'I'm a Welfare Success Story'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, this reader was “the product of the AFDC program”—the Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Here she describes the ups and downs of growing up on welfare:

I was the third of four daughters. My mother was a traditional homemaker when my parents divorced. I’m not sure about the dynamics of what occurred, but I know that money from my father was not received. He insists he tried paying, but my mother insisted he never provided it.

In any regard, back then there were no reliable daycares, just other women who would babysit. Additionally, my mom had some mental-health issues that made it very difficult for her to ever maintain full-time employment. But mostly, she was a housewife—that was her dream growing up as a young woman in the 1950s. The option for my mother was to go back to work and leave us kids alone (like some other single moms did) or go on welfare. She opted for the latter.

I will admit, I was embarrassed as a child, growing up in a middle-class neighborhood on welfare. We did not live well. There was no extra money for new clothes or for the latest gadget. Clothes were hand-me-downs from older sisters or friends.   

I have a distinct recollection of going with my mother one of the times she had to “prove” that she was still worthy of assistance. It was a humiliating process. The welfare office was filled with people who were treated like herds of cattle. Every aspect of your finances was scrutinized. Sometimes they would send out a caseworker to do a “spot check” on the house. My mother hated it, and it always left her in a sour mood.

Being on AFDC also qualified us for free breakfast and lunches. I swear, I would’ve starved some days if we didn’t have that option. Many days there was only dry milk, bread, mayonnaise, and mustard in the refrigerator. More than once did my sisters and I eat mustard-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.

One winter, our hot-water tank broke and we didn’t have money to repair it. We live in Buffalo, New York—Buffalo with no hot water in January. Have you ever washed your hair in cold water? To bather we had to heat up pots of water on the stove to dump into the bathtub.

Repairs in the home had to wait and there was always something broken. Our car was always on the verge of breaking down. We did not have cable or Atari Pong (yes, it was way back then). We went way too long without doctor’s appointments and frequently went to clinics or emergency rooms because we owed the regular physician too much money. And not many doctors took Medicaid.

But despite all this, I have nothing but praise for AFDC. Why?

Looking back, without the AFDC program I do not know what would have become of my sisters and me. It provided for a roof over our heads, food on the table (no matter how meager), and assistance with utility bills. Growing up on welfare also qualified us for additional assistance to go to college.

So when someone starts railing against “people on welfare,” I proudly say: I’m one of them. I grew up on it, I graduated valedictorian of my high school class, I’ve held a job since I was 15, and I went to college and earned my bachelor’s and my master’s. I’ve been married for over 28 years and have four daughters myself and have worked for the federal government for over 12 years. Welfare worked.

It worked well for my sisters, too. One is an RN, one is an artist with a business degree, and one is a schoolteacher. People say that we are anomalies, but I say the opposite: We are the faces of AFDC, and those welfare queens are the anomalies.

I’m very, very grateful that we had what we had, and it breaks my heart to see what families have to go through today. Welfare has humbled me and been one of the best life lessons.

My sisters and I have told many stories to our children that they do not understand the meaning of poverty—and even we don’t understand because I never saw as “poor.” My sisters and I once cried to my mom how “poor” we were, and her response was to make us volunteer at the local soup kitchen or shelter on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. “This is poor,” she told us. “This is the only meal these children will have, and these may be the only gifts they receive. They may not even have a home to go to after this. We do and we have enough. If you feel poor, then you are just simply poor in spirit.”

I’ve carried that tradition on with my children, volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters; and honestly, it makes for the best holiday memories for our family.

I found out much later in life about the financial toll on my mother. Our childhood home became so dilapidated over time that when I finally convinced my mother to sell, it was way under market for homes in that area. Then, I found out that she had a lien against her house put on by the county for receiving AFDC payments. So it was never “free” for us; they essentially took her house.

I was able to negotiate the price of the lien down, so that in the final year of my mother’s life she bought new furniture for the first time in her life. Nothing expensive, mind you, but to her it was the most wonderful piece of furniture ever created. I wish she would have lived longer to enjoy it more.

I know this is probably much longer than you wanted, but I for one am happy to say that I’m an AFDC success story. And there are lots of us.

Are you another one? If you had a similar—or contrasting—experience with AFDC or TANF, we’d like to hear from you: hello@theatlantic.com.