Government Assistance Helped The Women Of My Family Escape Poverty, One Generation At A Time

Yet people rarely get angry or call me a leach on society.
03/27/2017 06:07 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2017

Lilly is 86 years old and lives a happy life with one of her daughters. Between Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and contributions from her children, she makes ends meet. Lilly was only able to attend school through 8th grade because her parents couldn’t afford clothes and shoes for all the children in her family. Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother stayed at home, caring for her and her siblings. They were poor and lived in a small town in Lower Michigan most of her young life.

Because her parents were uninformed about higher education, Lilly never had college aspirations. She spent most her life as a waitress and housekeeper, eventually marrying a man from a rural area of Upper Michigan who worked in a lumber yard and ran a small animal and vegetable farm. She and her husband earned very little money each year even though they both worked two jobs. They raised their children with the help of government assistance including food stamps, Headstart, free lunch, and after school programs. Even with these programs, there were times when little food was on the table and the threat of having no heat loomed large. Most of Lilly’s children graduated from high school and one earned a bachelor’s degree. Her name was Mary.

Mary is 49 years old. She attended a federally-assisted, early childhood program called Headstart and, thus, gained a love of learning that would later change her life. She benefited from the public assistance funds her parents received, the free lunch program at her local public school, and the after-school programs available to children who had parents working multiple jobs to support their families. Mary started working at a young age, assisting her mother with house cleaning jobs and working on the farm.

People often talk about how I’m the personification of the American dream...

Although Mary did well in school and took her homework seriously, she lacked college aspirations until a teacher noticed her in 11th grade. He read her essay about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Mary’s father thought she should take more typing classes and work as a secretary, but the teacher suggested that she apply to a college located a couple hours away. Mary’s mother supported this idea, but could not help with the college application and knew that the family didn’t have the money to pay for college. Her mother also knew nothing about financial aid. Mary’s teacher helped her fill out her college application, reviewed her college essay, and helped her family fill out financial aid forms. With the help of a Pell Grant, guaranteed student loans, and work study programs while in college, Mary earned a bachelor’s degree in four years. She eventually pursued a master’s and doctoral degree, applying to a university identified by one of her college teachers. Mary is now a tenured professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S.

After being married for six years, Mary had one child. Her name is Chloe. Chloe is 17 years old now and attends public schools in Philadelphia. She did not attend Headstart. Her parents could afford to pay for her to participate in a pre-school that ensured she would have a solid educational foundation and ample social-emotional skills. Chloe didn’t need free lunch at school because her parents could pay for her to take a lunch from home every day. Whereas her mother only read about places around the world in books, Chloe started traveling internationally at age four, taking in all the experiences of different countries. She filled three passports by the age of 15 and is working on filling a fourth. She could travel because her mother now earned enough to take regular vacations and traveled as part of her professor role.

Chloe aspired to attend college from the age of five. She interacted with college-educated individuals and college students most of her life. When it was time to apply to college, Chloe had the help of her mother and a personal familiarity with the idea of college. She also knew that her mom had savings set aside specifically for college. Chloe’s mom paid her application fees to apply to several colleges and when Chloe decides where she wants to attend college, her mother can afford to pay for her.

Because Chloe’s grandmother and mother benefited from federal assistance programs, federal support of early childhood and afterschool programs, public schools, federal grant and loan programs, and work study, she is removed from the cycle of poverty that they endured.

This story exemplifies the reasons why we have the many federal programs that are slated to be cut in the Donald Trump’s proposed ‘skinny’ budget. Interestingly, when people find out that I – Mary in the story above – became a professor despite being from an impoverished background, they applaud me. People often talk about how I’m the personification of the American dream and note that I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, forgetting about the role played by my parents, my teachers and mentors, and federal assistance programs.

Whites tend to think it’s fine when other whites benefit from government programs, but take issue when people of color do the same thing.

When people know that I benefited from federal welfare, they rarely get angry or call me a leach on society. Instead, they shake their head with affirmation, noting how the system works. But what if I were African American or Latino? Given the disdain that I hear from so many – with individuals commenting that minorities are profiting off taxpayer dollars and ‘milking’ the system for personal gain – I doubt that the same people who applaud me would treat African Americans and Latinos similarly.

Unfortunately, whites tend to think it’s fine when other whites benefit from government programs, but take issue when people of color do the same thing. As Donald Trump and his administration work to dismantle the federal assistance programs that moved my mother, me and, in many ways, my daughter out of poverty, much of their underlying reason is linked to American racism. While I wish that whites would realize that everyone in our nation is deserving of a chance to move out of poverty as a matter of social justice, I know that this is not the case. Perhaps, if more whites realized how interconnected our futures are and that if all of us are to succeed, move out of poverty, and truly ‘Make America Great,” we must support the programs that lift all people out of poverty and not merely the people that look like us.

As a reader, you may be where my mother was as she worked to support her family, or where I was as a child. You may feel as though it will take a miracle to move you from poverty to the middle class. However, by voting for individuals who support federal programs that help all of those in poverty regardless of race or ethnicity, you can simultaneously move yourself out of it as my mother moved her daughter out and I moved mine, as well as others. Please don’t be fooled by a man who merely cares about his own accumulation of wealth. Neither he nor his budget care about those living in poverty. We must take care of each other or we all perish in myriad ways.

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