One Story Up

The trouble with TANF: why welfare just doesn't work

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I'm the fool that suggested TANF.


Liz and I were talking about all the things we usually talk about: family, friends, TV, and money. Money is hard to come by at both our households lately, and since she had told me about her struggles with WIC and medicaid (coming later this week...), I said maybe she could apply for TANF.

What's TANF? She asked.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. In other words, welfare. It got the new name during the Clinton administration. If you're my age, you might remember Lisa Ling talking about welfare reform on Channel One. Yeah, that.

So, she filled out the online application. They were supposed to call her in a week.

Two weeks went by. No call.

So Liz called up the city welfare office. But what they told her never made any sense. Usually, she would talk to several people before being put to someone's voice mail, never to hear from them again.
 

You see, everyone who receives social services has a case worker to manage their benefits. Except if no one calls you, how do you figure out who your case worker is? There should be some sort of database, or something, right? Apparently not.


Luckily, the lady at WIC suggested Liz just go into the office. She called to see if she could make an appointment. No again. You just have to go in and wait for someone to help you. 

So, she goes in. She tells the lady at the front desk that she needs to talk to someone about whether her application has been processed. The lady says she doesn't have a case worker so she can't be helped.

At this point, Liz tells me, she has learned something from watching her fellow welfare participants: sometimes, being polite isn't the best policy.

So she tells the lady, "No. I am not leaving here until someone helps me. You must find someone to help me," in the sort of desperate tone that you'd be a fool to deny when the lady standing in front of you is eight months pregnant.

And, after a couple hours of waiting, they're called into the bowels of the welfare office. A caseworker sits down to help Liz and her husband with their benefits and looks up her name in their computer.

So after telling Liz several more times that no one will want her now that's she's pregnant, she says in order to qualify for TANF, they would have to commit to the department's work program.

Sure, Liz says, I'm unemployed. I have time.

No, says the case worker. You're pregnant. We can't ask you to work for liability reasons.

So that leaves Liz's husband Nathan, who is in school full time at Columbia. She says he would have to do 20-30 hours in the program a week, which initially doesn't sounds so bad.

But then it comes out that the 20-30 hours is spent doing manual labor, like unloading boxes at the Salvation Army, or attending basic computer literacy classes. And the schedule for these activities varies and is set by the department. And Nathan can't cite school as a reason for not being able to go.

So basically, he would have to drop out of school to do it. And the most money they could receive is $450 a month, which when you consider he'd be working 20-30 hours a week for it, works out to between $3.75 and $5.60 an hour.

The lady told Nathan he should really consider dropping out of school.

How else, she said, are you going to support your pregnant wife and child?

And while for many people that might make sense, in less than a year, Nathan will have his masters in a small and lucrative field. They will be doing fine. So dropping out now and getting a manufacturing job, if he could even find one, doesn't make sense when you think long term. Neither does dropping out of school for $450 a month to unload boxes.

This is like government sponsored slave labor for the poor.

I think all of this gets to the heart of a major conflict we have as a country. There are two main issues here knocking into each other, and they've all come together to make a program that neither works nor make sense.

Two main questions:

1) Is poverty a moral failure or a result of circumstances? Are people poor because they are stupid and lazy, or because bad things happened to them?

2) Is our goal to rehabilitate the poor so that they don't need social services? Or is our goal to make social services so god-awful that we communicate to the poor just what we think of them and thus "motivate" them to want to do better for themselves?

I hear people say stuff like this all the time, especially about public housing. "Well, it's free housing. You can't expect much from it. If it's too good, people will want to stay and get a free ride."

Okay, here's the thing though. We're taking the weakest, most vulnerable people. The people who not likely to have had a good education, to have had a supportive family, who have no money, no bank account, no car, no resume -  basically no resources - and we're giving them something crappy and then asking them to make something awesome out of what we've handed them.

It's like giving people rotten eggs and spoiled milk and then being angry when the creme brulee we order is lumpy and sour.

We need to have some sort of national conference where we decide: are the poor worth helping?

If we decide yes, than let's get serious about it and put the $28 billion dollars we spend every year on TANF to good use. 

And if we decide no, let's give people back their taxes and then those of us who care will have more cash to give to charity.

Liz has had these thoughts too. She had perceptions about what the system was like before - who ran it, who used it, and what it was for - and it turns out, none of those actually correspond with her experience.

How do you view the system? from Megan Cottrell on Vimeo.

What do you think?

What is this system actually for?

What do we hope to get out of it? 

We ignore this issue because we can. Because we don't have to see the poor unless we want to. But the thing is, poverty affects all of us. When people wait six months to see a doctor and then rush to the emergency room when something ruptures, that affects your health care system. When bad neighborhoods are allowed to exist because we don't care about who lives there, that neighborhood impacts your city. When people deal drugs or join a gang because they don't have the skills or the opportunity to get a job, that affects your safety.

And it's your cash. Your money is going to fund this mess.

We need to decide as a nation how we want to clean it up.

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57 Comments

Teresa Puente said:

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Great story here. I love how you put a human face on this issue.

frankalready said:

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Megan, you are the best. You are cutting straight to the heart of these issues in a way that all the righteous anger I can summon never can.

Griff said:

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Go down to the south end (or the east side, west side, wrong side of the tracks side...whatever) and you can easily find people that you KNOW will never have a job in their lifetime. Not through any fault of their own, but rather just because of the way they look and their lack of education and basic skills. I know this sounds terrible but it's the truth. It isn't fair, and the fact that it's a reality in THIS country of all places, just makes it all the more egregious.

You see, this "REPUBLIC" we supposedly live in is no republic at all. It's an Oligarchy, and the wealthy decadent ruling elite care only about controlling the government to the extent that it serves their own needs. The poor and working classes are of no importance to them other than a source of continuous income. In fact our economic system is structured in such a way as to prevent the economic ascension of the poorest people.

The poorer you are, the higher your interest rates, bank fees, service fees, and even utility costs. America is a land of great opportunity (If you're a beggar from any other country in the world). They'll set up immigrants with education, living stipends, business loans and grants, and the same assistance programs our own poor have but with additional benefits. However if you are native born into poverty, you get NONE of these benefits and even less than the foreigners. That in itself has a sizable portion of our citizenry screaming mad about sharing our social security, welfare and Medicare programs with people who have earned none of it while at the same time the system is going broke.

So what will happen when we finally take away EVERY dime that is used to help and support our own poorest people? What would you do if tomorrow you were homeless, penniless, with no food, no warm clothes, and no prospect of obtaining any or all of these basic needs? Well i about 6 months approximately 2-1/2 million MORE Americans are going to find out. And I'm talking about FAMILIES! Men, women, and their children. All because of what these wealthy Oligarchs have done to this country.

Save what you can, GIVE all you can, and try to put yourself in their shoes. After all, there but for GOD's grace, go you.

SPFLDnet said:

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I completely agree. There could never be a clearer description of this Plutocracy. It's human to be taught the definition of the word "democracy" but not take the time to really analyze whether or not one is actually living in a "democracy."

RegularGuy said:

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At one point I also believed that an 'elite' was in place that kept poor people from rising up out of poverty. Now I no longer believe so.

I had the chance to spend some time in an inner-city public school. There is a free education there for anyone who is willing to learn. Instead, when you tell a student to open a book and start an assignment, you get the 'Thousand Mile Stare' and a shrug of their shoulders before they nod off to sleep.

Instead of really WANTING the means to get out of poverty, the vast majority of kids I saw only wanted to put in their time until they were old enough to drop out. They make just enough at their minimum-wage jobs to pay for their gangsta clothes and cell phone. Anything else they earn buys gas for the lucky one who has a car.

It is a subculture that has become ingrained in our country, and no amount of transfer payments (welfare) are going to make any significant difference.

Fonzie said:

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You are an utter dimwit. Liz and Nathan receive WIC and Medicaid, yet they want more so that Nathan can attend a private college full-time, to pursue a "lucrative" career, and not bother with work. On top of all this, they made a "choice" to get pregnant when they have no money.

Do Liz and Nathan plan on paying all this aid back when he's making loads of money? Gawd, your friends sound as irritating as you are - I'm glad you all found each other. Now why don't you all go live in Canada?

frankalready said:

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why don't you check out someone else's blog to troll. gawd, i'm sick of right wing jerks that have nothing better to do than disrupt conversations on blogs.

Fonzie said:

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It's not a conversation if you're all saying the same thing. That would be a cult.

Carlos Drazen said:

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You know, now that you mention it, you're right! I never thought of it that way before, thanks!

Megan Cottrell said:

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Hi Fonzie. Thanks for reading.

Did they make a "choice" to get pregnant? They didn't plan it, and were actually doing due diligence to not get pregnant. Are you suggesting they should be obligated to abort their child because Nathan is in school?

They will pay the money back. Actually, they've paid money into the system through taxes. That's how it works. We all pay for it.

I think it's interesting you say they are "not bothering with work." Both of them work and have been working their whole lives. Nathan just got laid off from his summer job because of the economy. Liz also got laid off and has been sending out resumes and interviewing, even through the last weeks of her pregnancy.

Thanks for your suggestion on the move. I think I'll stick around to piss you off some more. There's room enough in our beloved US of A for both of us.

Fonzie said:

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When I made a choice to be self-employed, I saved my money - I didn't expect WIC to subsidize my decision. When my wife got pregnant, I went back to work to pay for health insurance - I didn't expect Medicaid to pay for it. Maybe Nathan should learn more about the true nature of choice.

You say "we all pay for it". Why don't I have as many choices over what I pay for as Liz and Nathan seem to have? Then I could choose not to pay for people like Liz and Nathan. Oh wait - it's because another "unfeeling" bureaucracy called the IRS will come to lock me up.

Carlos Drazen said:

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Megan, as Fonzie so aptly put it, he's part of a cult, so we have to blame his'talking points' on the cult leader who i'm guessing is Rush Limbaugh!

John said:

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WIC and Medicaid are for food and medical bills. Liz and Nathan will still need to find money for things like toilet paper, dish soap, tooth brushes, underwear, etc.... WIC and Medicaid are not going to meet all of their needs.

On the other hand, you are correct, Nathan could take a year off school (Columbia would most likely allow him to do so) and earn and save enough money to meet these basic needs when he returns to school a year later. However, if they saved enough money, they may be disqualified from WIC and Medicaid assistance even though they are saving that money for future expenses while he is not working. (The chances are that Liz could still get Medicaid and WIC for her and the kids.) Therefore, loans are another, and possibly better, option; Nathan should leverage his potentially lucrative career to provide for current needs. With graduate plus and other loans (including loans from family members), Nathan could wisely and prudently lever himself to be able to provide for his family (at the small cost of interest) and still graduate on time.

Even if Liz and Nathan ended up getting TALF assistance, they would, of course, 'pay back' all of the assistance they received in a short 1 - 2 year period. They would pay it back, plus a good amount, by paying taxes for the next thirty plus years. Who knows Fonz, if you end up needing assistance at some point in the future, Nathan's taxes could even support you.

on my dime? said:

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So, let me see. You are lumping your friend in with the average welfare recipient? The friend who has a husband who will be more than gainfully employed in your estimation. I should subsidize his decisions. Society should subsidize the decisions he makes. Not!

Megan Cottrell said:

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I'm not saying you should pay for anything. But I think it's interesting when people talk about welfare, they say "I'm paying for it," as if they people who are receiving it had contributed nothing. The couple in this blog have both worked many years, paying federal and state taxes. If we pay into the system, can we expect that it might help us if we ever need it?

Scam said:

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Wait, you mean a government program doesn't work? The shock!

In response to Griff, the wealthy people of this country fund the programs that give the poor a free ride, so you should be thanking them. Also, if the wealthy controlled the government I really doubt Obama would have been elected.

Gina L said:

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The wealthy DO control the government. Obama himself is a millionaire. Other well-known Democrats include:
Warren Buffett
Bill Gates
George Soros
these guys are Billionaires
75% of the entertainment industry including Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand and Oprah Winfrey are Democrats.
And don't forget other Democrats who have run for president -- Bill Kerry, Bill Edwards and the Kennedy Family
The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people should be responsible for their own actions. Democrats believe not all people can be trusted to act morally and ethically, so the government must "control" them.

Jim said:

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Is poverty a moral failure or a result of circumstances?

Why can't it be both? You get out of poverty, but you don't have the same luxury to screw up that a kid growing up in the suburbs or Lincoln Park does.

Strum said:

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I think Griff said just everything that needs to be said on this topic. I'll try and add a few things though.

It seems to me that compassion and empathy are greatly lacking in this country. The individuals that are struggling to make ends meet, are not the 'model' citizen, or have beliefs that separate them from the masses are labeled defective. Calling people lazy is just another way to put up a false dichotomy between people. 'You are good because you work; he/she is bad because they do not.'Lazy = bad. How many of the so called 'good' people were at some point unemployed, and thus 'bad?' It's unfortunate how fast the same people forget how it felt to look for work and be unable to find any. No empathy.

With individuals being laid off at alarming rates, many are seeking to educate themselves and better their skills. Problem is, work is lacking across the board. It isn't just the guy that quit high school and started a 'career' at an outlet store in some mall that's struggling - it's people with some of the highest levels of education, as well. Lawyers and engineers are finding it difficult to gain employment in their respective fields. There are not too many lazy people that complete a law degree or become engineers, imo. However, the market is flooded with people who hold such titles.

How does thing end? I don't know. It seems that things are going to get worse before they get any better. It also seems that I've heard that company line for as long as I can remember.

I hope you're wrong about the 2.5 million people soon to have to make an adjustment to their 'standard of living.'


justsayin said:

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If Nathan drops out for the few hundred dollars a month, he'll have to start paying his student loans back sooner than he planned, and with what money?. Quitting school is not a viable option. These people need temporary assistance. I'd much rather see my tax dollars go to them than to people who have no plan to better their lives, like the cyclical welfare familes, generation after generation having babies at 14 years old just to collect some extra welfare money. Our system is screwed up to say the least!

Jason said:

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Poverty is a combination of circumstance and poor or unrealistic decision making. Poor decision making is what plants people at the cliff's edge while circumstance is what pushes people over the edge.

Sometimes logic and planning has to take the place of what we want or dream of in life. You cannot always have it both ways.

Americans have been spending every dime they make plus more so when inevitable situations such as unemployment strike, people are crippled into poverty. The circumstances that led to their unemployment may not be of their doing but the irresponsible assumption that they would always have income and not plan for a worst case scenario is.

Regarding the couple cited in the blog, you simply cannot put one parent through school and have a child at the same time. If the pregnancy was planned, then it is twice as reprehensible because they were daring fate to bite them. Either way, the expectation that the husband quit school and work to support his family through government assistance is reasonable. He will have to complete school at another time.

Government or private charity will never fix poverty if the people do not become smarter and stronger. We are not guaranteed easy lives.

People born into poor circumstances with few skills have to find the will to capitalize on their strengths and do better no matter how hard it is.

Those with intelligence and education who view their skills as guarantees of constant commercial success that allow them to pursue every dream need to lose the naivete and realize that they need to make smart decisions every day.

Most of all, we need to learn to say no. If you desire two things but can only safely acquire one then pick one. Don't try to figure a way to sneak both in.

Empathy and compassion are important but only if people are actually trying to make the smart decision.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Hey Jason. If you had read my earlier blogs , you would know the baby was a complete surprise. Liz and Nate were using two different kinds of birth control. They were being smart, but sometimes things happen even to the smartest of people.

Gina L said:

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I know most people won't agree with this, but...
You say they practiced birth control. Well obviously they did not practice the one sure fire birth control -- abstinence.
It always amazes me when people say they did all they could to -- fill in the blank. Because most people skip over the most in-your-face, logical choices.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Gina, maybe I'm a crazy person. But Liz and Nathan are married. If you look at Liz's later comment, they actually did not have sex until they got married. They have been married for five years. Are you recommending that all married people who could not currently afford to have a baby just never have sex? Because that's not a world I want to live in. Just sayin'.

lizjoyntsandberg said:

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So do you really believe that sex is only for people who can afford to conceive, deliver and raise quintuplets? with no help from anyone? Because given your interest in the logically derived conclusions of a given possibility, and since conceiving and delivering quintuplets is one of the possible outcomes of (certain kinds of) heterosexual sex, you'd have (according to logic) to say yes, and that either makes you a crazy person (which I have deep respect for, don't get me wrong), or someone who holds two opposing beliefs.

elizavid said:

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When it comes down to it, though, anybody having a baby doesn't know what the situation will be in the future. My husband and I were both gainfully employed when our son was born 10 years ago. Insurance covered the c-section delivery. But what it doesn't cover is any of his therapies or treatment for his autism. So, Gina, should we avoid sex even though we're married and employed because something could happen that we can't control that is very difficult financially to deal with? If we all did that, the race would die out. And where do you stand on the issue that we had kids when things were good....But my husband and I are both educators, and you can read any paper in the Midwest and find out about teacher layoffs. If I have to access the system 10 years after the fact of a child's birth, am I in some way obligated to give my kids up for adoption or something? Your comments are, imo, quite short-sighted.

Scam said:

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Abstinence is a joke. If more people had sex, this world would be a better place.

Mike d said:

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Your not the only ones who are having trouble with money, maybe you two should have done a little thinking and planning before getting pregnant and maybe Nathan should realize that now might not be the best time for him to continue with school. Why should the government and the taxes payers bail another person out do to poor planning, selfishness and laziness. If you need a loan ask mom and dad.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Hey Mike. Did you consider not everyone has a mom and dad to loan them money? I guess not.

Mike d said:

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thats true but just because you can get a loan from mom or dad doesnt mean you should go around looking for handouts. Life is tough sometimes and even tougher when you don't want to work.

lizjoyntsandberg said:

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We want to work very much. We're both diligently trying to get jobs - this is my last week of pregnancy (God willing) and I have several job interviews in the next few days. Again, I think there's an assumption (as Megan mentions above) that the people requesting temporary assistance (which we've paid into via years of gainful employment and tax paying) have not worked prior to and are unwilling to work after whatever crisis has befallen them. So what if life is tough and we DO want to work.... but are not getting hired - what then? Is there ever a time when people should not feel guilty about asking for help from the system they've been supporting? I guess I'm interested to know if you think it's ever the right thing to do (not because I value your opinion as a person who "has", but because I think it's really indicative of a point of view that's always against helping people in need - a point of view that holds as it's central axiom that people in need are people who've not tried and are morally bankrupt). If this is the case, it moves the conversation away from WHO is deserving of help, because in that worldview, no one is deserving - and the entirety of social services, or really even trying to make a go of life TOGETHER really doesn't make sense - every person should be an island in that system and I think when we realize what that woldview "buys" in baggage and logically necessary conclusions, it's not what we want - not even what you want.

Marian Wang said:

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Two things:

1) Do these people leaving comments attacking Liz and Nathan want to talk about the larger issues beyond this particular anecdote, or do they just want to continue being nasty for the sake of being nasty toward two strangers they don't know? (note: I do not know them, either.) The point is THIS. Regardless of who they are, these are people filling out applications and walking into government offices and NOT GETTING ANY HELP OR RESPONSE. You can say and speculate all you want about whether they need it and how they got pregnant, but the point is not them--it's how our government (fails to) respond.

2) I agree with Jim. Rich or poor, we all have accidents, suffer unexpected injuries or unanticipated expenses. Maybe we even (God forbid!) SCREW UP or make bad decisions. But the rich have the financial and human resources in their lives to bail them out (yep, pun intended). The poorest of the poor, faced with unconcerned government agencies and no wealthy parents to borrow from, find themselves in a downward spiral, with no safety net. I'm pretty sure that kind of freefall is not a "free ride" any of us would choose.

Whet Moser said:

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I think most of the commenters are missing the point - these posts are mostly about whether these programs actually work (which the author is pretty explicit about), not whether a specific person is "worthy" or not.

The upshot is that I think the ill-mannered comments shed some light on why programs like this continue to be problematic. There's enough anger about them, really malicious anger, that making them better is a a minefield.

Ryan said:

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I think Whet, that's a really insightful comment. It's a catch 22, and because of that, it's easier just to talk about the kind of money these programs get - either adding more in or taking it away. What Megan's posts point out, through the experience of her friend, is that money isn't necessarily the answer.

So what is?

Education, and from a young age, I think is a huge part of the solution. Poverty tells children they can't - doesn't matter what IT is, they can't do it, can't have it, won't get it. Until we develop and fund a system to break that cycle, it's not going to change. I'd love to see a more widespread application of Harlem's Children Zone (see link below) started by Geoffrey Canada which sees poverty as a community problem solved by serving the community's children from the womb to college. It's been very successful, and I really feel programs like this one are one answer - in the least, one part of a larger answer.

Megan, I love your replies, especially the lengthy first one.

Nathan and Liz, don't let the negative comments go to heart. You guys are making the best of a difficult situation.

HCZ - http://www.takepart.com/blog/2009/03/31/hcz-closing-the-achievement-gap-97-blocks-at-a-time/

lizjoyntsandberg said:

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Hi Fonzie, A few things I have as a follow up to your insights:
Nathan is in school precisely because he wants to work (really hard if you want to know the truth). He holds a bachelor's degree from a university and the only jobs he was being considered for (despite his education and training and the fact that he's highly capable) were very low paying manufacturing jobs that would not make enough to pay back the loans he incurred while attending school. Graduate school was the best option to ensure that he would have the training needing to get a job that would allow him to fulfill his responsibilities in paying back those loans (this is also the path that the government - on both sides of the isle - is begging young people to take - you're welcome). Thanks for the suggestion though, we did try to have nathan drop out and get a job, but there are (you may have heard) none to be had and we would have had no way to pay the loans from his first year of grad school, like justsaying astutely pointed out - thus making ourselves even more needy. Also? Nathan has a scholarship and work-study position that combine to cover his tuition, so it's just living costs - there is no way that we could afford to have him get this degree otherwise - it would have been irresponsible and way too great of a risk. I was working full time to support us before I was laid off a few months ago in an incredibly sketchy situation where my pregnancy was a key factor in my loosing my position. I am diligently looking for work, my famous quote being that I'll do anything with my shirt on at this point. Let me know if you hear of anything ok?
We did not choose to get pregnant - unless (and I grant that this is reasonable on an ultra-conservative and highly-unrealistic level) you count having sex as equivalent to the choice to become pregnant. Things are about to get real, so prepare yourself. We waited until we were married to have sex. We use(d) two kinds of birth control and were extremely responsible about it. I scheduled an abortion but couldn't go through with it because of personal convictions (that I in no way view as a mandate to others btw - i'm all for choice). This is a whole other conversation a la' Miranda from Sex and the City..... I digress...... Again, we did everything even the most conservative folks asked of us, yet, here we are. What now? What do you suggest? Are you willing to concede that perhaps we fit the bill of folks in need? It will only be for a short time, because as you point out, nathan is going to be very employable, I am searching with all of my might for a job and in answer to your question, we ABSOLUTELY plan on paying the money back (and in fact paid for it ahead of time, as we've both been working for years and paying taxes - me as a small business owner to boot) once we're making money again - I'd think the government would have something to say if we stopped paying our taxes.......

Hi on my dime? You're not subsidizing my/our decisions. I'm simply using (less than) my fair share of the social services I've been paying for over my last 10 years of gainful employment. We've experienced a "perfect storm" if you will, over the past year that has caused us to need some temporary assistance - I too am really sorry that we couldn't control it - believe me - there is nothing I'd like more than to be free from the need for this help. We did everything we could, and our circumstances overcame us - as I understand it, we are exactly the people that social services are designed to help.

Jason! Hi! So here's the thing - I really think we did everything we could. We've both been working since high school, attended college, worked immediately after at very practical jobs and saved every penny we could while living in rural Michigan. We've lived conservatively and planned for unemployment by keeping a savings to fall back on. We didn't plan to have a baby. I think every day about how it feels wrong and irresponsible to have gone ahead with the pregnancy if you want to know the truth, something that I'm desperately trying to reconcile with my personal convictions that kept me from aborting (no judgement - can't say this enough - i'm all for choice), so thanks for that, not helpful, but good to know I'm not alone? or something. I've hardly been pursing the dream in my job search, let me assure you - again, I'll do anything with my shirt on at this point. Between the two of us, Nathan and I have worked more than our fair share of truly crappy jobs trying to be self-reliant. I can honestly say that I'd be all for another one if I could get it.

Hi Mike, you're so right, we are not alone by a long shot. I wrote the whole saga of us trying (rather aggressively if you want to know the truth) to NOT get pregnant in response to Fonzie and Jason, so check that out if you're interested. We planned for the worst but got armageddon, you know? As far as the selfishness and laziness, I'm not really sure where that's coming from, and don't really understand why us needing assistance makes us selfish or lazy.... Mom and dad - the assumption that our parents have the resources to help us is wildly optimistic - but believe me, we did try - thanks though, good suggestion. Also, just to be clear, we don't need a loan - we need the benefits our taxes have been paying for over the past 10 years - you know, like frequent flyer miles.. or a gift card that you bought for yourself.....

So that's my 10 cents. Thanks to all of those who've been supportive. Believe it or not, it's been hard seeing this crazy thing we've been going though in print and having people make disparaging remarks about our choices and even sometimes about our character - I do get that that's part of putting myself out there, and I think it's worth it, but it doesn't make it less hard. I think it's really important though and so I want to thank Megan for telling our story, and I want to thank you for reading. I hope it spurs all of us to act in ways that seek to be kind and take care of each other. Never before have I believed so strongly in Griff's sentiment - "Save what you can, GIVE all you can, and try to put yourself in their shoes. After all, there but for GOD's grace, go you".

Strum said:

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Good stuff, Liz.

It's easy to knock a person when they're down. Somehow people like to believe they'd do better or avoid a similar situation then those that are struggling. In the end, most people are only as "good" as their current circumstances. Liz, you seem to be handling your situation to the best of your abilities. I applaud your efforts.

People too soon forget how it is/was to be taken out of their comfort zone and placed into situations for which they're unprepared. Some people's behavior can be shocking, and worse, those "people" that are "lazy" might some day be you.

You never know how your going to respond until your actually in a particular situation. The best we can do is offer empathy, compassion and support to our neighbors.

Best of luck and stay strong.

Strum

rhoticity said:

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Liz, thank you for being willing to put your story out and be subject to all of this nastiness, both online and in real life. I wanted to wish you luck with the rest of your pregnancy and with the little one to come (and if you ever need a free babysitter...)

viking said:

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The most insightful and rare message of this story is how atrociously bad this government program operates. The woman in the story got the bureaucratic run-around. If a private company operated as poorly, it would fail; but with a government program, it chugs along funded by our tax dollars yet the people at fault for its poor operation face no accountability. This is why many Americans are afraid of a national health care plan (Obama's or anyone else's): any program administered by the government, even one with a moral imperative or at least the best of intentions, seems doomed to become bloated, bureaucratic, corrupt, a permanent entitlement, or all of the above. Until I see a government program relating to social services that actually works well, I favor less government.
I also applaud the author's courage for asking the question, "are the poor worth helping?" I sincerely believe that so many Americans would answer "yes" that it is a rhetorical question. But it also suggests two more probative questions, "how should the poor be helped?" and "how much?" Anymore it seems like those questions are off-limits. My impressions are that 1) a "conservative" dare not ask for fear of being labeled elitist, uncaring, racist, greedy, etc. and 2) a "liberal" would not entertain the thought that a social program could be scaled-back or, politically, not risk alienating the voter-base. Yet those questions must consistently be revisited and discussed openly and honestly if we ever hope to address the issue with any success.

frankalready said:

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This isn't a simple question of whether public programs can be effective, and if not, then clearly we should privatize. There's a third way that grassroots movements have been calling for for a long time.

1)Adequately fund these services and safety nets, rather than providing them with just barely enough resources to keep people from starving.
2)Ensure that they are accountable to the people that use and these services.

Poor folks know what they need, and their voices are never heard in these debates. It's always a question of 'liberals' and 'conservatives' fighting about poor people, without actually including them in the discussion. Stop the static and listen to what people that are living through this actually have to say.

Fonzie said:

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And one other thing . . . why are you shocked this program is poorly run? All the employees are members of AFSCME. It couldn't possibly be organized labor's fault!

Down2Earth said:

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My son is going to school full time, and working full time with a 3.8, owns his own home. Uhmmmm....I work 12 hours a day plus, and have not taken a week off in 17 years.
After my divorce, I lived in a really nasty neighborhood, had nothing,decided not to accept welfare,(it's a trap, IMHO) and worked my tail off. I now have a nice home, etc, and people tell me I am lucky, and the government wants me to "share the wealth", do I also get to share in the vacations and time off I didn't get while working very hard to provide for my children?
We have a problem in this country - people need to get a backbone! As far as your friends- lack of sleep is hard but you get used to it- going to school and working full time IS an option-my son does it!If he need to work for the 450 only 20-30 hours a week- he's got it made, it's not hard- may not have too much time off now- but he's working for the future.
"When you recieve the fruits of the labor of others, you make slaves of those others." I feel I am a slave to those that don't want to work, and I don't like it. I think we need to help people learn to work, I would be in favor of a program to teach people job skills, give them help while they are learning and get them a job.

Ryan said:

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You're missing something: going to school and working isn't an option for Nathan or Liz. For Nathan to do the work the program asks of him, he HAS to drop out of school, an answer that serves no one.

If you were running a business, strictly pragmatically, it makes little sense to put a fiscal asset out of development for short term gain. As an asset, Nathan is exactly a strong choice - the tax revenue he'll generate as a graduate degree holder over the course of his lifetime more than makes up for the year he'll make use of the system - the same system, it's been pointed out, he's been paying into, supporting others.

Joe the Cop said:

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I think Whet's comment is accurate.

One thing I've seen over the past 20 years is how fragile a grip on a stable, working life many people have, and how easily some bad luck can push people into poverty through no fault of their own. Obviously a lot of people don't want to face the reality that millions of people are no more than an illness, accident or job loss away from poverty. That denial seems to produce plenty of rage toward the "undeserving" poor, as if blaming the victim's misfortune on their poor character will somehow protect the blamer from suffering the same fate.

Jason said:

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Liz and Nathan,
With the additional information presented I will concede that you have been caught in the perfect storm here and are precisely the people that society should want to help. I give you credit for trying very hard every step of the way and wish you the best of luck.

Not everyone or even the majority is as deserving and I hope you understand that. Most are poor because of their own poor judgment even if that judgment had no neglectful or ill intent. Many make poor decisions due to naivete but they are still poor decisions that bear consequences.

You mention that both of you have worked and gone to college. I have questions about the courses of study that were pursued while in college. Were they geared with the job market in mind and maximizing income or was it geared towards what you wanted to do with your lives? Do you feel that your educations gave you skills above others or were you commodities competing with a glut of other similarly qualified people?

When you tell me that Nathan was only able to get offers of low paying manufacturing jobs despite his education then his path of study should be of concern. I do appreciate that he is using grad school to correct the problem though the baby may make that very hard in the short term.

The point I have been trying to make and I hope wasn't lost is that every major life decision has to be made with an extremely cold-blooded sense of pragmatism. Sometimes people have to take the less attractive path through the mines to see daylight. That may mean studying technical disciplines in college that lead to higher demand jobs in technical education (science & math), health care, IT and engineering rather than liberal arts disciplines or non-technical education disciplines. It may mean apprenticing as an electrician instead of dedicating oneself to music or art.

Now, from my general soapbox. Those with political views on the left side of the economic spectrum have generally tried to frame the poverty debate as a moral obligation to those less fortunate but when you take that angle you bring the morality of those you are trying to help to the table as a legitimate point of discussion.

When people who have worked hard, sacrificed and done just about everything right are asked to pay to help those who have failed perpetually or have no desire to succeed, how do you answer their anger? Despite existing as a society, humans are still singular creatures who will want to see some benefit to themselves when they are compelled to donate to society through their taxes.

In my perfect world, I would love to be able to provide government funded training, college education and health care to help the poor and the public in general. But first, I have to have faith that people will use these opportunities wisely. Right now, I don't.

Down2Earth said:

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Joe the Cop-
I am also amazed at how different people handle the misfortunes. Some buckle down and forge ahead, others sit back and complain.
I'm sorry if I sound like a cold, I am not, but I have been around almost 60 years and have seen my share of misfortune (my own and others). I have taught my kids that no job is beneath them and to carry their own weight (on is a cop by the way), and they are all doing well- working hard. We were lower than poor at one time- but fought back, and have seen mothers work full time and go to school to provide. There are times of illness, that is a different story , but for the able bodied, there's always a way to lift yourself up.

Broccoli said:

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It amazes me how heartless some people can be. Yes, there are people out there that sap off of the welfare program. But they are in the minority. I know plenty of people that have worked extremely hard. A friend of mine went to school right out of high school to be trained to be a legal assistant, so she wasn't going after flighty degrees that wouldn't give her a 'real' job. After working hard for 12 years, she was laid off. She currently supports her husband, who has diabetes and is legally disabled due to vision issues so he can't drive, therefore can't work. They have two little girls. She is the sole bread earner for that family. So, Fonzie... is she to blame if she ends up on Welfare in her situation? Considering shes paid into the system for nearly 20 years because she's been working since she was 15? Or how about those like my mother who are physically disabled and can't work and has been on the waiting list for public housing for 3 years now? Should she just die in the gutter because obviously its her fault she has a degenerative spine disease that will eventually kill her? People like Fonzie are fortunate that they have never had something like this happen to them, or know anyone who is experiencing it now.

Do you happen to read the news and see that we are in a recession? And that unemployment in some states (like Michigan) is at 15%!?! What about people that even though they had a good job and good insurance, lost their job and can't pay astronomical medical bills because their insurance doesn't cover everything they needed to stay alive? Poverty can happen to anyone - even those who are smart, college educated, and hard working... the system was invented to help people get back on their feet. If that is what this family needs, so be it. That's how its supposed to work.

The real issue here is that the system itself doesn't work the way it should at all. It keeps the poor, poor. I have a friend who applied because she hasn't been able to find work. She was basically told that if she had a kid, they could help her more... but because she doesn't, there isn't too much they can do except give her a Link card for food and a pink card for medical assistance.

It's the system that is to blame... not always the people that use the system. Wake up Fonzie...your glass house might not always be able to withstand the rocks of reality!

Johnny Weak said:

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Am I crazy to think that this family the article mentions where the man is in school to get his masters and the woman is 8 months pregnant should not get any help?

The reason I ask this is because this gentleman clearly already has a degree if he's working on his masters. He clearly could get some kind of a job that pays more than $450 a week. Didn't he think about this when she was 1 month pregnant (not 8) You have a college degree, go find a job that pays something and once you're on your feet finish getting your masters degree. I'm glad it was a pain for you to get help, because you've got the ability to help yourself already. Use your head.

Ryan said:

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A college degree does not guarantee a lucrative job. Hell, law school doesn't guarantee that any more.

Johnn said:

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Do they not have family/friends/church to help them through this? It sounds like they have at least one friend.

rhoticity said:

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Johnn, if you're like most people, you like to know you have a safety net, because like so many other commenters have said, things can go really really wrong really really quickly. Family and friends aren't guaranteed, nor are they easy to ask for help (particularly when they are not doing well themselves), and one certainly should not be seeking out well-off friends just to provide themselves with a safety net. Also, in this country, we are reserved the right to be non-religious if we so desire. You're basically suggesting everyone be religious and join a church so that they have a way of helping themselves if life goes south. Furthermore, most family, friends, and churches are only really feasibly able to provide very short-term support. They are great to have in times of need. I'm sure that Liz and Nathan have accepted help from other support sources besides the government programs, particularly because of the programs' shortcomings, but you would be absolutely foolish to suggest that these could take the place of government programs for any or all of the country's needy people, which fill in the gaps for expensive medical care and basic necessities in bigger ways than any private resource can.

Broccoli said:

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Johnny Weak, obviously you can't read. The couple clearly stated that 1. She was working full-time to help him through school so he could get a better job. He WAS working too. HE GOT LAID OFF. Then SHE GOT LAID OFF. They were already pregnant at that point. Its not like she got pregnant and he was like, 'gee, I'm going to quit my job and go to grad school now.' This can happen TO ANYONE and clearly it does every day! I'm glad you are obviously lucky enough to not have this happen to you, but it happened to them. So now what? I love how moral majority people get in circumstances like these...like it can't happen to you. They weren't trying to get pregnant their birth control failed. That can happen. They are a married couple, both working professionals and this recession put them on poverty street. Some of you posters reacted to this story like they should be shot like diseased cattle for being victims of circumstance!

And John...do you expect your friends and family to take care of you when you're down on your luck? Yea? How is that better than applying for the benefits you have PAID for for YEARS?

Johnn said:

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It is better because they are people that presumably care about me and would be doing it willingly (unlike taxpayers) and they don't have all those rules that you all are complaining about.

ChrisWG said:

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As the article was about whether the system works or not, it seems to be broken in some respects. The problem with getting a caseworker, waiting for hours, etc- That's bureaucracy for you.
However, some of the items the blogger's comments about seem like legitimate requirements in receiving government assistance. Unfortunately, due to our over-zealous lawsuit prone society, employing someone who is pregnant could turn into a liability. And I'm sure that since most people who apply for this type of assistance aren't well educated and the government probably has to take what it can get in terms of job offerings, manual labor or technical/vocation courses are all they can really offer.

Regardless of how the couple got into this situation, they are in it now and they've come asking for help. But it seems they want the assistance on their terms. If one is at the bottom, you have to look at realistic options of getting out (quitting school to work, giving the child up for adoption, etc).

To answer the 2 groups of questions that this writer presents-
1)Yes, people are poor because of bad choices, being lazy/stupid, or because of circumstances. And usually its a combo of 2-3 of those.

2)I believe the goal of social services is not to make it so bad so that the poor will "get motivated" and improve themselves. At its core, its a system to assist those who have nothing to at least survive. However, how motivated would someone be if they have everything they need (and in some cases want)?

And I think that's maybe the real reason for why the system is set up as it it. Its a method of determining who is lazy/stupid and who is just a victim of circumstances. In the long term, the lazy/stupid will always be poor and no amount of assistance will bring them to the next level. Those who are victims will be motivated to find their way up again.

sbullen said:

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I wonder what would happen if the health care reform bill suggested what you suggest...

"If a pregnancy proves to be inconvenient for the couple due to the economy, the child should be given up for adoption."

PhCheese said:

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Wow. A few of you are jerkwads with a penchant for skimming. And a lot of you are compassionate folks with reading skills.

I have to comment that I went through something similar myself-- not too long ago, in fact 6 years ago. I was not prepared to have a child, but I did. (Hey! You conservatives might appreciate that.) Since that time, I've graduated from Northwestern and become a working film producer. (What? I went to work in the arts? And was on public aid? And went to an "overpriced private school".) It can be done. It totally, completely can be done.

I know everything feels depleted, but buy into the American Dream for a little while. It's still out there, and Liz and Nate are hard workers-- but furthermore they're great people.

So yeah, I have a personal bent here because Liz is the kind of person who despite all of her hardships, she'll drop everything to help me when I need it. I know this because of the way she reacted to my open call for a babysitter at the last minute.

And Nate? What a talent. He'll see you in LA.

As for me? I was on Illinois Kids Care and WIC for one year, I had a social services counselor who came to my home at various intervals and actually encouraged me to apply to NU, and I did. She even encouraged me in film and journalism. (What? Shouldn't I be working as a dental assistant?)

Not all is lost, and while I know they've had a hard time navigating "the system", there are some folks out there in the system who totally care.

willcountynews said:

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I live in Madison, Wisconsin and many of the farmers' markets have vendors which accept WIC, such as the Northside Market: http://www.northsidefarmersmarket.org/friends_brochure.pdf
Seems like a good way to generate revenue for local vegetable farmers and help those needing nutritious food.

Kimba said:

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Why welfare does work. It works because what would you do without it? Starve or try harder. Didn't you ever hear that beggars can't be choosers? It's just a stage in life. Get a loan for school living expences. If you think the government gives business loans to foreigners only, you are wrong. Come up with a business plan, like anyone has to and submit it. Don't be too proud to lift boxes. If school is more important, ditch the wife. Let her suffer on her own. I don't mean that, but life has obsticles that don't always follow some idealistic plan.

I believe you could change that negative attitude and figure out how to help yourself instead of complaining about "the system". It's up to your own self to get through life. It's a give in that welfare is mo fun, but don't knock it. Be thankful.

I was young and pregnant and alone. I recieved help. I went to school and worked and raised my son all by myself. And I took the bus. I now have a successful business, son moved out, and I work 14 hour days at times, pay lots of taxes and I still struggle to keep it all together. I sometimes wish I could quit. Business owners can't do that. I miss the simple days when I thought I had nothing but reall I had everything. No debt. More time. Medical benefits. I walked more, to the bus stop, was in better shape, had time to eat better. Be careful what you want and wish for, you just might get it. All in all, be grateful for every little thing you do have. It could be much worse.

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