“Kate” and I met outside a subway stop near the Nike store in downtown Manhattan; she was on her way to a job doing hair and makeup for an off-Broadway show. Kate is a single mom with two kids; a seven year old son and five year old daughter. After living in a homeless shelter for two years, they all recently moved back in with her mother, who found an apartment big enough for the four of them.
My interview with Kate is a fitting end to this summer’s journey, embodying everything I’ve come to expect from those I’ve met along the way. Though she is grateful for the help she has had from the TANF and SNAP programs, and medical assistance and housing, she clearly doesn’t want to be a ‘welfare mom’. Her most telling moments are when she talks about what she wants her children to remember about her when they grow up.
“I want them to rely on me if they need something, not the system, so when they grow up they’ll say ‘Mommy took care of me’, not the government.” She is currently planning to enroll in college and work 2-3 jobs, so that when her TANF runs out she is in a position to support herself and her kids. One impediment is the current job market, which is especially challenging in New York City.
Kate has the determination and drive to make it out of the system, and I would like to imagine her five years down the line, off of TANF for good, with a living wage job and a college degree under her belt. If anything holds her back, it certainly won’t be a lack of determination or work ethic on her part. What may hold her back is being on welfare in the first place.
As a TANF recipient, employers will find out she is on welfare and either offer her lower wages, or not hire her at all because they think she’ll be unreliable and unprofessional.
The stigma of welfare is real in the job market. First, when applying for jobs, because welfare case workers get involved, discussing their clients with prospective employers, thus tipping the hand of applicants and making employers aware of their background. Second, when negotiating for wages; employers know that welfare recipients need to take the jobs they are offered, and there is little incentive to offer them high wages. Third, since welfare recipients are able to qualify for continued housing and medical assistance and food stamps if their wages stay low, there is an incentive on the part of employers to forgo offers of benefits such as health plans and retirement funds that will push welfare recipients over the poverty line. The result is a pool of disadvantaged applicants at the mercy of employers.
Looking back on all the people I’ve met this summer who are struggling and surviving on welfare while wishing and dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families, I’ve given a lot of thought to what our country could do differently for its poorer citizens. For the disabled, for the elderly, for the children, a safety net is clearly called for. But for the rest, who just want a chance at a better life, and who just need a little help to get back on their feet after setbacks, layoffs, unexpected pregnancies, and the like, I can’t help wondering whether our current safety net isn’t in fact a safety ‘trap’ that becomes difficult if not impossible to escape. I’d like to believe we can do better.