Going Into the System: Welfare


I was on Welfare.  It was the early 1970’s and I had what was diagnosed as “major depression, severe and recurrent.”  In fact, it was bipolar depression, type two, but it wouldn’t be correctly diagnosed for another couple decades.

I had been hospitalized several times, was unable to work, and was living with my parents when my mother informed me that I was to go on Welfare and move out.  Her expressed rationale was that I “needed to be independent.”  Therein lays the primary problem with government subsidies:  it’s an alternative.  Government subsidy programs were not designed as a choice; they were intended to be a rescue system when you had nowhere else to go.  Now, families dump their members on government programs when they become too annoying or costly.

At the time, my father was earning $1000 a week.  That would be good in 2011; in 1972 it was phenomenal.  If my family couldn’t live with me then they could have afforded to set me up in my own apartment but they didn’t see it that way.  Most American families, when it comes to caring for their disabled relatives, say they can’t afford to when what they mean is, “We can’t afford to and still maintain our current standard of living.”  My parents took my younger brother and sister on vacation in Europe and I went on Welfare.

When did America become a country in which families are no longer responsible for their own?

I’ll tell you one thing—Americans like to think that Welfare is a second- and third-generation problem with black people, but the fact is that black American families are far more likely to take care of their own than are white families. 

I recently had a black woman working as my aide.  She had never lived with her father and barely knew him, then one day a hospital discharge planner called and said he’d had a stroke, been hospitalized and rehabbed, and now needed a home.  My aide sent her teenage son to live with his grandparents out of state so that she would have room to take in her father.  Come September, she wanted her kid home and back in school but she still hadn’t been able to find a suitable living situation for her father without putting him into the system, which she wouldn’t do.  In some cultures, people still take care of their own.

My best friend for many years was a black woman with bipolar disorder, type one.  When she would cycle into depression, her mother would take care of her.  When her mother reached her limit, my friend would be moved to her aunt’s, and so on throughout the family.  The extended family functioned as a whole; when one person was in trouble, the whole family dealt with it.  One of the reasons so many white people are in the system is because the extended family has broken down, leaving only the nuclear family to deal with the problem, and the nuclear family lacks the emotional and financial resources to deal with it.

When a psychiatrist finally diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, type two, in 1999, my therapist’s first words were, “That’s what was wrong with your father!”  Indeed.  My father had bipolar depression but it had never been diagnosed.  Can you imagine my mother trying to live under the same roof with two people with chronic depression?  She couldn’t deal with it and the government gave her an out:  put your daughter on Welfare.

There are very few things I remember about being on Welfare.  One is that a Welfare worker stated that the average length of stay on Welfare was eighteen months.  People slip below the poverty line, need a little help for a while, and then recover.  What is the current average length of stay on Welfare?  Nobody knows because nobody’s telling:  the Post-Standard won’t report it, the politicians don’t say it, and the Dept. of Social Services doesn’t publish statistics.

Another thing I remember is going to Legal Aid of Central New York and seeing a poster hanging on the wall.  It was a picture of a boy, maybe ten years old.  He was grinning and wearing a dirty t-shirt, baggy shorts, drooping socks and sneakers:  just a regular kid on a summer afternoon.  The caption under the photo was “This is an average Welfare recipient.”  Single women with minor children comprise the largest group of people on Welfare.  When you talk about cutting Welfare, keep in mind the picture of that kid.

How do you survive on Welfare?  I lived in a single furnished room.  The bathroom was down the hall, and I had “kitchen privileges.”  That meant I got one small cupboard, half a refrigerator shelf, and constant harassment from the landlord.  I not only had no car but also I couldn’t afford bus fare.  I walked. 

I was on Food Stamps, which came in a paper booklet in those days.  The only grocery store in my neighborhood sold moldy produce and gray meat.  I remember setting two bags of groceries down on the doorstep to unlock my door.  My hands were swollen and my fingers were white from where the weight of the grocery bags cut into my hands on the long walk home.  My next check wasn’t due for a week, and I only had eight cents left.

According to my mother, I was now “independent.”

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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