A Personal Journey Through the Welfare System

A Personal Journey Through the Welfare System

by Jeni L. Hyder

As the new Republican Congress begins implementing its agenda, many feel that its welfare reform plan as outlined in the "Contract with America" will be detrimental to poor women and children.

Under the guises of the so-called "Personal Responsibility Act," newly elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., will attempt to cease aid to unwed teenage mothers, cut funding for the Aid for Families with Dependent Children and food stamp programs and limit benefits.

"I don't think the Republicans have spent a lot of time considering the consequences of these actions," said Karen Ray, NOW national board member and Oklahoma NOW president. "It appears to be criminally myopic."

Ray, now 43-years-old and married, went on welfare at age 18 when she became pregnant and support of her parents wavered when she decided to keep the baby. Raised in a strict Catholic family, Ray was under pressure from her parents who wanted her to give the baby up for adoption. Abortion was still illegal in 1970.

Ray, like most young women, was never educated to make wise decisions about sex or birth control or what the consequences would be if she had sex. As a rebellious teenager, when she met a world-traveled foreign pilot, she was swept off her feet, became pregnant and dumped into the welfare system before she knew what hit her.

"I'm glad AFDC was there for me," Ray said. "It allowed me to keep my child. My only other option was to give my baby up and I didn't want to do that."

With the money she received from AFDC, Ray was able to pay rent to her sister and buy baby food -- for groceries and other expenses, she depended on her sister. Many young women in the same predicament don't have a family member to fall back on for support.

"AFDC gave me the time to plan and figure out what me and my son were going to do for the rest of our lives," Ray said. While her sister watched her child, Ray set out on foot daily to look for a job, armed only with a high school diploma and some babysitting experience. Her attempts were unsuccessful.

Although Ray says being on welfare was somewhat demeaning and nerve racking, it was also somewhat empowering because it gave her a first hand opportunity to see how the system worked. "I was completely out of my element," she said, having come from a private school background.

"I just remember sitting in that chair in front of the woman at the welfare office and her asking me who the father was and I didn't know what to say," Ray said. "I was afraid to name the father because it could've turned into an abusive control issue for myself and my child to acknowledge that individual."

Apparently the father had several children in different countries, of whom he was very proud, and she felt that he would try to take the child out of the country with him.

Among the changes Congress, state and local officials are proposing this year for welfare is requiring women to disclose the name of the father in order to receive benefits.

"It's wonderful if we can get fathers to give support, but there's not enough follow through to ensure that the child support is paid and we see women having to fight, sometimes for their lives and to keep their children," she said.

Ray and her son remained on welfare for one year until she married and moved to Oklahoma. She received job training through a federal training program to become a carpenter, a career which she stuck with for 12 years. She now has four children, most of whom are adults, and she devotes her time to advocacy for women. In addition to working for NOW, she also volunteers as a lobbyist for local women's resource centers, the district attorney victims advocate and rape crisis centers.

"Being in that struggle challenged me," Ray said. "I learned so much from being in that situation that I value it as much as any BA degree."

Ray feels she has succeeded and welfare has helped her do that. Her son is now 24-years-old and planning to go to law school. She has a great relationship with him which she wouldn't trade for the world.

Karen Ray is not what the media portrays as the typical welfare recipient. Quite often, welfare recipient seems to be a racial code word -- conjuring images of a woman in an ethnic minority who takes drugs and has babies to make a profit off the tax payers -- even though most beneficiaries are actually white. This stereotyping leads to scapegoating poor, minority women and children for the demise of "American" society.

Ray agrees that there are problems with the welfare system. Because it is not a complete assistance program, it tends to keep recipients dependent. Better daycare options and more intensive training programs would help recipients successfully and more definitively escape the system, while better education on sex and contraception will help keep young women from entering the welfare system in the first place.

The proposed changes offered thus far by the GOP, Ray says, are very short-sighted, not well thought out, punitive and controlling and will divide families even further. In order to give a tax brake to the middle class -- including those who earn up to $200,000 -- the Republicans plan to scrape away the small amount of benefits the poor receive, even though spending on AFDC and food stamps represents only 2.7 percent of the federal budget, according to Time Magazine.

"Instead of punishing poor women with children by limiting or cutting off benefits and threatening to institutionalize the children, we should support those moms who chose to be mothers who will stay with their children and instill values," Ray said.

"I don't know anybody who receives a (AFDC) check for 1 to 4 children, who can even think of going to school or doing those normal things that most Americans take for granted," Ray said. "I know there's abuse of the system out there -- but crack moms is a drug treatment issue, not a welfare issue."

She pointed out the irony among the so-called "Christian" interests who say they are for family values but attempt to restrict options for women such as sex education, abortion access, family planning and welfare.

University of Oklahoma NOW chapter president Lucia Perri, as part of the 100 Days of Action to fight the War on Women, will be sending U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., a check symbolizing the amount a welfare mom is given. They will challenge him to try to live on this menial sum of money for one month.

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