(HOST) Ten years ago, commentator Annie Downey was among those directly affected by the sweeping welfare reforms enacted during the Clinton administration. Today, she takes stock of the impact those reforms have had on her life.
(DOWNEY) My journey into poverty began when I was just seventeen, a drop-out and a runaway. A year later, disowned by my family, I found myself sleeping on a friend of a friend’s couch – pregnant. I was too ashamed to ask my family for help and more afraid they wouldn’t care. Isolated and alone, it wasn’t until I broke down in sobs during a prenatal visit with my doctor that I was informed there was help for girls like me through the Department of Social Welfare – and social services became my lifeline.
Seven years later, I was a mother of two and working toward a degree. I was living with my fiance and “on track” for getting off government assistance – receiving only Dr. Dinosaur for my children. But then my fiance and father of my son left – taking his income and all my dreams for a secure future with him. I was a single mother again, this time with two mouths to feed.
Welfare Reform had just gone into effect and because I was one of those “on track” for getting off government assistance, after graduating from college and landing a minimum wage job, I found myself no longer eligible for most of the benefits that I had received as a teen mother. I became a member of the working poor.
For me, becoming self-sufficient was nearly impossible. Yet, I did it. Eventually I bought my own car, paid for my own groceries without the humiliation of food stamps, bought new clothes for my children – and with my new found self esteem I discovered I had a voice and enough courage to claim my dream to be a novelist. I began to write.
For me, welfare reform is a good thing. A necessary thing. It gave me the push I needed to get off of welfare and claim a life of my own – a far better life than Welfare could have provided for me. After getting off assistance, I came to realize that there is a difference between “impoverished thinking” and actual poverty. On welfare we believe there is no better life and we are worthless. This really hit home with me as I watched the media coverage of Katrina – there in front of me was the living metaphor of “no way out”. Yet, there is a way out, and I want women and others in poverty to know that you can have success. You may have to work really hard for it, but in the end the pay off is becoming self sufficient and with it comes the self esteem to live a life of your own choosing.
Now, ten years after President Clinton signed the Welfare reform bill, I sit at my writing desk, looking over the galley of my first novel. I hear my daughter on the phone chatting about SAT scores, colleges, and the color of her prom dress. She’s in eleventh grade – the same year I dropped out of high school and almost the same age when I had her – and her life is full of hope and promise – not poverty.
Annie Downey is currently working toward an MFA in Writing. She lives in North Ferrisburgh.