The tired image of the welfare queen with six kids, driving around in a Cadillac, watching soap operas on an expensive television and eating junk food on the couch has had its day.
It is 2014, years into the Great Recession, and millions have been helped by hundreds of social services put in place by the government to stabilize families in this time of need. Yet the states insist upon making the lines between the rich and poor ever darker, ever harder to cross. Maine lines up as the latest in a host of states beginning to enforce drug-testing legislation for welfare recipients.
The testing is meant to assure taxpayers their money isn’t being “wasted” on the less desirable, those who would somehow manage to buy drugs with the assistance. But in Tennessee, where drug testing was enacted for welfare recipients last month, only one person in the 800 who applied for help tested positive. In Florida, during the four months the state tested for drug use, only 2.6% of applicants tested positive. Meanwhile, Florida has an illegal drug use rate of 8%, meaning far fewer people on services are using drugs than their better-off counterparts. The drug testing cost taxpayers more money than it saved, and was ruled unconstitutional last year.
People tend to forget that those using the programs are most likely also taxpayers, or were at some point. In 2010, nearly half of poor or near poor mothers on welfare were working at least part time. My husband and I, for instance, worked a combined 45 years, paying taxes, before he lost his job two weeks before I had premature twins, and had to apply for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. During the time we were on aid, I held a fulltime job, meaning I was paying in to the system from which I was simultaneously benefiting.
Our family is not alone. Denise Calder, a middle school teacher in Broward County, Florida, has a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University and has worked steadily since 1994. “Now I'm 42 years old, divorced, a single mother of four,” she told me. She makes $41,300 year. “Every penny goes to food, rent, gas, medical bills,” she says. “Since 2009, I have had to apply for and accept Medicaid & SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] twice to provide for my children when I took maternity leave in 2009 and 2013.”
When I signed up for WIC services in 2008, I was a television producer in Boston, creating a news show seen by millions of people a night. I was making $40,000 a year and my husband had just been laid off. During my three months of maternity leave, my salary was $25,000, but our family qualified for the WIC program on my full income. We used it for 18 months. And we needed it.
WIC is an income-based program. Women must make no more than 185% of the Federal poverty line guidelines, and in some states, they must actually be living at or below the poverty line. Statistics from the Food and Nutrition Service department show that 73% of people on WIC are making less than the federal poverty line. The income cut-off for a family of four is $44,123 a year.
It’s also not just a phone call and done. Women applying must be pregnant or up to six months post-partum. Children can receive services up to their fifth birthday, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services. Once you’ve called, you have to provide proof of income for everyone in the household, proof of identity, proof of residence, proof of participation in any other program—including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or General Assistance—immunization records for your children, pregnancy confirmation (official note from your doctor), recent height and weight measurements and a blood test for hemoglobin levels, and a WIC Referral Form from your doctor. You also have to provide documentation of any child support payments, unemployment benefits, or short-term disability money received. These requirements vary slightly from state to state, but for the most part they are consistent.
Once you’ve gone through all that, you have to wait to be processed and either accepted or rejected. After the whole process, you may still hear that you aren’t poor enough (for instance, if you are receiving child support or if you can't provide certain paperwork). Bree Casson, a divorced former army wife who works part-time at McDonald's, was turned away from the WIC office last week because she didn't have her family’s Medicaid cards, despite multiple phone and mail requests to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I dragged my three kids out, with all our paperwork, including our Medicaid numbers,” she said, “and they insisted they needed the physical cards to prove our income eligibility. I’ve been trying to get those cards for two years with no luck. All this for some milk and cheese and vegetables.”
Applying and being accepted for aid is a mentally grueling process that can stretch on for months. Add to that the humiliation of having to pee in a cup just because you can’t afford to eat. There’s already a huge stigma about having to receive services, a spiral of shame and embarrassment that permeates the use of the system. Instead of wasting taxpayer money to weed out a small percent of those in need, demonizing an entire sect of people in favor of misleading stereotypes, maybe it’s time we put our funds into helping them find their way out of the system and onto their own two feet.
Darlena Cunha is a mother of twins and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Gainesville Sun and Gainesville and Ocala magazines. You can reach her @parentwin on Twitter.