When Welfare Can't Help the Most Vulnerable

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

That’s the experience of this reader, who thinks “the biggest problem with welfare and TANF is the work requirement.” Her story shows why:

In October 2013 I had my daughter. She was born with an ultra-rare
disease. (She is one of 50 patients worldwide.) I, at the time, had a decent job in the restaurant industry as an Event Director. I worked non-traditional hours and some weeks more than 70 hours a week. This wasn’t conducive to caring for a child with only a three-year life expectancy. I tried my hardest to juggle it all. In February of 2014 I lost my job.

No day care would take my daughter because of her condition. They didn’t have the proper equipment to keep her safe. No friends would babysit because they were afraid of her. The only day care that took assistance closed at 6 p.m.

But even if I had found another job, I would not have been able to find one making what I was making that would allow me to take off two days a week to make doctor’s appointments my child needed to survive—not to mention the several surgeries and hospitalizations.

I have always worked, often more than one job, since I was 14. But, now I needed help. I applied for TANF and was told that I would not qualify for any services because I was “work-ready.”

Nothing. All my hard work. All the taxes I have paid. I could get nothing.

Nothing does not put gas in the car to get to appointments. Nothing does not buy the medical equipment my child needed. Nothing would not keep our lights on, or buy diapers or tampons.

How does this story end?

Well, currently I am homeless with four children, including the medically fragile one. I don’t make enough to afford housing that will fit us all. Vouchers for housing is closed. The waiting list, when it opens, will be two years or longer.

I do receive child support and disability ... but not enough. Because
I am homeless, I receive $34 in food stamps a month. (I have no housing expenses.)

While I can logically understand the need for Welfare Reform and how the policies came about, I cannot help but be slightly disgusted that someone who worked 40+ hours a week from age 18-35 cannot get the help they need, even for a short time, because of the rules that govern the programs. Had I not worked so hard in school or professionally, I would be able to get us back on our feet.

There may be very real and very serious reasons people cannot work. These should be taken into consideration. Not solely whether they are “capable” of working.

I wish I could say I was the only Rare Disease family going through this. I’m not.

If you’ve been through something similar, we’d like to hear from you. Please write to us at hello@theatlantic.com.