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I Was a Welfare Mother

My education in welfare living began at the League's general meeting in November. In January I heard about a project in which middle class families would live for a week on a welfare budget, so I signed up. A few days later Carole Hoyt of the Honolulu Advertiser called to ask if she could write about our week on welfare to compare it with the week of a real welfare family of the same size. The two articles, "Doing without on Welfare", and "Welfare: One Family's Choice", appeared February 16th and 17th in The Advertiser.

Some of you have expressed interest in how we managed and what we learned. So here's the story behind the story. First some figures:
 Weekly Welfare Allowance   |
Family of 6 (2 adults)  |
Our actual Expenditures,
Wed., Feb. 3 - Thurs. Feb. 9
Total $55.26  $53.99
 
Food 41.98) 
Household Supplies 2.13)$47.3339.16
Personal Essentials 3.22) 
Education & Community Activities 6.84 5.31
Transportation 1.09  9.52
(Utilities-not incl. in total) (3.91)  ?

I lumped food, household supplies and personal essentials in my records because I buy most such items at the supermarket. Education and Community Activities paid for school lunches, Craig's coffee breaks, and lemonades at the zoo. I didn't find out about the free lunch program until the last day. That would be a potential savings of $3.75,/week with three children in school, and would have added $1.75 that particular week, more than enough to pay the week's cost of our 4-party phone. Welfare doesn't pay for phones.

Luckily I didn't have many League commitments the week we were on welfare. I could have paid for some babysittIng out of the C.A. allowance. A lot of my time, however, was devoted to figuring out how to stretch every cent, making menus, poring over food ads, and shopping for specials at several supermarkets. No quickie, convenience foods that week! Perhaps some of you do this as a matter of routine, but I haven't since Craig was in graduate school. I found it very wearing to have even the smallest purchase become a major decision. As I vacillated between the puzzle for $1.75 and the better one for $2.50 (3-year old Andrew's birthday present), it wasn't hard to understand the conflict between quality and cash-on-hand which confronts the low-income family in any purchase of clothes, furniture, and appliances.

Before starting our week we ate up the perishables. I prorated the cost of some bulk items like flour, sugar, rice and laundry detergent, which normally last a month or more. We didn't try to figure the savings possible with food stamps, because the stamps must be bought for a month at one time, which involves a proportionately large cash outlay. If the project had run for a month we would have tried it. Actually, though, I found I was very timid about spending a large sum at any one time. I did my shopping in dribbles all week to make sure the money and the meals would come out even. When there is no cushion one can't afford a mistake. I had one evening of real distress when I thought I had made a mistake and would have to stretch what was left through Wednesday instead of Tuesday. And I really didn't know what we were going to eat, because I had only one dollar.

Our diet was short on variety. We ate a lot of cream of wheat, pineapple juice, peanut butter sandwiches and beans. We cut our usual grocery costs by using powdered milk, hot instead of cold cereal, and omitting cookies, crackers, soft drinks, and all but the most economical and stretchable meats. We did have imitation ice cream for two birthdays. I even used old plastic bread bags to wrap sandwiches to avoid buying waxed paper. Fortunately our children are all under 12, and none of us eat a lot. Charles, age 5 was sick for 5 days and ate almost nothing. I honestly doubt that I could have fed a family of teenagers on what we spent for food.

We didn't include the utility allowance in our week's budget because there was no way to figure out how much we could save by economizing. Our normal monthly expense for gas, water, and electricity last year was about double the 117.00 allowed by the DSS, even though I hardly ever water the lawn. We tried to play fair by not using the dryer, vacuum cleaner, electric mixer and disposal. Welfare does allow for a washing machine. I spent more time than usual hanging up clothes, sweeping, and when my sponge mop disintegrated, down on my hands and knees cleaning tile. My rotary egg beater broke and I had to beat Andrew's birthday cake with a spoon. The result will long be remembered as that funny looking flat cake".

We used only one of our two cars that week, which was no big problem, since one or the other is often not running anyway. You are allowed to have a car, if it is over 4 years old (ours qualify), but you don't get any money to run it. We spent $9.52 for insurance, parking, gas, and a part. The transportation allowance was $1.09 which wouldn't pay for a week's public transportation either. The difference came out of the food money. And what does one do when it is auto registration time? Our counterpart family applied for a small loan (minimum $50) to pay the $16 fee, and was refused. Presumably they do without transportation until they can save the money.

Does this sound like an awful week? It wasn't. In a way, it was fun, because it was a challenge. Some of the changes we made in our modus operandi are ecologically sound; some would benefit our health, like eating cream of wheat instead of cheerios and giving up liquor. We had two simple birthday parties and watched our favorite TV programs. We enjoyed being interviewed by Carole Hoyt, and it was exciting to participate in the DSS budget hearing a few weeks later.

There is a danger here. We did not really experience what it is like to be on welfare. We didn't have to go through the red tape, the forms, the questions. The one thing that gave me the biggest clue as to what this could be like was having to report the birthday gifts from the grandmothers to our social worker (played by Carole Hoyt). Under DSS rules if they had been worth over $25 it would have been deducted from next month's welfare check. I resented this very much, and don't think I would have hesitated long to cheat.

Two other differences are vital: one, we were on welfare by choice, not necessity. Two, it was for a limited time. You can cope with almost anything if you know it will last only so long and then things will get better. How many of the poor have that assurance!

Carol Whitesell

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