Since its inception, President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which limited public assistance to needy families, has garnered two sides of debate: those who believe that recipients are glorified Welfare Queens, and those who argue that the poorest Americans are, in fact, hard workers who stumbled upon hard times.
Defenses can be made on either side. The truth is that there are some for whom welfare became a generational inheritance. Others simply need help to dig themselves out of a hole.
Anika Berry agrees with both sides. She should know. At 33, she found herself a college educated welfare recipient with limited resources and an overabundance of worries.
Her story is simple; it contains no public housing, no fatherless plights. In fact, just a few years ago, Berry was a married homemaker raising four children, a member of the PTA who had dreams of returning to college to finish her degree once her children were older.
But that life was as secretly poisonous as the evil Queen’s apple for Snow White.
A mere year after she married, Berry found herself entrenched in a tornado of fists, bound by the silence that pervades the logic of a victim of domestic violence.
The day she lost her tooth to a brawl was the day she knew she had to run.
Without a home, income, or resources she found herself a statistic, a stereotype; it was the lowest she has felt. She was forced to apply for assistance.
“I went to college. I’m not a dummy,” said Berry. “But these people, they’re supposed to help you, but all they do is sit in judgment, assuming you just don’t want to work.”
Depression followed, as did symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a little recognized result of domestic violence.
Still, she attended the trainings required of her, even though many were well beneath her educational aptitude.
She got a job teaching a summer daycare class where she planned daily lessons and single-handedly wrote the curriculum for a preschool class of 23.
For her efforts, the church daycare rewarded her with minimum wage.
“They knew I was from the program,” she said of her former employers. “They treated me like I didn’t know I was worth more than they paid me, like I should have been grateful to them for underpaying me.”
Had she made it to her 90th day on the job, she would have qualified for assistance to get a vehicle, which would have narrowed her three-hour bus commute to and from work down to 30 minutes.
On the 89th day, one before she would have qualified to apply for unemployment, her employer fired her, citing an hour loss on a day when her son had had a mild asthma attack.
She hit the streets again, this time interviewing with a higher paying afterschool care program.
Then time ran out. Her benefits were revoked, her assistance cut and her child support siphoned to repay the TANF she received.
She now finds herself close to a dead end. Awaiting word from a hiring manager, she struggles to find ways to pay her rent and bills, often resorting to plasma sales when she can find no other way to make ends meet.
In her last month at her current residence, with no income or transportation, and no way to afford daycare, Berry said she wishes that the government would regulate the program.
“I’m a prime example of when ‘welfare-to-work,’ doesn’t.”