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Not Just Another Welfare Queen
I did not plan to become a parent at sixteen and it has not been easy, emotionally or financially, but I do not have any regrets. Being a mother is the greatest role in my life. People have no idea how difficult and all-consuming being a parent is, particularly, a single, poor one. The right wing and the media have been in cahoots for decades in their efforts to stigmatize African American single mothers as lazy, unstable and responsible for passing on a culture of poverty from one generation to the next and those stereotypes are not true. What is true is that African American mothers in this country have juggled work and children for decades before it became socially acceptable, sometime neglecting their own physical and mental health in order to keep their children clothed, housed and fed. Although I do not have material wealth to spend on my children, I love them fiercely and am doing my best to raise them to be strong, productive members of society. As a mother, that is the least I can do.
If I did not have children, there is no way I would have dealt with the welfare system as long as I did. But when you have children, a mother has to make sacrifices, sometimes swallowing her pride and going to the public aid office to apply for food stamps and cash assistance. By signing the Personal Responsibility contract in return for public assistance, a welfare recipient in essence signs her rights to being an adult away. Recipients must attend job training classes in which individuals must work for their cash. Obtaining an education is not a factor and I found this out the hard way.
I have always used welfare as a revolving unemployment office: on welfare when not working, no welfare when working. I had worked in the clerical/administrative field during the late nineties, during the Clinton administration, and jobs in my field were plentiful. From 1992 to 1998, I did temp work and it was great! As soon as one position ended, I would go to another, often at a higher pay. In 1998, I found full-time employment and that job lasted for a year but I had to leave due to a single mother’s worst fear: babysitting problems. After that, I went back to temporary employment from March of 2000 to October of 2000. I was fired from that job because I was pregnant and the temporary agency I worked for did not want put up with someone who would have to take off days for prenatal appointments– another obstacle single mothers have to put up with in the working world.
By that time, our current President was in office and the economic system had totally changed. My days of making between 9 and 12 dollars an hour (big money for welfare recipients) were a done deal. The only job I could find between 2000 and 2002 was a part-time administrative assistant position. The pay rate was not bad, but I only worked twenty-five hours per week and there were no benefits because it was a part-time position. In addition, the recruiter that hired me lied about my job duties. I was under the impression that I would be using my word processing skills and would be busy. What I was actually hired for was to be a fax checker/relief receptionist. For six hour a day, I would check the two fax machines in the office and make copies of the material that came in. I also distributed mail into the mailboxes of everyone in the company. At the end of the week, I would throw away the junk mail and mail out anything important.
Checking those faxes and dumping that mail really got on my nerves. Why couldn’t those lazy, overpaid executive check their own mail? And the mail! It amazed me that people would come to work everyday and did not check their mailboxes. These executives had the audacity to complain when the boxes go full. If you could notice that your mailbox was full, what was so hard about taking the mail out? I actually threw away magazines out of spite. It was a waste of postage and time. No wonder that so many corporation end up filing for bankruptcy with all the waste that goes on. The only good thing about the job was the reception part.
After working there a week, I was told that my job was a dead end situation, meaning there was no opportunity for advancement. Even if I worked like a slave, there would be no raises, no growth, nada. All of the other administrative positions were filled and those women were not going anywhere. Any job posting were for people who had degrees and I did not have one. The people at my company, particularly the women, made me feel like I was nothing because I did not have a degree. I was truly on the low end of the company totem pole. When I asked for extra work, I would be given papers to shuffle. How boring is that? It was no wonder that my attitude towards this job started to stink very badly.
I knew my days at this company were coming to an end when I saw another woman being interviewed. Even though I might have been wrong, she did not look as though she had a degree either. Two days later, I was let go by my supervisor, who was very nice about the situation. She explained that this was not her decision but others at this company did not think I was a good fit for the position. I know she was wondering why I did not look sad because I was being fired, but I did not shed a tear and I took my severance check and got the hell out of there.
A month later, I was on the system once again. This time, I had to go to a work program because of my prior work experience, which I did not have a problem with. I needed a job, but this particular program was designed by idiots. The first day of training, the trainees were instructed to use crayons and paper to draw a shield and put our job and life aspirations in the shield. I could not believe this crap. How would this aid welfare recipient in obtaining a job? This program is what welfare reform and the taxpayers are paying for– training grown women to use crayons.
After doing this program for two weeks, I received papers that I did not think I would ever get. Earlier that spring, I had applied for a loan consolidation for student loans I had taken out during my turbulent teens when I wanted to become everything from a beautician to a security guard. Since I had heard nothing from the U.S. Department of Education, I forgot about it. When I read the papers, I was told that I was no longer on default, my loans were consolidated and I was eligible for financial aid. Thank you God! I was going back to school and to hell with that stupid program.
Immediately, I went to Chicago State University, started the registration process and was accepted in less than a month. I was so proud of myself. I called my caseworker at the job program and told her my plans and she did not have a problem with it. However, my caseworker at the welfare office was a major obstacle to my collegiate career. She told me that since I had work experience, they would not allow me, a grown woman, to go to a four-year college. The most I could do was a two-year program, majoring in medical assisting or obtaining some more secretarial skills. I was so angry, I cried. How could these people who did not know me, tell me what was best for me? It was the beginning of a three and half year war with the caseworkers of the Woodlawn Department of Human Services for my right to attend college unimpeded.
Battle one: The first problem I had was the massive turnover of caseworkers who were assigned to me. Every time I went to the office, I had a new caseworker who would send out mixed messages. One caseworker would have a problem with my decision to attend college without permission, the next one would not, and my TANF case got totally messed up as a result. This fact would turn out to be a major turning point in my war with the welfare system. Battle two: after finally being assigned a steady caseworker, who at first seemed like she was down for welfare recipients receiving an education, turned out to be a witch of the first degree. She wanted me to come into the office every other week to let her know how I was doing. Although I was not working, I was in school full-time taking fifteen to eighteen credit hours per semester, raising three children in the ghetto, coping with my elderly mother who is not in the best of health, and dealing with being flat broke with children. I felt that coming into the office every other week was too extreme and made my thoughts known. I was quickly “sanctioned” thereafter. Getting sanctioned means that your cash benefits are slashed in half until whatever issue your caseworker has with you is resolved.
Imagine a check for $435 a month being cut to two-hundred seventeen dollars and fifty cent and being expected to live off that. I had to make choices between paying my bills and buying clothes for my two younger children for three months. Thank goodness that my eldest daughter had a part-time job and I had Section 8 housing, or I would have gone crazy.
Battle three: Eventually my caseworker and I came to an agreement and I started receiving my full benefits again. But just when I thought the drama had ended, the harassment about me being in college full-time and not attending a welfare job program began. Even after maintaining a 3.75 grade point average, I was still pursued by the welfare system like the Furies of Greek mythology for trying to improve my human capital. Eventually I made the decision to not get cash benefits, only food stamps. I was hoping that the two years of college I had obtained would make it easier for me find employment but the only job I found was college-work study. I could not work more than fifteen hours per week and it was minimum wage. I was broke as hell and going crazy: I even thought about giving my children to the state until I could get myself together financially.
But, I got over that madness quickly. However poor I was, these were my children and I was going to ride out the storm. I should not have had children until I was financially secure but they were here now and they were mine. There is no one in the world more fit to raise my children than myself, however poverty-stricken I was. I swallowed my pride and went back to the welfare office to apply for cash assistance in June of 2003 and never heard another word from them for almost three months. I eventually contacted a sociology professor of mine from the previous semester, Professor Judith Birgen to see if she knew anyone who could help me with my welfare situation. She put me into contact with the Director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, who in turn put me into contact with a lawyer with the Public Aid benefits legal hotline.
To this day, I do not know what this lawyer said to my caseworker and her manager, but I received my cash benefits within three days and an abundance of food stamps. I had never felt so empowered in my life! I knew then that even welfare recipients had basic rights and that my rights were being violated by the Woodlawn office. Welfare recipients are treated like “riff-raff” and little information is given or spoken to them of their rights. Little did I know that a major battle with welfare was brewing and the war to receive a college degree was just heating up.
Battle four: In January of 2005, I made the decision to transfer from Chicago State for two reasons: I was bored with the curriculum and the administrative system was insane. I decided to apply to Roosevelt because of its reputation and because Harold Washington graduated from there. I figured that any college that produced an intelligent, articulate individual such as the late mayor Harold Washington was a college I needed to attend.
In March, I was notified of my acceptance into Roosevelt and was delighted to find out that I received a recognition scholarship for my previous academic excellence at another school. I also received a letter from the Roosevelt Scholars program, encouraging me to apply and I did and was accepted on another scholarship! I was flying high for the first time in my life: In making the decision to attend college, I found out that I was so much more than a “welfare recipient.” The professors at Chicago State and Roosevelt University thought that I was an intelligent, articulate person who was capable of obtaining a Bachelor’s degree. Too bad Public Aid did not care and still continued its harassment.
In September of 2005, my caseworker had the audacity to cop an attitude because I did not inform her that I was transferring to Roosevelt. I was a grown woman who was making a decision about my life that I thought would be best for me and I was not about to answer to her or anyone else. The Personal Responsibility contract clearly states that recipients can go to school and if attending, must maintain a 2.75 grade point average. But caseworkers and their managers are more consumed with pushing welfare recipients into the workforce, although some of those jobs pay minimum wage, have terrible hours for mothers and have no opportunity for growth. She took issue with the fact that I registered for day classes because according to her, I was suppose to register for evening classes and go to a job training program in the day.
I looked at this woman as if she was insane. However broke, I was not going to stand for any interference when it came to my collegiate career. My grade point average was over the average mandated by the welfare system and if necessary, I would call legal assistance. While meeting with her and the manager, I also learned that my TANF clock was at 57 months, which meant that I had only had 3 months left to receive cash assistance. As of February of 2006, I would only receive food stamps and no cash. I immediately informed them that my clock was at 37 months when I went to college and my estimation was 48 months. Welfare recipients who are in school must wait until they receive their first grades before the clock actually stops and registering for school does not stop the clock. One would think that the my caseworker would know this since she had been my caseworker for almost two years, but caseworkers are some of the most clueless creatures on the planet. Dealing with people who are poor, uneducated, and sometimes ignorant cannot be easy for caseworkers but they should not take it out on the recipients are trying to do the right thing.
I was scheduled for another meeting because my caseworker and her manager needed to investigate my case further and I was to come back in two weeks. During the appointment, I was verbally harassed about my decision to attend college, was told that I should have done it sooner, that I had no business attending Roosevelt University without their permission and so on. I could not believe the nerve of these harpies. I know women who register for school just to receive a babysitting check and some who would not attend school if offered money was offered in the millions and these individuals had the nerve to be on my case for attending college and achieving? The world is full of hateful, mean-spirited people and I had the misfortune to be in the company of two of them. I did not lose my cool though; I just sat there and listened to their nonsense because I did not want to go to jail for acting crazy. Nothing or no one was going to stop me from obtaining a college degree. I knew I had basic rights as a welfare recipient, however little, and that I needed to develop a counterattack as soon as possible because this war was getting crazy.
Resolution: When I got back from the welfare office, I checked my mail and there was a letter from the Springfield office where Public Aid in Illinois was headquartered and was given the same information that my caseworker and my manager had previously informed me about. However, I did not know that I could file for a 6- month extension for good causes. I filled out the paperwork for that and I also wrote a letter to Springfield, explaining to them my situation and discussing the negligence of the Woodlawn Office to keep track of their recipients’ records. I did not want an extension; I just wanted my clock readjusted so I could graduate in May, find a job and finally be financially independent. I dropped the letter in the mail and waited. In November of 2006, I received a letter from my caseworker, informing me that if I did not graduate and be working in my field of study by May of 2006, I would have to attend a mandatory job training program. I knew then that I had won the war and little to my surprise; I received a letter from Springfield later that week, informing me that I would not receive an extension because my TANF clock had been readjusted to 48 months, the exact amount I had calculated.
I beat the welfare system, a system that punishes it recipients for being poor and unmarried! Kathy Maria Henry, teenage mother, high school dropout and welfare recipient, had the power to move Springfield into making a decision that would benefit her life. I now had an opportunity to finish out my senior year of college in peace without welfare breathing down my neck. I beat the welfare system at their own game and it felt so good! However, this was only the beginning of a tide of good fortune for me: in February of 2006, I was offered full-time employment at Ketchum Directory Advertising with complete life, health, vision, and dental benefits, paid time off, holidays, making $25,000 a year as a Group Administrative Assistant and I accepted. That salary might not be a lot to some, but this amount enabled me to leave the welfare system for good and be officially over the poverty line. I also graduated from Roosevelt University on May 12, 2006, graduating with honors and as a member of the Franklin Honor Society.
Writing this paper has been a catharsis for me and it allowed me to finally let go of the anger, helplessness, and the resentment that I had bottled up inside of me for the past four years. The main lesson that I learned as a welfare recipient is that even the lowliest have rights and that dreams can come true. My dream of obtaining higher education that would enable me to earn a decent living wage to support my children and I have been fulfilled and I know now that I can achieve anything that I want in life. My eldest child graduated from high school in June of 2005 and she is attending Northern Illinois University on a partial scholarship! I kicked all those statistics in the butt! I am living proof that a single, poor, Black mother can successfully raise intelligent, productive children while receiving welfare assistance. I do not know what the future holds for my youngest two children but with God on my side and the self-perseverance that has been a key ingredient of my character; I hope to start a Henry tradition of everyone attending and finishing college. My children know of my struggles and I hope that they look at those struggles as a life lesson: never give up.
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