life on the Dole” series can be found here. Thanks to everyone who wrote in to share their stories.

[Image by Jim Cooke]