Money Mic: I Was a ‘Lazy Welfare Mother’

People have a lot of opinions about money. In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, Barbara Morrison, author of “Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother,” tells the story of how she went from being a welfare mom to the successful professional she is today.

It was 1974 when my marriage ended. I was young, only 24 years old. My husband refused to pay child support and I couldn’t force him–I couldn’t afford a lawyer and he threatened to sue for custody of our son if I went after him. My parents–who hadn’t liked my husband in the first place (probably because he had braids and lived in a schoolbus), who didn’t approve of my having children so young and who didn’t want me to be a bad influence on my younger siblings–refused to let me come home.

I had no job. I had no savings. I had no health insurance. I had a 1-year-old son, and I was pregnant.

Admitting I Needed Help

I was stricken. I needed prenatal care, plus I had to pay for the birth itself and then well-baby visits after he was born. Nearly everyone I knew advised me to get an abortion. Some people even advised me to give my son up for adoption so I could get a job.

I grew up in an upper-middle-class family where welfare was considered a refuge for lazy bums who couldn’t be bothered to take responsibility for themselves. I had a college degree, so I thought I should be able to find work, though it turns out a BA in English didn’t qualify me for much. I worked briefly as a live-in housekeeper, but when they found out I was pregnant, they let me go. I spent every day searching newspaper ads, but I found nothing. There were also no daycare centers in my city, Worcester, Massachusetts, for children under 3, so I had no place to put my son while working an office job, even if I could have afforded it.

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I felt ashamed to be asking for help, but I logically knew that I needed to. I spent weeks scribbling down budgets, trying to make the numbers work, but they wouldn’t. I also knew I had been working since I was 16, I would be working soon and would pay taxes again. I told myself that government assistance was similar to unemployment: I had paid into the system, and now I needed it.

Luckily I had a friend named Jill, who I met while a student at Clark University. She was on public assistance and was a founder of the local chapter of the Welfare Rights System. Just knowing someone who was in the system made it a little less scary.

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If I hadn’t known what to ask for, I would have been in a lot of trouble. Social workers in Worcester–and really everywhere–weren’t consistent or helpful. Two people could go in the welfare office and one could come out and have a check, foodstamps and more, while the other would be denied, and they didn’t even know you could appeal the decision. Sometimes the social workers were told to act as though the money was coming out of their own pocket. It was a way to keep the rolls down. But with Jill’s advice on what I had a right to, I went into the office, and came out with food stamps and a monthly check.

  • RPh

    I went from teenage welfare mom to a college graduate.  I donate back to all the social programs that have helped me.  My children learned from my example and have jobs, save money, and no grand children yet.

  • Kathy G Slaughter

    Thank you so much for courageously sharing your story! Examples like yours are desperately needed to help others find a way to relate to people in need. I’ve learned when others realize someone is broke, they respond in one of two ways: generosity or criticism. Being on assistance puts a target on your back.

    P,S. I know welfare office employees are often called social workers as a job title. I’d like to point out next to none of them are actually Social Workers. As in trained professionals.

  • Jill

    I appreciate you for writing this! Welfare is demonized as being something that Welfare Queens (Young African American women) use. Welfare was originally started for Caucasian women so that they could stay home and take care of their children, and was later expanded to include minority population. Welfare has many flaws like you stated, it is hard for people to qualify for (e.g. income level) and hard for some to maintain (e.g. change in employment or marriage status). 
    Also as women, there is nothing wrong with asking for help and utilizing the resources that are provided to us. The suggestions that people made to you that you should have given up your son  for adoption and that rude Facebook comment shows how ignorant people can be and how prideful and understanding we can be to other’s situations.
    I hope that we can understand that most women choose not to be on welfare and the measly (but greatly needed) funds are barely enough to survive. Welfare is for most people a last resort, for when they have no idea how to feed their kids or what will happen next. 
    I am so happy for you and your family Ms. Morrison! I wish you all more success!

  • Silvana

    WOW, this is defnitely an eye opening store. It really touched me because I had such a different view on this topic. Thank you for sharing this and for opening the eyes of America!

  • Pevans28

    We all need a little help sometimes, especially in this economy. It’s great to know that you had a plan to survive and stand on your own when you could. I see so many people abuse welfare on a daily basis. It’s disgusting to see how money and other resources get wasted on people who don’t deserve it when others out there are truly in need of a helping hand. Kudos and thank you.

  • Nicoli_nymc

    Great story! I too received assistance in several different forms throughout my education–food stamps, welfare (Aid to family and dependent children), medicaid and WIC. I always knew it was a temporary situation. I completely felt your pain when you had food stamps which do not cover tampons! Second hand furniture. I slept on a used mattress for two and half years! Thank goodness bed bugs weren’t so rampant then. But at this point as a successful physician, I have paid back that money three times over in taxes! As you stated most people do not want to be on assistance forever, but the system is stacked against them. Make $5 over and you no longer qualify for help. Ridiculous. Only those who are ignorant believe people want to live this way. But should those same people fall on hard times without family and resources they will wish that safety net was in place for them. There is a role for government.

  • AJ

    I too was on welfare back in the late 1970s.  I was in college while raising 3 kids.  After I finished school, I left the system.  By the grace of God, I have not been there again.  Right now I am taking care of my mother.  I could probably qualify for food stamps, but can’t bring myself to apply.
    Unfortunately there are many people who do milk the system.  I have had the experience of talking to many of them.

  • Lethe9

    Bless your heart! Everything you have said is so true. I was on welfare with my daughter, busted my butt to get an education and get us up out of the projects, and made it for awhile.

    Then her mental illness got so bad that she dragged the rest of us down with her. Now I am raising her child, she’s a homeless prostitute on crack (can’t live with us because she is dangerous). After 24 years of hard work and sacrifice, I am in almost the same situation I was then, small child, no car, except that I have an incredible amount of student debt, an inadequate job, and am 54 years old.

    I am in a very intolerant part of the country and so get tired of being treated like I am lazy (work more than 40 hours a week), ignorant (degrees in English, Spanish an MA, ABD), a leech, and don’t deserve to live. Sometimes we do all the right things, have things going okay, run into a little or a lot of misfortune, and it still doesn’t work. My morale isn’t too great today; usually it’s better.

  • lidiak

    I just wanted to say thank you. My family and I are currently on foodstamps and medicaid and the social stigma and can be hurtful. Even though we work really hard (around 60 hours a week), many people assume that we are really lazy and are just taking advantage of the system, but like another commenter said its kind of hard to exploit 400 bucks a month for a family of four to eat with. I have also gotten comments about buying organic foods with our foodstamps instead canned foods or boxed foods. But the way we see it, is that the healthier we eat the less likely we are to get sick and miss work, so for us the cost is worth it. Plus buying fresh produce (we try to use our foodstamps at the farmers market as much as possible) and making everything from scratch ends up being cheaper then buying boxed or canned foods anyways. We’ve been working really hard at working on a plan to get out of poverty and finish school and your story is a great inspiration, and has been one of my favorite reads on LV

    • Bob_smith1492

       Just plain ignorance.  So-called organic food won’t help you and simply doubles your food budget.

      • lidiak

        Wanted to thank you for your concern, but it hasn’t doubled our food budget. We buy organic produce at our local farmers market to put that money back into our community (it also ends up being way cheaper than the grocery store where they have to ship in produce mainly from south america). And what I meant buy eating healthier, is that we have cut out all prepackaged food, they are convenience foods so they end up costing more then making the same thing from scratch. In doing so we have the extra money to put towards organically grown produce and bulk grains. I don’t think that organic produce has much more nutrients then conventional produce, but I would rather not ingest pesticides or cook food with them in it for my family. Especially when the cost is only .05 cents to a $1 more a pound. I do have to say we also only eat meat once a week which has actually been the biggest way to cut down our grocery bill. Either way since my family and I have been more aware of nutrition and physical fitness my family hasn’t been sick in almost 2 years. Knock on wood :) I hope you have a great day!

  • guest

    Great article! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=584053427 Michelle Sanders Brinson

    Just wondering if you’re going to put the contest back up on FB to win a copy of this book?

    • AldenWicker

      Hi Michelle,

      We just got the Facebook contest fixed. We’re going to run another giveaway tomorrow (keep a look out for it!), and then put the book back up for grabs next week. I’ll make sure you know!

      Alden, social media coordinator

  • Untmaggie

    Barbara, thank you so much for sharing your story and providing some perspective! I’ve heard a lot of those comments lately and I’m ashamed to even know some of the people uttering them. My family grew up on the lower end of the middle class. I don’t know for sure, but I believe my parents got assistance at times. I used financial aid, mostly student loans, to go to college and appreciate the opportunities that have come from that. I wish more people would realize that we pay for these services with our taxes to help our fellow humans out. Anyone who would say something as mean as “just die” obviously has no compassion. I’m happy that chose to turn a difficult situation into a learning opportunity!

  • LeAnne

    My position on welfare and other assistance is that every person should not take out more than they put into the system.  In the case of the author, she not only put into the system before she hit a rough patch, she also put MUCH, MUCH more into the system afterwards.

    From the author’s story and other anecdotes I’ve heard over the years, it seems like the current welfare system is only barely helping some people and it’s making it almost impossible for someone to break free of it.   I like to donate to a charity who helps provide prenatal care and other necessities for mothers who for whatever reason are having a tough time with their care and support of their children.  They do everything from driving the women to and paying for doctors appointments to offering to baby sit or provide clothing/diapers/etc.  Many of the women are able to work and pull out of a tough spot.  I would much rather funnel more of my cash into places like that then to waste so much on bureaucratic red tape that creates a system with not enough stepping stones to get out of it

    I know that there are stories like this out there, so I try not to look to harshly on the welfare programs.  However, it’s very difficult to reserve judgement when I’m behind a patron at Starbucks who is being told that they cannot use their foodstamp to purchase a $5 coffee.  Unfortunately, I think people see more stores like that first hand and it casts a negative light on the whole system.

  • Gradessaver

    Inspirational. Real. It’s priceless to learn the truth of those who defy the odds and come out ahead. Thank you Barbara!

  • Julie

    Thanks for your story. I grew up in a middle-class home where I heard all these misconceptions about how almost, if not everyone getting government assistance is a lazy bum. Therefore, when I graduated from college, started my graduate studies, and moved in with my husband, receiving food stamps was incredibly shameful for me. This happened while I lived in Puerto Rico. Now I live in Minnesota and have been avoiding applying for food stamps even though I probably would qualify and they’d make things easier on me until I find a job. Being Hispanic makes me feel uncomfortable because I think I’d be judged this way too. I’m not sure I’ll get braver after reading this, but it sure makes me feel better knowing that other people might clear up their misconceptions thanks to you.

  • Tina Majkowski

    Thank you SO much for writing this article! My mom became disabled when I was quite young and we were on and off public assistance most of my life. But, she never kept it a secret and never let me feel “less than” when kids teased me for being so poor. Instead, she told me I was smart every day and threatened corporeal damage if I didn’t finish High School (a first in my family), and go to college! Now, I have a BFA/BA, MA, MA and am working toward my PhD. It’s weird to say, but I am glad that I grew up the way I did and “Welfare Moms” are only queens when it comes to paying it forward by making sure that their children succeed!

    Congratulations and love from the bottom of my heart!

  • Ariessgoddess

    Thank you! I have also been a welfare mother, something I never wanted to do.  I admit I am not where I want to be. Yet I have been working my butt off in school to get my BA, as well as doing everything I can to find a job that supports my son and I. 

  • http://twitter.com/LoveBusbee72 LoveBusbee72

    Interesting story…welfare can work, whether you eventually get off it or if it’s helping someone to get a leg up to get off it.  I was raised on welfare, and my Mom got off it–it was tough but she did it.  My brothers, sisters and I are the better for it.  In addition to welfare, it takes a family/friend support system to help.  And, if you don’t have that, a rock-solid determination to realize that welfare is a helping hand/tool, you use it, learn from it and go forward, on your own terms.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ZGTWRK226R35OFPXF5RW7HB6SU Fran Marie

    I was the virtual one paycheck away from homelessness. My then husband lost his job and we were on the street the next month.

    WELL, let me TELL you the RAMPANT abuse of welfare while my family stayed in a local ‘family’ homeless shelter.

    The Users were MORE than happy how to teach me to WORK the system! One actually told me to get pregnant and LET THE GOVERNMENT TAKE CARE OF MY KIDS!! (In her family TEN of the ELEVEN kids AND her grown mother are career Welfarians STILL. And her kids continued the heritage!)

    SOME of the families, like us, were justifiably broke but NOT THE MAJORITY!!!!! DO NOT BE FOOLED!!!

  • Suzenbe

    I felt like I was reading the the story of myself, to every detail, from 30 years ago…. and I am shocked that nothing about the attitude has changed.
    The comments, the judgement, and even the self-demeaning belief in those middle-class conservative attitudes hit home straight-on.
    I am currently creeping over the cusp of public assistance, (starting my NEW JOB in my new career on Tuesday, December  4th 2012!).
    …after a failed marriage, three children to raise on my own and ten long years, with NO child support, (Dad is MIA, slipping through the beauracracy,  but living quite well, working as an elite finish-carpenter in Washington DC), I am FINALLY capable to financially live on my own.We’ve endured alot together, my three children and I, sub-par housing, poverty, embarrassment, attitudes and opinions, despair, and most recently, three years of technical school with which I graduated with two associate degrees in Architectural and Mechanical Design. (And was ridiculed then as being a “bad mother” for taking the time to study and go to school.)I agree. Without “well-fare” women with children to care for, (ESPECIALLY until they are in school a full day) would DIE,(and personally, I believe every mother should be honored three years of home-centered routine time to bond with her child).THANK YOU for writing this article, I will consider you my hero as I venture on to my own success! (Please everybody who reads this, cross your fingers for me!) and BTW, the first thing I plan to add to my new pay-check budget, is giving back to the organizations who helped me through.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/A2DOBTCOWOSNEXSOLUUDBWTXH4 Rachel

    Thank you so much for this article! I have been on various forms of public assistance for the last 8 years, since my son was born. I am now working and going to grad school to get my doctorate in psychology. I would not have been able to do this without public assistance. I hate hearing people gripe about welfare. I know for me, I am trying to use it to bring myself out of poverty and contribute to society. Thank you so much for opening people’s eyes on this topic! 

  • Carol F

    I appreciate this post very much. I had a child young, but have always been lucky enough to maintain steady work and have the support of my parents. I know someone who isn’t as lucky (her parents are 2000+ miles away, the father of her child left her and threatened to sue for custody if she pursued child support etc), and I hope she reads your story and seeks assistance. We were able to put a roof over her head for a year, but couldn’t pull off more than that (6 of us in a 2 bedroom apartment). She was lucky enough to find someone to take her in afterwards and has been in their basement for almost 2 years. I’ve tried to convince her to seek help, but her response has always been, “I don’t want to be one of “those” people.” Meanwhile, in the county and state in which we live, she is missing out on assistance with food, clothing, childcare, and she and her child are not insured. The county is fairly affluent so there are many programs run via our tax dollars and donations. I’ve seen retraining programs (that include daycare), and as a single mother, I know for a fact that the Department of Social Services in our state would assist with pursuing child support, and provide a certain base income in the absentee father’s stead. The bright side is, thanks to the past three years she is only two years out from her child going to elementary school.

  • facepalm

    Wow. Just wow. I’m so glad that you had the courage to correct people who incorrectly generalize those who are on government assistance. It makes me happy to know that even though it’s an incredibly imperfect system, ultimately it worked for you because you used it and pulled yourself up and onto a better life. I only wish that no one ever needed it, but I’m glad it’s there.