Commentary : In Losing Everything, Family Gained a New Meaning of Compassion

It was one of those riches-to-rags stories you read about: A husband loses what was supposed to be a secure job, then is unable to find another, plunging his family into poverty almost overnight.

Within a matter of months they are forced to give up their comfortable home in a middle-class neighborhood and take a cramped flat in a run-down section of town; their car is repossessed, leaving them dependent on public transportation for trips to the doctor, the supermarket and job interviews; and when the husband's unemployment insurance benefits begin to run low with no job prospects in sight, they find themselves in line at the local welfare office, asking for money to keep themselves off the streets and to put food on the table.

Yes, it was one of those things that always happens to some other family--until it happened to mine.

Three years ago, we thought we had it all: a nice home, an almost-paid-for car, good credit and two children. But when my husband was fired from his job as manager of a mid-size North County motel in June, 1985, as the result of a change in ownership, our version of the American Dream suddenly turned into a nightmare from which it would take almost two years to awaken. He couldn't find another position because of a shortage of openings in his field, and few other jobs available to him paid enough to live on. So, we existed on his unemployment payments while waiting for something to open up.

Unfortunately, that "something" never materialized, and soon we found ourselves in such serious trouble that we had to move into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a seedy Escondido neighborhood and sell our possessions to pay off our mounting bills. After going through what was left in savings and borrowing several hundred dollars from relatives, we realized that we had to do something drastic to survive. The only thing left to do was to apply for welfare.

Naturally, it was the last thing on earth we'd wanted to do; like most middle-class people, we tended to look down our noses at "welfare bums" and resent them for sitting around on their backsides collecting money while the rest of us had to work for what we had. But now that the proverbial shoe was on the other foot, we knew we were in for a crash course in humiliation, and we got it that first day at the welfare office.

The eligibility worker who took our application was impatient, even hostile, as she asked pointed questions about our finances, health histories and family problems. Then we were shuffled off to another caseworker for "orientation," which was meant to inform us of our rights and responsibilities, but which turned out to be a 15-minute harangue designed to make us feel like first-graders.

"Do you understand what I've said so far?" she asked at several points during the session. "I'm trying to make this as easy for you as I can, so if it's too complicated, just ask me to explain anything you don't get."

This indignity, however, paled by comparison to what we suffered once we had become recipients. People in supermarket checkout lines often glared at us whenever we used our food stamps. Our friends and families began to make excuses for avoiding us. Also, we were at the mercy of a bureaucracy that misplaced our paper work at regular intervals, which meant we had to fill out the forms, produce supporting documents, and go through orientation all over again before we could get our checks.

Not only that, there seemed to be no way out of this mess: My husband was assigned an unpaid, 30-hour-a-week job with the county workfare program helping the California Department of Transportation clean up the roadsides, which meant he had to pay $1.75 a day for bus fare to get to the work site, and he couldn't look for a real job or even go to interviews four days a week.

Needless to say, our self-esteem crumbled under the assault, and we began to despair of ever getting it back. My husband, once a confident, ambitious provider, moped around the house on his day off, unshaven and sullen. "What's the use of looking for work, when I've got only one day to do it in," he'd ask. "They (workfare) are supposed to give me job training, but I'll be damned if I'm going to spend the rest of my life picking up trash off the freeways and dodging cars."

If anything, my own attitude was worse. I was angry, tired, bitter; it wasn't fair that we were being treated like dirt when we had always done our best to be productive citizens. But for all anyone cared, we might have just as well been born into this life, because it was obvious that we were no longer members of society.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment that this changed. Perhaps it was the day my husband decided to defy his workfare counselor and take a course in micrographics rather than allow his future to be decided by someone who knew little (and cared even less) about his desires or abilities. Perhaps it was the argument I had with our caseworker in which she suggested that I was bleeding the system dry by refusing to place my two preschoolers in day care and take any job I could find.

But whatever triggered the move back toward independence, we knew that we had somehow turned a corner, and that one day we would again take our places in society.

It didn't happen overnight; it took almost a year for my husband to finish his training and find a full-time job, and even longer than that for the writing career I'd begun in July of 1986 to yield some reward.

Even today, we are struggling to keep a roof over our heads and pay our bills; yet our pride in being free of the stigma associated with public assistance more than makes up for the lack of material assets. Accepting welfare, regardless of the circumstances, signifies failure in much the same way as being sent to jail: You fail to live up to society's standards, and society rejects you for it.

You must account for every action to an authority figure who has the power to make life extremely unpleasant if you commit even the most insignificant error, such as forgetting to report the $20 your aunt gave you for your birthday or sending your paper work in late.

And while there are no physical barriers separating you from the public at large, the unspoken message that you are nothing can be so devastating to your self-respect that you may as well be in an isolation cell. And even if you do escape the welfare system, the scars such an experience leave on the psyche will likely never heal.

I know ours won't. No matter how secure we may eventually become, a pilot light of doubt will always flicker deep within, reminding us that poverty can strike again if we fail to take care of what we have. Yet in a way, going through what we have may have been the best thing that could have happened to us, for we discovered a hardiness of spirit that we had never known we possessed, and an enduring compassion for those who have no idea what it means to be self-sufficient and yet continue to strive for a better life.

Thankfully, the nightmare is over for us. But one thing's for certain: We'll never call anyone a "welfare bum" again.

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