Doing What It Takes to Survive

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BY DEAN TORRES

What does it take to put food on the table, put clothes on your back, and keep a roof over your head? What would you do if you couldn't get a good job: sell drugs, go on welfare, or try to find a minimum wage job like McDonald's that pays $5 an hour?

I think a lot about how I'm going to support myself.

For some of my friends, the easiest way to earn decent money is by hustling, so that's what they do. If they don't hustle, it seems like the only option is a dead-end job. It doesn't help that places like Burger King and McDonald's pay $5.15 an hour. The minimum wage should be a least $6 or $7 an hour.

I know a few people who are or used to be on welfare. Tricia, who used to live in the Bronx, decided to go on welfare because she thought she had no other options. She had no job to support her kids or herself, and she was hanging out with the wrong crowd. They encouraged her to take drugs, and, to support her kids and her habit, she started dealing, too. Tricia was also purposely getting pregnant so that she could get more money from the welfare department. Now she has seven kids.

Things got so bad that her kids were taken away from her and put into foster homes. Tricia's home was no place for any child to live. It was a rat-infested, one-bedroom apartment with no heat and broken windows. It looked like an abandoned apartment with people still living in it.

But when she realized her kids were really gone, Tricia woke up and decided that she had to get her life together. She found herself some help through a friend, who got her into a rehab program. After searching for months, she finally found a decent job, starting at $8 an hour. Tricia got custody of her kids back and now she is living in North Carolina, working at an even better job.

Unfortunately, I see other people following in her footsteps, not realizing which path they are walking down. My friend we call Venom (because he's supposed to be deadly) started dealing drugs about three years ago, and has already been in and out of jail. But he has no plans to stop. He does his street pharmacy to take care of himself, his girlfriend, and his one-year-old daughter.

"It's hard finding a job," he claims, but I don't think he's ever tried looking for one. The problem with Venom is that he tries to find the easy way out of things all the time.

The mother of his daughter, Keeshia, is working to support herself and the baby, and she's not happy with what Venom is doing. They had a big argument about that, but to Venom, dealing is his career and his life. For him, this is the only way to survive. Kids in my neighborhood feel like selling drugs is their best option, since looking for a job didn't work for a lot of people they know.

I think my friends need to take responsibility for their lives by staying in school and away from drugs. But I also think the government can do more to help poor people.

The government should do a better job providing child care so mothers can go back to work, and should work harder to help the unemployed find jobs that pay enough to actually support a family. When I look at people like Tricia and Venom, it makes me sad and angry at the same time.

Sad for them and mad at the world, because people know what's going on in these poor communities and it seems like nobody helps. But when poor people do something wrong - like selling drugs or abusing welfare - everyone gets upset, even though they know our situation and make no effort to give us the help that we need the most.

(c) New Youth Connections, New York