Money Mic: I Was a ‘Lazy Welfare Mother’

By Barbara MorrisonLearnVest

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.

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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.

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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.