Getting By on Crayon Money

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Let me ask you something: Have you ever been ashamed of being on welfare? I know I have.

I grew up knowing I was on welfare. My grandma had been receiving it way before I came into the picture. My grandmother did well, considering her situation. I say she did well because she raised six healthy children basically single-handedly.

Still, I used to be ashamed of the fact that my family is on welfare. As a little kid, it was like, so what? Who cares? But then I got older and I became engulfed in shame.

I thought that if people knew, I would be called names like "loser," "little poor girl," "bum" - you get the picture. I hated knowing that my family had to rely on the government for help. I guess I was worried about what it said about us.

I really started to feel ashamed when I got to junior high. I know there were a lot of kids on welfare who attended the school. No one admitted they lived off the government - they always had real money to buy things with. I don't know where they got their money from if they were in as tight a spot as me. Maybe they saved their allowance.

They laughed when anyone said their money was coming from welfare. You could hear them in the halls saying, "Nah, not me son - that's B.S." Or it would be, "Are you stupid? I don't mess with that paper money."

At least I didn't try to act all high and mighty and lie through my teeth.

Still, I wouldn't go to the stores near the school with this "crayon money." To buy snacks and candy I would wait to be near my neighborhood. But even in my neighborhood, I still tried to make my sister accompany me to the store. That way she could be the one to pay. To her, it was no big deal.

I hated going grocery shopping at the local supermarket. You have your cart full to the top - so you know you're spending at least $100. The cashier has finished passing all the food along, and she asks, "How will you pay?" There's like 10 people behind me - it's busy and crowded - everyone huffing and puffing, wanting to go home, and guess who everyone is staring at? Lil' ole me.

I feel the heat and color rise to my face as I pay with my food stamps. I always wanted to fall through a black hole in the floor.

As I got older, though, I slowly began to feel less ashamed. When I was 14 or 15, I began to work and understand what it's like to be paying the bills and making ends meet. I began to see that my grandma really needed welfare to help us live. Without government aid, we would be barely making it. I also began to see that it was not my fault that my family is on welfare. I began to feel like I could change things in my life. When I untangle from the spider's web of welfare, I want to be able to live on my own by my own job earnings. But right now, I'm glad I have welfare to help me get there.

One of my biggest eye openers was when I started working as a cashier at a supermarket. It'd be the first of the month and the supermarket would be jam packed. Everyone shopping - two carts full of groceries and the check out lines would never end. The majority of them paid in food stamps. It helped seeing how many other people were in the same position as my family.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's nothing to be ashamed of if you have financial problems, or are on welfare, as long as you use it, don't abuse it. Welfare has helped me a lot, and I hope it will keep helping me - until I don't need it anymore. 

(c) New Youth Connections, New York