Rethinking Independence


Welfare helped me through college in the ’80s as a young, single mother. I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself. Relying on public assistance backed me into the corner of dependency I had been trying to escape.

Of course, what I had really wanted as a teenager was control—the power to smoke cigarettes or have sex, to decide how late I would stay out and which university I would attend. At 16 years old, I had assumed that getting pregnant would be my ticket to freedom, the life of independence I craved under my father’s heavy hand. But my parents had refused to give their consent for me to marry my boyfriend, and I had been forced to take an alternate course—one I pretended I had intended to follow all along: the high road to higher education. It was all part of the plan, except I was hitchhiking to get there.

So I finished high school, and, while my mother cared for my daughter, I chose the most economically feasible option, enrolling in basic courses at a community college 20 miles from our rural Kentucky home. Although my father’s income as an airline mechanic made me ineligible for a federal Pell Grant, I was able to pay tuition and buy textbooks with a monthly welfare check of $160. Back then gas cost about $2 per gallon, and I carpooled with other students three days a week to and from the Elizabethtown campus. I ate all my meals at home, as most of my friends did, and shopped at Minton’s Variety, a local thrift store that carried “irregular” clothing discounted for manufacturing defects.

By the time I left my hometown of Lebanon Junction for the University of Kentucky two years later, I knew how to make do. I participated in the work-study program, which paid me minimum wage to keep tally of visitors to the university’s art gallery and allowed time for me to catch up on reading assignments. My final year I worked part-time at a grocery store to pay for my housing and earned an academic scholarship to cover my tuition. Still, it wasn’t enough. I had to apply for food stamps.

My mother dismissed my shame. “Never mind,” she said. “It’s just temporary, until you get on your feet.” She assured me that Dad had contributed more than my share to the welfare system through years of paying taxes.

My parents had been children of the Great Depression, first-generation Americans whose families emigrated from Eastern Europe. They married in 1953 and by the early ’70s had managed to save enough money to buy a five-acre tract of land, where my father—aided by a few contractors, my mother and my older siblings—built our house.

Mom sang in the kitchen preparing ethnic dishes, such as pierogi or golumpki, that could feed seven children for pennies a serving. She sewed many of my siblings’ and my clothes on a Singer in the corner of the living room while humming hymns or Patsy Cline tunes. Dad whistled at his workbench in the basement, replacing tubes in an old TV. He never rushed while maintaining the family vehicles or tending the summer vegetable garden, but worked at a pace that implied there was always enough time for what needed to be done.

Today, according to the U.S. census, nearly half of Americans live in households that receive some form of federal aid, such as Social Security, food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation or subsidized housing. If we have become a nation of dependents, we have no one but ourselves to blame for the values we are instilling—or not instilling—at home.

No government reform, mandatory drug testing or finger-wagging would have weaned me off welfare. My parents’ example is what kept me from long-term dependency.

It would be years before I could appreciate how well my mother and father had prepared me, packing me a bag of tricks for living simply and self sufficiently to go along with the bulky baggage of teenage motherhood that I lugged through college. Through the sheer joy they took in taking care of simple domestic tasks, they taught me to approach the work of the home with love and grace—that accomplishing a job as small as darning a sock could reap a sense of satisfaction and self-respect strong enough to bring tears to the eyes of any helpless soul who’s ever had to humble herself to accept a handout.

Perhaps that explains why I weep at the sight of my vegetable garden, the miracle of seedlings shooting up like obedient children, the easy bounty of squash, tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers that appear on my family’s table.

I try to think of a way to show my sons and daughter there is always enough time for what needs to be done. I smile while I weed. I sing.

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  1. The loss of respect and responsibility is the scourge of modern America. You have captured that loss beautifully here. I was reminded of the Steppenwolf song. “America where are you now? Don’t you care about your sons and daughters?” And yes we have created a monster by blaming the unfortunate and exonerating the powerful. My father came to this country when he was 30 years old and worked in a steel mill 10 hours a day until he was nearly 70. I watching him work selflessly and he never complained. I am reminded of this everytime I begin to whine about the least inconvenience. Your reflection touched a heart string and was greatly appreciated.

  2. Bobbi,
    I, too, was a single mother in the 80’s trying to put myself through college. I was so embarrassed to be on public assistance – food stamps, help with housing, etc. But I was able to graduate college with a nursing degree and I showed my 2 daughters that you can obtain anything as long as you try hard enough. I now have 3 grown, independent daughters and I take joy in the fact they are all self-sufficient.

  3. Bobbi,
    This is why you are such a fantastic teacher to your students.
    So many of them are in similar situations, and you are someone who
    worked your way out of the trenches. Love the writing and the window
    you create into your past that lets us know where you come from.

  4. I loved reading your story since I knew the first part and I am so glad for how the second part turned out.

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