Welfare Cinderella

How I went from rags to riches to reality in just one year.

Published October 27, 1997 10:42AM (EST)

They say that money changes everything. They are right and wrong. I
spent $70,000 in 12 months and all I have to show for it is a big
purple couch and a little red car. Six years of debt accumulated as a
single mom and college student on welfare didn't help. The student-loan
sharks made off with a good $20,000. My landlord nabbed a few thousand in
back rent as well as the current $750 a month I owed him. Still, you'd
think I could tell you about at least one trip to Club Med ... No, mine is
a rags-to-riches-to-reality story in which the heroine and her daughter
don't change their wardrobe a great deal.

I suppose the story begins seven years ago when, a week before my
college freshman orientation, I walked into the welfare office with my
daughter, Maia, then 6 months old, and applied for a cash grant. At the
time, applying for welfare seemed like an all-right thing to do: My mom had
been on the rolls for a few years when I was a pre-schooler. For the next
six years, I got an AFDC check almost every month and promptly signed it
over to my landlord. And I learned, slowly, that there were a whole hell of
a lot of Americans -- from Newt Gingrich on down to the next door neighbor
who used to bang on my door screaming, "Whose responsibility is it to raise
your damn kid, anyway?" -- for whom my income source was not the least bit
all right.

We never lived solely on that $500 check from the state. When they
don't give a family enough to survive on at the beginning of the month and
that family is still alive at the end of the month -- well, obviously
some fraud has taken place. My "fraud" was mostly legal; it consisted of a
few thousand dollars a year in student loans, the odd work-study job,
periodic checks begged from my grandmother and the Salvation Army, meals
from various soup kitchens, Christmas presents from the local fire station
giveaway, and about $30 a week I made by buying books and CDs at
garage sales and pawning them off on resale shops at a minimal profit. My
six years on welfare earned me quite a few premature gray hairs, but we got by.

Or maybe the story begins in late May of last year. I'd just finished
graduate school, hadn't landed a job, and Hip Mama, the zine I'd been
publishing for two and a half years, was still showing a loss. My cutoff
notice from the welfare office was hanging on the wall next to my telephone
when it rang at 7 a.m. I was already up, on my way out the door to get to a
local morning radio show to talk about being a welfare mama on the chopping
block. Thinking it was my baby sitter calling, I answered the phone. A woman
with a thick New York accent who identified herself as my agent's partner
told me matter-of-factly, "We just sold your book for $100,000."

Silence. I wasn't speechless about the book deal or the sum of money --
I was just trying to figure out who the crank caller was. "Hello?" the
woman with the New York accent said after a minute. "You're kidding,
right?" I said softly. Granted, I'd written the proposal and prayed for the
money, but I don't like being teased. When I was about 8 years old, my
big sister and her friend told me that if I laid perfectly still on my
stomach on top of the cab of the white pick-up truck that was parked in our
driveway, it would take off and fly me into outer space. I wasn't about to
give this woman the same satisfaction my sister and her friend got when
they came outside two hours later, laughing hysterically at me lying
perfectly still on top of that damn truck.

On the radio show later that morning, I announced that I'd gotten the
deal to write "The Hip Mama Survival Guide," but I didn't mention the sum.
Perhaps I'd heard it wrong. It was nearly noon by the time I let the
reality of my new wealth sink in. And suddenly I felt like Cinderella. I
called everyone I knew and a few people I didn't. I don't remember what I
said to them. Probably something like, "And then, this dude showed up with
the glass slipper ..." After six years on welfare, $100,000 minus the
agent's cut and the illustrator's fee sounded to me like millions. I'd
never be broke again. I could buy anything my heart desired. I could buy
Maia anything her heart desired. I could pay back all my debts and
live in the lap of luxury for eternity. The phrase "And they lived happily
ever after ..." might have crossed my mind.

I started making lists of all the things I would buy when the check
arrived. I had never been a "responsible" poor person. I didn't clip
coupons and, sometimes, we went out to dinner even as checks to the phone
company bounced. When I was on welfare, I spent all the money in my pockets
on whatever Maia or I wanted before I ever said "no." But I was an even
less responsible rich person. When I had more money in my pockets, it
simply took me longer to get to "no." For a year, I was a mama who only
said "yes" ("$100 worth of trinkets from the Statue of Liberty
gift shop? Why not?"). For a year, I was a friend who wouldn't let anyone
she knew get evicted ("Three-day notice? I'm on my way"). For a year, I was
a writer-for-hire with a seriously snotty attitude ("Kiss my butt," I told
an editor from a national magazine who had always annoyed me when he called
with a dollar-a-word assignment).

The sobering bank statement didn't arrive until this summer: I was on
the verge of being totally broke again. The resale value of my couch and
car are negligible. And, so, the "reality" part of my story begins. Even
though the heroine is still sitting here in the same apartment in a nice
part of town that the city planners nonetheless call an "area of persistent
poverty," she's had a little bit of time to think about the real difference
between rags and riches.

It is amazing to me how much kinder the world is to people with any
disposable income to speak of. When my daughter had some cavities that
needed to be filled this year, one phone call and one trip to the dentist
did the trick -- gone were the days of calling two dozen dentists and
social service agencies in an attempt to get someone to take my Medi-Cal
government insurance. When I bounced checks this year, my bank spoke of
"oversights" and covered the difference -- they used to speak of
"irresponsibility" and charge me 25 bucks for the insult. When I was on
deadline and my hard drive crashed recently, I drove over to Circuit City
and bought a new computer. When my daughter's father started acting
bizarre, I didn't have to yell at him, I just wrote a check to a lawyer and
she did my arguing for me. When Maia and I were driving to Los Angeles and
we got tired of being in the car, we stopped in San Luis Obispo, booked a
big pink room at the Madonna Inn and took a horse and carriage ride around
the lake. When a friend's car was being lifted onto a tow truck and she
started screaming and crying and pleading with the driver, I said
"Shhh ..." handed the guy my secured credit card, and the ordeal was over.

They say you can't buy happiness, and they're right, but you can buy an
awful lot of peace and quiet. You can buy grace. I used to think that if your
house burns down and you've got money, you don't suffer. Now I know that
you do, but you get to grieve in comfort. Your kids still get cavities,
it's just a lot easier to fill them.

Next to motherhood, being on welfare was the most radicalizing
experience of my life. When you cannot stop the cruelty of the world with a
secured credit card, you can't avoid seeing the oppressive reality of it.
And even if you know enough to appreciate the swiftness with which the
cavities of people with bank accounts can be filled, it's easy to forget,
while you're sitting in the waiting room reading People, the evil
cluelessness that once denied your government insurance. I'm trying to get
a second book deal now and my mother says if it works out, I should put
some money down on a house. But I probably won't. Houses are flammable, and
anyway, I bought the big purple couch on such a whim that I forgot to
measure my door. I ended up having to recruit two neighbor chicks to hoist
it up over my second floor balcony. I don't think we could get it out of
here nearly as gracefully. But maybe we'll go to Club Med.

By Ariel Gore

Ariel Gore is the editor of the parenting zine Hip Mama, the author of the Hip Mama Survival Guide and Maia's mom.

MORE FROM Ariel Gore

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Newt Gingrich