“Welfare is the Last Thing I Want for My Child”

“Tammy” and I met at a Safeway in Everett, Washington, a small town an hour north of Seattle, home to one of Boeing’s largest plants and a local military base. When she finished shopping she agreed to sit and enjoy some rare Washington sunshine and tell me her story.

Aside from her prominent lip piercing, Tammy comes across as the small town Missouri girl that she is – shocked and dismayed at the turn her life has taken, and brimming with Midwestern work ethic.

At twenty years old, Tammy has already had more than her fair share of hardship, from homelessness, to spousal abuse, to marriage to a drug addicted male prostitute, to domestic violence from her brother-in-law. She presently lives in a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence, where she can stay for at least the next 30 days, out of the weather and away from the threats of violence. Her husband, the father of her son, has returned to the streets of San Francisco and a life of meth addiction and prostitution.

Listening to Tammy, I was struck by her tenacity; though she claims that she has given up her dreams and simply wants to provide for her son, and would be ‘thrilled’ with a job at McDonalds, underneath that defeated exterior lies the heart of a young woman who would love to have a brighter future, and is not willing to accept that she just can’t get there from here.

Happy, she is not – more than once she burst into tears, only to gather herself together and carry on with her story. Yet what brings out the rage and the anger more than anything is not her past, sad as it has been, but her future, and the fact that she is now dependent on the government, a concept she loathes, not just because of the scorn she feels directed towards her, but the scorn she heaps on herself.

So what do we do with a young mother on welfare, who has a small child to raise and support? For Tammy, the answer is simple: she wants a job, and with it the self satisfaction that comes from providing for herself and her son.

Does TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) help? It could. It gives her cash support, but it only really works if the second component of the program is in place as well – job training and placement, so that she can move off of welfare and into work.

As for food stamps, housing, and medical care, all of them are bureaucracies that create dependencies that Tammy wants to get away from, and she knows that if she just had a job, she could get off of all those programs as well.

I met Tammy the same month that news came out about the Obama administration’s decision to grant waivers to 26 states, easing the work training and placement requirements in the TANF program – the keystone of TANF when it was introduced during the welfare reforms of the 1990s.

I couldn’t help thinking as I listened to Tammy talk that if someone like Tammy could make the connection between work and getting off welfare, and could see the benefits of work training and placement, why can’t our government see the same thing? And why would we gut the one program that seems to be working for young mothers and children nationwide? As Tammy said “The last thing I want is to be dependent on the government”.