I was a welfare kid. I always knew I was a welfare kid, even when I didn’t know what it meant to be a welfare kid. The word “welfare” was casual in our house. When I was small it was whispered, but as I grew, the word gradually become part of the normal conversation. It gradually became who we were.
When I was very little I didn’t know we were poor. But I do remember being very happy every month when the check came, or the book of food stamps showed up at the door. Food stamps were my favorite. Food stamps meant we could go to the grocery store. By the end of the month all that was left in the fridge was milk, condiments, and maybe some leftover vegetables. There would be bread, tuna, Ramen Noodles, and off-brand cereal in the pantry, but nothing that I wanted to eat. Food stamps meant meat. They meant sausage gravy and real biscuits, not the scratch kind that my mom made out of flour and water at the end of the month. The lumpy kind that always managed to bake hard on top, and break off in crumbles as soon as you bit down. Food stamps meant those little packets of lunchmeat that are packed with sodium and carcinogens, but only cost nineteen cents. Food stamps meant beef to mix with Hamburger Helper, and spaghetti, and tacos. Food stamps meant off-brand cereal, but the good, chocolatey kind that came in a bag found at the bottom shelves of Food-4-Less.
I’m actually not sure how my mom got the book of food stamps, she just had them on the first of the month. They were probably mailed to us, or maybe she had to go to the welfare office to get them. That’s what we called the office that was housed in the white, concrete slab building on the corner of Delaware and Esplanade, across from the riverfront. We called it the welfare office, but its official name was the Kansas Department of Children and Family Services. Today that building sits in the same space, with a fresh coat of paint, remolded from the inside out, and can be rented for various occasions; weddings, reunions, art galas, and piano recitals. I can’t imagine what it must look like inside, but I’m sure it is better than the orange and green walls that housed screaming, cranky children and sad, overworked mothers for many years.
The food stamps, I am fairly sure, were mailed to us. This was back when food stamps were actually a book of “Food Coupons” with the likeness of our forefathers, in various colors representative of their value. They looked like Monopoly money to me, though they were much more valuable.
My sister and I would argue about who could hold the book in the checkout line, and she usually won because she was older and more mature. As she got older though, she didn’t want to hold them anymore. She also didn’t want to go to the grocery store with us anymore. She didn’t want people to see her standing there, her mother painstakingly pulling out the right amount from the book, holding the edge, as to not rip them, and tearing down the perforated side.
If my sister had to come, either to keep me occupied or to help carry the groceries home back before we had a car, she would leave us at checkout and go sit on the benches just outside Food-4-Less while my mom checked out, and I bagged the groceries. If there was any food stamps left, my mom would tell me that I could buy a candy bar, and she would tell me to pick something out for my sister. This always made me mad. After all, she wasn’t helping bag the groceries.
Sometimes, my mom would tear a $1 coupon out of the book and hand it to me when we walked into the store. I would get to buy a five-pack of gum at the beginning of the grocery trip! Then she would hand my sister one too. My sister would roll her eyes and walk away. I would follow close behind, until she would shove me into a checkout line away from her. We had to checkout at different registers. I was always excited by this. There I was, just five years old and checking out at the grocery store. Buying my own gum, with my own food stamp. It was years before I realized what I was actually doing. Food Stamps came in $1, $5, $10, and $20 increments. So if your change was less than $1, you were given back change in actual cash. So, if you purchased a food item with a $1 coupon, the cashier had to give you back the change. When I paid 11 cents for my five-pack of Fruit Stripe, the cashier would hand me back eighty-nine cents. I would take that eighty-nine cents back to my mother. She would combine that with my sister’s eighty-nine cents and she would use that money, actual real money, to buy a pack of toilet paper and a bottle of shampoo. Or maybe a box laundry soap, or, at certain times of the year, a gift for someone.
The older I got the more I understood what my teenage sister had been feeling in those days. In fact, the older I got, the more I understood about a lot of things. I understood why every six months we would have to go the welfare office and sit in uncomfortable chairs for hours, until my mother’s name was called. I understood why my mother would remind me to tell them that I didn’t know who my father was. Of course, I didn’t know who my father was. I had heard his name a few times before, when he would call the house and my mother would hang up the phone in tears. I knew that I had a father. I also knew that he was married to someone who was not my mother, but I never asked. The welfare lady would want to know though, she would want to know if I knew who my father was, and if my father was giving us money. No, he wasn’t. He never did give us money, not to my knowledge. Though sometimes I laid awake in bed and cried, hoping that my father would give us money.
My mother always did her best, it was all she knew, having been a single mother of four. She worked when she could, doing odd jobs that could be paid under the table. Bartending, daycare, taking care of senior citizens, cleaning houses, places she could bring me before I was in school. When I was in school she got a “real” job, housekeeping, and by the time I was in third grade she was making minimum wage: $4.00 an hour. The older I got the more I understood the sadness and anger that she carried with her. It wasn’t from being left with four children to raise alone, it was from the fact that she needed help, government help, to care from them.
The older I got, the more I understood. I understood what being a welfare kid meant. The older I got the more I understood how you were treated if you were a welfare kid. How society labeled a welfare kid. The free lunches at school, the waved fees at enrollment, the bags of free commodities twice a year, that you had to wait in long lines to get, in the cold of January and the heat of August. Even when my mother worked full-time, still we had assistance, and I am glad for it. She is glad for it. Somewhere along the line my sister became glad for it too. Because most people who are on welfare, who get help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the current name for the Food Stamp program), who get Medicare or Medicaid, who live from social security checks, or help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, most of these people do not want the help they get. They need the help they get in order to provide for their children.
People don’t know that, though. People don’t know what it is like to live in apartments too small for you, or to walk through the lunchline in middle school with a bright yellow punch card in order to get your lunch. Most people don’t know the particular shame associated with it. The guilt that follows you around, even when you find yourself very far from those days.
It’s been years now since I’ve slowly torn out a $1 food coupon, careful not to rip the edges. Even longer since I felt the elation of pushing a fresh stick of Fruit Stripe into my mouth, while I hummed a song and cheerfully followed my mother around Food-4-Less, ignorant to the shame that darkened her bright eyes.