Rochelle’s Story: Climbing the Ladder of Opportunity with SNAP, TANF, and EITC

A speech by President Obama on Wednesday, December 4th put income inequality in the spotlight. What’s troubling about income inequality is that it correlates to other inequalities, including disparities in education, mental health, physical health, and employment opportunities.

His speech was a response to proposals for more cuts to public assistance programs, along with growing public support for raising the minimum wage which has fallen far behind the level of inflation. During the speech he said,

So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.

So here’s Rochelle’s story about being one of the poor who some claim are “in search of handouts.” Due to unforeseen circumstances she found herself struggling to care for herself and to protect her family from poverty and an abusive husband. Like so many she wasn’t asking for a handout, but was able to use public assistance programs like SNAP, TANF, and EITC as a means to end. She’s now self-sufficient after finishing school and landing a full-time job, and is now able to care for herself and her family. Her story isn’t unique, however. She’s just one of the people brave enough to share her story with Half in 10’s “Our American Story Project.”

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and as a young girl I was raised by my mother. We had our share of struggles but I was always a good student and very bright so I had high hopes of a much better future for myself and the family I would start some day. I fell madly in love with my high school sweetheart. He went away to military after graduation from high school and shortly after that we decided to get married. We had my daughter and everything was fine until he was discharged from the military and the marriage started to go south.

Pittsburgh, PA. View from observation deck.

Pittsburgh, PA. View from observation deck.

Even in the midst of a troubling marriage I tried to put myself through school while supporting my family with a part-time job and food stamps. I soon saw myself become a victim of domestic violence and fleeing my marriage for safety. After finding my way through all the legalities of domestic violence and divorce I found myself raising my daughter all alone. I ended up having to drop out of school to put my life back together.

Without the help of AFDC (now TANF), food stamps and childcare I honestly don’t know where I would be today. My mother was not able to offer me any financial assistance and I did not have any other family to help. Through the help I received from AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, utility assistance and childcare I was able to get my life back on track. I finished my education and started working as a welfare advocate for a public policy advocacy organization 11 years ago to ensure that other women like myself are able to get a hand up just like I did all those years ago.

Although I have worked full time for many years now, I have relied on the support from Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance and EITC for my family. Without those supports my children would be uninsured and undernourished and in deep poverty. No one wants to struggle but life sometimes takes unexpected turns and when this happens people just need a hand up to help get them back on the right track.

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