Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Melody Philips
English 100
Out-of-Class Essay 3
ne 2004

Welfare or Work?

Author Barbara Ehrenreich conducted an experiment on what life is like living on minimum wage. She wrote about her findings in “Nickel- and-Dimed:  On (Not) Getting by in America.   As she begins her experiment, she notes how she is “setting out to explore the world that welfare mothers are entering, at the rate of 50,000 a month, as welfare reform kicks in” (375).  Because Ehrenreich had some advantages going into this experiment, no children being one of them, she was unable to truly experience the difficult obstacles single mothers must endure.  As a single mother of three children, I have had to decide if the benefits of welfare would be more beneficial to my children than trying to survive off minimum wage.

All I ever wanted when I was growing up was the fairy tale—happy marriage, lots of kids, and the little house with the white picket fence.  I thought when I got married it was going to be forever.  I never imagined how quickly things could change, and now here I am, a single mom, a “welfare mom.”  When your whole perspective on life changes, it’s hard to know which way to go.  Raising my kids was always the most important thing to me, and still is.  I used to always say that I was never going to let day care raise my kids, but then I found myself in a situation where I had no choice.  I didn’t want to be on welfare, so I decided to find a job.

The first thing I had to do was to start looking for a job.  Picking up and filling out the applications was another big cause of concern.  I remember looking at applications wondering how to fill them out.   I didn’t want prospective employers to know that I was a single mother.  Single mothers represent lots of sick days and requested time off.  I can’t say that I blame employers for being some what discriminatory, but when you are a single parent, you are the one who has to go home early because your child is sick.   You also have to request time off because the kids have doctor or dentist appointments, attending school meetings that require your presence, and just being the only one there to meet the needs of your children. 

Another obstacle Ehrenreich writes about was being terrified of being discovered for who she really was, because she had to turn herself into somebody else.  She had to “become another, occupationally diminished “Barbara Ehrenreich” depicted on job application forms as a divorced homemaker whose sole work experience consists of housekeeping in a few private homes.  I am terrified of being unmasked for what I am.” (375).  Ehrenriech had to become what I already am, too under skilled for anything better than minimum wage. Ehrenreich is terrified of being discovered as the educated journalist that she is; I am terrified of not being discovered for what skills I do possess.  I have found myself trying to make myself stand out just a little more than the next guy.  Even if I had to stretch the truth just a little to cause a perspective employer to hopefully notice me.   Ehrenreich is fortunate simply because this is not really her life—it’s an experiment she’s conducting.  If she fails, she just goes back to her middle class life.  As for me, there is no safety net; if I fail I will not survive.

Once I found a job, I had to check out day care facilities, I couldn’t go to work with out having someone to look after my children.  All of the facilities I checked offered pretty standard hours—Monday through Friday 6:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.—with the exception of two facilities that offered twenty-four hour child care services if I wanted to be put on their waiting list.  There are not very many jobs out there for under skilled women that fall into the “banker’s hours” category.  I was lucky that the job I got was a Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 5:00 position.  I sat down with the day care administrator of the facility I had selected, because it was the cheapest, to figure out the cost, and how I would be paying for it.  Well at $4.10 an hour for the first child, and $3.85 an hour for each additional child, my cost would be about $7.95 an hour just for my two youngest children (my oldest was in school and required only minimal daycare).  After balancing that against my wage of $8.50 an hour, I had to apply for state assisted day care.  Because the state paid the majority of my day care costs, I was able to take the job, however it opened the door to other difficulties.

The next big issue is medical insurance.  Although many people are forced to live with out medical insurance because of its cost, single mothers who are unemployed receive medical coverage for all of their children, however because I had a job that offered medical insurance, my kids were cut off from the state as their primary coverage.  I had to provide the primary coverage, therefore was forced to pay the high premiums for obtaining this insurance.  So now out of my $8.50 an hour—approximately $1,200.00 per month after taxes—I had to pay over $240.00 a month just so my kids would have medical insurance.  That left me with less than $1,000.00 a month for everything else.  I had no choice but to apply for food stamps so my children could eat.  When the state figures out what your income is as to how much you qualify for in food stamps, they base it on your total gross income before any deductions, which amounted to a whole $31.00 a month in food stamps. 

There are also many extra stressors that come with single parenting, as well as from living on minimum wage.  I know I personally live paycheck to paycheck;  every penny is spent before I’ve even deposited it into my account.  I am always “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to avoid disconnections of my utilities in the order they come in.  I have to decide which bills I can allow to go to collections, because I cannot pay them all.  I’m not talking about credit card debt or any other unnecessary debt. I have never had a credit card.  If it isn’t a utility bill—power, phone, garbage, water, gas heat, rent—then it may or may not get paid.  Furthermore, waiting for a child support check that is late and may never come at all is agonizing, especially when you have promised someone payment out of it. 

After only ten months, I was laid off.  Apparently they had done some restructuring in the office, and eliminated my position.  I then collected unemployment.  I made the minimum job contacts required by the state, but did not really try to find a job.  It had been so hard when I was working to juggle the kids’ schedules, my work schedule, paying the bills, and trying to do all the upkeep around the house, that it was so nice to stay home with my children.  The chaotic lifestyle we had been living was replaced with relaxing family dinners, playing games with my children, and just having time to enjoy watching them grow.  With the unemployment, and the child support I received for my children my income was only $400.00 less than when I was working.  Without having to pay for all the gas I had been using, and the childcare co-pay, it worked out to be about the same.

I was so tired of bouncing back and forth from self-reliance to relying on welfare, that I made a decision to go back to school to get a better education so I can get a better paying job that would enable me to support my kids and stay off the welfare system.  Welfare should be there for the people who want to go out there and better themselves for the long term, not just the temporary fix that it is now.   There are single moms who get off welfare for six months, because they found a job, but they are right back on the system when they lose that job.  They haven’t gained anything.  If only there were a way to get people more educated so they could get a job that could support them and their families.  There should be more help available for those who want to do something better like getting an education or special job training   I know that because I choose to go to school full time to better myself for the future the state won’t help me with child care costs at all, but if I was working for $7.00 an hour I could get help, which would tie me to the welfare system until my children were old enough to care for themselves.  On the other hand, if they helped me with day care costs now, I would be entirely off the system in about four years.   I have never had the desire to sit around and live off the system, I’m more than willing to do my part, I just can’t do it alone.

Ehrenreich sums up her experiment by saying “low-wage work actually involves more hardship and deprivation than life at the mercy of the welfare state.” (379).  Ehrenreich experienced a taste of what it is like living on minimum wage, a life I have lived for the past few years.  It is easier to rely on welfare; you suffer more in trying to do it on your own.  Living off of welfare, the only thing that is hurt is your pride, but at least you know that your children will have the medical care they need, food in their tummies, a roof, no matter how small, over their head, and you aren’t sacrificing your children to being raised by someone else.  Personally, I would rather work and be able to take care of my family, even though living on welfare is easier, you’re still stuck in poverty with little or no hope of getting out.  Since I have made the decision to go back to school, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.


Work Cited 

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Nickel and Dimed:  On (not) Getting By in America.”  Reading Culture.
        5th ed.  Eds. Diana George and John Trimbur, New York:  Pearson/Longman, 2004. 374-380.

Copyright 2004
Melody Philips


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA