“I Don’t Want to be on Welfare”

The sun was setting fast in the Bronx, and by the time “Sylvia” and I settled down to talk at the local park I knew we wouldn’t get much video, but she had a few things to say that I thought we should hear. Unfortunately we had to leave abruptly when a disturbance broke out nearby, so the video is short, but the point is clear – Sylvia wants a job, not a life on welfare.

A Puerto-Rican American resident of the Bronx, until recently Sylvia lived with her baby in her mother’s apartment, along with a couple of her brothers, while her husband lived with his mother in an apartment nearby. Financially, it made more sense for them to live in their mother’s homes and earn separate benefits than it did to try and afford living together.

This is one of the frustrating things about welfare – often, there is a financial incentive for parents to stay single and live apart, rather than move in together and create a household for their children. In Sylvia’s case, she and her husband eventually decided to bite the bullet and move in together, and their benefits have decreased as a result.

Sylvia recently graduated from college with a degree in Web design, but has been unable to find a job. She gets food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid for herself and her son. She and her husband would love to get in to public housing, but the waiting lists in the City stretch into years, and there is a good chance they will be off of welfare completely before their number comes up. As it stands now, they are finally living together but the rent and utilities are eating up the lion’s share of her husband’s part time income.

Sylvia seems as baffled by her situation as I am; here is a young, bright, college graduate with a degree in a highly sought-after field, headed for a life of welfare dependence that was the last thing on her mind when she went off to college. A realist, she is grateful for the money, but welfare dependency rubs her the wrong way – in fact, any economic dependency frustrates her. She doesn’t like to ask her husband for money, even for groceries, and would much rather be paying her own way and earning a paycheck. Her child keeps her busy, but she knows that it won’t be long before school takes over and she’s left with empty days.

What Sylvia is most afraid of is ending up on welfare for life. In her neighborhood, this is the norm – she knows few people who are not receiving food stamps and other benefits, and feels that the cost of living in New York City is so high that most will never be able to afford the leap off of welfare. She is also frustrated by the abuse of the public housing available – as she put it, “I have relatives and friends who have lived in the same public housing for decades, and they shouldn’t even still qualify, but they stay and no one checks up on them, and they are tying up those units for people who actually need it and legally qualify – that’s why there’s no public housing, not because the apartments aren’t there, but because they are tied up by people who won’t give them up and aren’t told to move out.”

Like most of the mothers I’ve met this summer, Sylvia doesn’t want welfare, she wants a job – she knows what a life on the dole looks like, and it is not for her. It seems to me we should be trying to capture that work ethic and put it to good use, instead of providing such Americans a life of subsistence and calling our job done.