I am the 47%. As an adult, I was on welfare twice. In 1990, at the age of 20, I developed a serious kidney problem while three months pregnant. I was working full-time as a secretary at a local hotel, helping to put my husband through school. I had health insurance through my job, but the pregnancy itself was considered pre-existing. The next eighteen months of my life were a blur of specialists, out-patient procedures, and tests while my doctors tried to figure out what was causing the excruciating pain. Even with health insurance, I could not afford to pay the co-pays and deductibles for the tests, medications, and almost nightly E.R. visits. My husband, son, and I went on Medicaid. Due to the medication I was on, I also had to stop breast-feeding my infant son when he was six-weeks old. We relied on the WIC program to help pay for the expensive soy formula his sensitive stomach required. Two days before my son’s first birthday, I had my right kidney removed. Without government medical assistance, I would never have been able to pay for my bills or feed my child.
The stress of two years of illness took its toll on my young marriage, and I found myself a 24 year old single parent with a 3 year old and an 18 month old. Even though I was working full-time, making $8.50 an hour, I could not afford to pay for food, housing, and day care. I went on food stamps for the first time in my life. I vividly remember the shame I felt walking into the small town grocery store, wondering if the checker would judge me if I bought ice cream for my boys. I quickly realized the only way out of the cycle of generational poverty into which I had been born, a cycle I was in the process of perpetuating and modelling to my boys, was to go back to college. I applied, and at the age of 25, began my undergraduate degree in English literature. I had to give up my full-time job in order to go to school. Most classes weren’t offered in the evening, and my job was 8-5. Instead, I worked three part-time jobs. Every morning I was up at 5, drove my boys to the sitter, worked a shift either waitressing at the fine dining restaurant in the hotel or working at the front desk, went to classes, picked my boys up at 5:30, made dinner, gave them baths, read them their bedtime stories, and tucked them in by 7:30. Then I started my homework. I was usually in bed by 1 or 2 a.m. and up at 5 to do it all over again. Two nights a week, I taught dance classes, my boys playing with their Hot Wheels on the benches in the back of the studio. On Friday nights, I worked evenings doing odd filing and secretarial work. I was able to get off of food stamps after six months, but I still relied on government help in the form of Pell Grants and subsidized student loans, and later, unsubsidized student loans.
Of course I had both friends and family who helped me out: my cousin babysat my boys for next to nothing, an aunt frequently had us over for dinner, my mom helped out financially when she could, my best friend, another single mother, provided all kinds of support, once cleaning my entire house when I’d had a particularly stressful week. Friends picked up my kids from school or soccer or swimming when my work or school schedules conflicted. And I had professors who showed me the way out: professors told me I was smart and should think about graduate school. And one particularly influential professor, who had used education to lift himself up, was a life-long model. I went on for my Master’s degree, and then my Ph.D., a single-mother all but three of those 12 years. But even with all of the help from family and friends, even with the encouragement and the examples provided by my professors, I would never, ever have been able to get through school without food stamps, Pell Grants, subsidized, and unsubsidized loans. It took a village AND government aid. I was not a victim. I did not feel entitled. I, then as now, felt immensely grateful for the assistance.
Whenever I tell this story someone inevitable tries to claim that I am the exception. But I was the average: a white female in her twenties, divorced with dependents (see the stats from the “Overview of Entitlement Programs,” Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives, 1994). I am the face of welfare.
I could have started this letter, Mitt, by saying that I used to be part of the 47%. After all, I now have a job as a tenure-track professor of Shakespeare at a research-intensive university. My current salary places me squarely in the middle class; I pay taxes; and three years ago, my husband and I bought our first home, using the First Time Home-buyers’ Credit (more government help). But the fact is I would not be who I am or where I am without government assistance. I would still be repeating a generational cycle; I would still be making $8.50 an hour. I am the 47%.
Trish Thomas Henley
Dr. Trish Thomas Henley is an assistant professor of early modern literature and culture at the University of Cincinnati. She received her B.A. (1999) and M.A. (2001) from the University of Idaho and her Ph.D. (2007) from Florida State University. Her first book, The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, co-edited with Gary Taylor, was published by Oxford University Press in the spring of 2012. She is currently revising a monograph, Velvet Women Within, which examines the boy actor’s performance of the prostitute on the early modern English stage. She is also the mother of four fabulous boys, aged 22 to 8.