What is life like for Americans who receive food stamps, welfare, and other government benefits? It ain’t easy. Each week, we let some of them tell you in their own words. Today, we hear from six moms who are making it work.

Life in a small town in New York

My name is Cat. I am 35, the mother of one lovely 12 year old daughter, Alexandria, and I’m married to Nate, who’s 29. He’s not my daughter’s father, he came into our life when she was 9.

I am also the sole breadwinner. And, while I am a college graduate, and midway through trying (not terribly successfully) to get my Bachelor’s degree in social work because I apparently want to be broke forever, I am currently earning $9.00 an hour to support us. My daughter’s father pays $12 a week in child support, and hasn’t seen her since she was about 11 months old.

Now, I’ll wait, until you can stop laughing. Or eyerolling. Or, like me, both.

My husband until last year worked at an agency with at-risk youth; like a juvie center but less restricted, so that hopefully the kids can get on the right track. He worked with developmentally disabled and addicted kids. They could be good kids. They’ve had horrible lives, and as a mother, I hurt for them. He hurt his shoulder when he was 18, lifting weights, and it went bad when he had to stop a fight. He did stop the fight. He protected his kids, at the cost of himself. Though it was a union job, which we thought meant stability and help, when the surgery he -NEEDS- to return to work couldn’t happen for a few months (because surgeons are always backlogged), he lost his job, and we lost the insurance that would have paid for his surgery.

Until a couple of years ago, I was making much better money, working with developmentally disabled adults, providing residential care. Then, my (already bad) back went. 18 years as a CNA lifting people, plus other things, had herniated my discs. I’m still not better. I lost my job, and now I work from home in an office job for less money. I have crippling depression and anxiety, and when my husband lost his job, I got to have the oh-so-fun experience of coming off of a very large dose of antidepressants cold turkey. Luckily, I’m okay.

We’re still on Medicaid. We’re lucky that New York, being a blue state, made it easy for all of us. We’re midway going through certification to have foodstamps, and my husband has finally been approved (since losing his job in November) for unemployment benefits. At last check we are eligible for about $280 a month in food stamps. Our actual bill runs about $500 a month, so while it doesn’t cover everything, it’s undeniably a huge help. Because I have PCOS, I am insulin resistant, and that means carbs are bad, and make me sick and gain weight. However, that kind of diet, heavy in meat, is expensive.

We have a car, which is still being paid for. We have a house, only because my inlaws had paid it off and are selling it to us privately. Until February we were in an apartment where the walls -literally- caught on fire for no reason. In my daughter’s room. An apartment that was freezing in the winter and burning hot in the summer, but whose windows didn’t open. We have cellphones, because even with $90 a month for them, they are necessary anymore. We have these things, and -we- pay for them. We don’t receive cash help, so all that money is ours.

Now, in our town, there are two paths you can take for employment if, like me, you don’t have at least a Bachelor’s degree. You can work minimum wage, usually in food service, retail, or you can work slightly above it in health care. Because of our injuries, and the fact that I haven’t finished my Bachelor’s, though I do have an Associate’s degree, minimum wage is all we have. Cortland had a huge factory population, once. We had Rubbermaid, Borg-Warner, Buckbee-Mears, Smith Corona, and Marietta. All but Marietta are now gone, phased out by technology or moved to other countries or states for tax writeoffs.

Plainly put...we need aid. We need more aid than we qualify for BECAUSE I work. I’m about to run out of funding for school, a full year before I’m done. While I absolutely agree that we should not live on welfare, I don’t know anyone that does. And Cortland, my town, is FULL of people on welfare because of the job market losses that came from the losses of our factories. However, I work full time. My husband can’t, but he doesn’t qualify for disability. We’re trying to get him his surgery (assuming Medicaid will approve it), but for right now...I have a child to feed. Hell, I have a -me- to feed. I was perfectly able to care for her -when I had her-. I have always worked, full time. My husband hasn’t been out of work since he was 14, when he got his first paper route. Even when we worked 2 or more jobs at a time, we worked. We did all we could to pay our way. That, in this town, simply isn’t enough. But goddamn it, part of living in a society is helping those who can’t help themselves. I have never objected to paying in, and I never will, because I know that I am helping others, and that is my JOB.

Spaghetti and PB&J

Let me just state for the record that I really, really hate the stigma attached to being a welfare recipient. It’s mostly fabricated, something the stuffed suits in public office can bitch about and feel like they have something to fight against. Sure, there are absolutely people that abuse the system, but it’s mainly normal, working stiffs like me that are forced to use it, pride be damned.

I’m a Caucasian single mother from a middle class Chicago suburb. I’m 36, and raise a 17 and 12 year old by myself, and have since the day they were born. My daughter has a heart defect, and I have seen her through two open heart surgeries in the last 15 years, one of which was just last year. Every time she has surgery, it causes me to miss up to 6 weeks of work due to her after care. That’s a tough thing to get past with your employer, and it’s sad to say that I’ve had to make the choice between my child and my job.

I’m a Certified Medical Assistant. You would think that such a prestigious job would afford me the luxury of NOT being on PA, but, at $11 an hour, I bring home just enough to pay my rent and bills-I wish I would have saved myself the trouble and student loan debt and just stayed in Customer Service, where I made more money. The $250 in food stamps I get every month supplement us for just about 3 weeks. My kids are pretty sick of the spaghetti/PB&J rut that we’re stuck in at the end of every month.

I’ve gotten benefits off and on over the last 17 years- when I know I don’t need them, I don’t bother re-upping my paperwork. I enjoy the sense of pride that comes along with being able to stand on my own two feet. When I DO need them, getting them is like pulling teeth, and we usually end up scraping and starving for a month or so before the state decides to help us out. It’s embarrassing and frustrating, and those few assholes that do take advantage ruin it for everyone. They are the EXCEPTION, not the rule.

Unfortunately, the odds are against us- Things just keep getting more expensive, but we’re not being paid enough to get ahead of the game. It’s a hamster wheel, running and running and getting nowhere. The only way out of this is for the script to be completely flipped. People can’t make ends meet when they make less than what they need to live, so until the fundamental problem is fixed, the public assistance needs to be in place to bridge the gap.

From a single mom

I am a woman who is on public assistance. This isn’t easy for me to admit, because of the stigma that is attached to people who are public assistance, and it just adds humiliation to an already stressful situation.

I can list so many details to justify why I am having to receive public assistance, but I will break it down. I am a single mom, raising 4 boys on my own, without support from the Father of the first thee, because he is in prison. The other father has since married, had more children, and hasn’t given a thing to his child save for one birthday card when our son turned 1. He doesn’t even acknowledge him publically.

The father of the older three was sentenced to nearly 13 years, because the man who everyone loved so much publically (and a community volunteer) was secretly abusing our boys during his visitations with them. For years the abuse went unreported, because the boys have variations of language articulation disorder, along with Autism. They had no voice that could articulate the atrocities he was subjection them to. I knew something was wrong when they would reurn home but I was looked upon as an angry ex who was looking for retaliation. I fought, advocated, and fought relentlessly to get the courts to listen before he volunteered for, and failed a polygraph. He ultimately admitted to the years of abuse he was subjecting them to, went to trail and convicted of the crimes he confessed to. When his family started harassing me and making threats on my life, the courts handed down an order that afforded me the ability to move to an undisclosed location and change our names if needed. He has continued to harass me from prison. But that is another story.

The other father... nothing.

I know the instant reaction is for people to blame me for picking crappy men to have children with. Everyone wants to blame the person in the bad situation, and scream how they don’t want to carry me and my kids, regulate how we spend the money in ways they see fit for us, and further degrade me into an already stressful situation. The reality is, I work harder than most stay at home parents, and probably even more than most who are working a job...

I am not some druggie. In fact, I rarely even have a drink (if my son needs to go to the ER, who would be sober to drive?). I have chronic pain myself, but I don’t take the medications because it could hinder my ability to care for my child in the case of an emergency. I work hard to care for my family, and do all I can to give these boys a chance in life, despite the crappy choices of their father/s. I am here to raise good men, who are good people and who do great things.

However, I am judged by media, social media, legislators and people in grocery lines, when I take out my SNAP benefits card to pay for groceries or a utility bill. The small amount of 40 something dollars I have gotten in food benefits, and the whole average 450 a month I get in cash, helps but there is no way it could afford me the luxuries that people think I must have because I don’t work outside of the home. Yet, I live in humiliation on a daily basis because of the way society looks at the “economy vampire” they think I am. Look, I get these men are shitty fathers. While I obviously picked them as a mate at one time, I had no idea the level of shitty person they were. Like so many people, I made a choice to be with someone, and that someone wasn’t who I thought they were. I am not the only person this has happened to, but society wants to shove this into my face as though I must pay for a crappy choice, over and over again. I’ve been so crucified by the stigma media portrays, that the villagers come at me with a torch verbally on a daily basis. I live in shame, humiliation and embarrassment, while all the while trying to gain the dignity and power the same media pushes at me to stand strong and yell “I am a survivor” at the top of my voice, while fighting with all I have to help these boys succeed and not repeat a cycle. I can’t change what happened, but I can fight to help them realize they are more than the crappy choices of others.

Often I find myself having to justify, and share my story with people to help them understand. Often I get the response “Oh, obviously you are one of the people who deserve the help”, but I have to tell you that it is a horrible feeling to put my life out there to get the acceptance of the judge and jury to escape the judgment. You might ask why I am sharing it again if that is the case, but I am so afraid that if I remain quiet, I will be one of those people that are too ashamed to stand up for what’s right, and that is the opposite message I am trying to send my children. If a similar law passes in Oregon, that is being pushed in other states, an already crappy situation will just get worse. I need to buy lean meats for my family, I need to withdraw money to pay utility bills. I need to buy clothing for my growing teens boys, I need to put gas in my car to get them to appointments. Some of these new laws would prohibit, or restrain my ability to do so.

No one knows what tomorrow will bring. That person we are with, might snap and do things that change our whole lives. That person who made a promise, might break it, that person we trusted with our lives, might be the person who takes it on a ride to a place we never even thought of going. The difference is what we do from there, and that is what I am trying to do. I guess I would ask people to please stop looking in my cart and thinking you are paying for that meal. And if you had your way, you wouldn’t allow my boys to have the occasional chip or soda. Just because I seem to be a rung lower than you, doesn’t mean I am less of a person. I am a hardworking mom, who is taking responsibility for the lives I brought into this world, and doing the best I can to help them become people that contribute to the world around them. Please stop giving me that look at the check out, and please stop assuming who I am based on a card. I am so much more.

Essentially priceless

I live in Dunnellon FL. (Near Ocala in central FL.) I’m 44 and since 2009 I have received different welfare benefits, namely food stamps (SNAP), and Medicaid for my son who is now 12. I was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis in 2009, had to quit work, and move in with my MIL. I applied for food stamps and qualified for Medicaid also. I was never in welfare prior to this.

As a family of three, we received a maximum of $168 a month - when I wasn’t working and my husband was also drawing unemployment. I don’t know what the monetary valuse of the Medicaid was. It was essentially priceless; because my son has asthma and his monthly meds run $300. Currently for my son to get Healthy Kids or the state buy-in Medicaid its $150 a month. I can’t afford this so I apply in June and drop it in September. As for his meds, we get samples from his doctor every other month and I pay out of pocket for the rest.

Fast forward: I went back to work in 2011, my husband died in 2013, and my son and I live alone. I work during the school year, receptionist for a local school 30 hours per week at $12 per hour. We also get $1600 in death benefits from Social Security. In the summer I apply for food stamps and receive about $60 per month. Not much but it helps.

I’ve never bought steak with food stamps but I have bought soda. I’ve never felt bad about it. It’s cheaper than using the vending machine at work.

I worked for 30 years to pay into the system. I don’t feel bad about using a safety net. In a few years, when my son is older, I’m going to dust off my MSW and go back to a “real job” and kiss the bureaucracy bye bye.

A future teacher

I am 28 years old and my fiancé is 38. I am student teaching right now so I do not have an income and will not until August of this year. My fiancé is an immigration attorney and started his business one year ago after being laid off. He made $30,000 last year, and after using the savings he had to pay income taxes, it made it impossible for us to make ends meet. We had a child last summer and I was insured by the state (during pregnancy)because the job I had did not offer insurance. Currently my child is insured by the state while my fiancé and I remain uninsured. This accounts for several thousand dollars in doctors bills. I receive WIC, which provides about $150 per month for formula and food. I receive $350 per month in food stamps, and the state covers $400 out of the $500 for daycare service. I have been receiving these benefits for 8 months. I live in Missouri and I am so thankful for the assistance I am provided with. Without such assistance I would not have been able to complete my teaching degree. I have signed a contract to start teaching in August and look forward to August, when I do not have to rely on public assistance. I never imagined I would be a person using assistance but life happened and I am doing my best to change things for the better. I believe there are a lot of others like us out there but we are ashamed to come out and talk about it. My own family and fiends do not know about our assistance.

“It’s hard and I hate it”

I live in Ventura county CA. I’m 36 years old, recently divorced with 3 children. In July of 2013 I was laid off from my job which paid 90k annually. I looked for work everywhere and could only find a similar job 60+ minutes away for way less money. I interviewed for multiple spots but they were just too far to drive daily. I collected unemployment while I was looking.
I decided I wanted to return to school and become a nurse. My unemployment ran out and I applied for cash aid. I’m now in a program called welfare to work or Calworks which provides cash and food stamps. I receive $800 a month cash [and] $550 a month in food stamps.
I struggle every month. My house (a mobile home) is paid for but I pay space rental and utilities. That runs about 450 a month. My car payment is 400 but I can’t refinance, get a new car or get rid of it because I’m not working. My phone bill is 100 for me and my daughter. Her phone is part of the contract so I can’t cancel it. My car insurance roughly 150. Internet another 50. Which leaves me with nothing for gas, after school care for my kids. I have to borrow money constantly to make ends meet.

I recently received a job and will be making 11.50 an hour. I became a nurse assistant last year with the help of the welfare to work program. Sadly even with this job I will still probably qualify for some sort of aid. I receive no child support and when he was paying the state kept all but $50 because I was on cash aid. So the monthly amount he paid of 1000 didn’t even go to my kids.

I’m embarrassed every time I have to shop with my ebt card for food. I get glared at because I refuse to look poor or leave my 4 year old coach purse at home. I’m trying to make a new life for me and my children.

I want people to understand that being on cash aid is not a free handout and by no means is it enough. I don’t want my kids to ever know or feel ashamed because of what we have or what we don’t. There has been a lot of talk about changing what I can buy with my food stamps. Yes I buy healthy food so we can have meals at home. But if my kids want a new type of cookie or
Need to bring chips to a school party I buy those too.

It’s not a life that should be critiqued or punished. It’s hard and I hate it.

[Image by Jim Cooke]