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Lessons I’ve Learned being Poor


We hear all the time about the welfare state, and the generations of people living on welfare, etc.  And being a conservative, that has always driven me batty.  “I’m working my butt off to support my family with no assistance, and these people who are perfectly capable for working, just sit on their butts and collect a check which I worked for.” –has been my attitude on it.  And this even coming from a social work background.

Now I certainly know that there are people who truly need the assistance, they cannot work or what they can do would not be able to support them.  I get that.  But having been in and around the social work field since the early 90s, I can promise you that this is not the majority of welfare recipients.

But now I am one of those people.  We are receiving SNAP (food stamps) and Medicare.  I do not qualify for any other assistance due to the adoption assistance for the twins…$1372 per month. (This number is public knowledge and every state sets their own rates, you can read more about in on the NACAC website.)

It was a VERY humbling experience to apply and have an in person interview for these services to be awarded.  I had to prove everything…my kids, my income, my bills, my job loss, my bank balances, etc.  I am not sure I have every felt so much shame and failure.  But I had to do it, I have four children to take care of.  And the only way I got through it was by telling myself – I have paid into this system since I was 15 years old AND this is not a long term solution, just short term assistance.  But frankly, I am so embarrassed to go buy groceries and have to use the SNAP card.  And while I pray that embarrassment never goes away as that is certainly a lesson in and of itself for me, I am educating our children at the same time and teaching them not to judge people in these situations, as I have for so long.

Needless, to say, we cannot live on $1372 per month, especially when rent on our 2 bedroom, 900 square foot apartment is $1435 per month.  So I’m having to continually seek additional assistance (in addition to my job search, odd job, etc.)  And it’s in seeking this assistance that I have learned ALOT about this “system” of ours.

I don’t want to write a book here and I could not about my experiences the last couple of months, I do want to give you some highlights.  And maybe some food for thought as you think of your charity choices.

  1. EVERY SINGLE place I’ve applied for help has turned me down.  The most common reason…I haven’t received an eviction notice.  Something is wrong with this picture to me.  So you want a single mom of four to be put out on the street before you step in?
  2. YOU CANNOT BE RESPONSIBLE and receive assistance.  I did not buy my kids Christmas presents. Every dime I get, I put toward bills.  We ate ramen for most of the month of December SO that we could have a great Christmas dinner.  Yes, that might have been my receipt with a couple of steaks at Christmas time…but if you looked at the rest of the month it was sandwiches and ramen.  So when I’ve gone to get help, don’t have an eviction notice and my utilities are just a week or so late…yup, no assistance for you.
  3. NO ONE EATS expired or weird types of food.  We have been blessed beyond measure with food.  Thanksgiving basket from a church, turkey from our neighbor and boxes and boxes of cranberry sauce and yams.  I am so guilty of this.  When one of my kids activities required a canned food drive, I would find whatever we wouldn’t use in our pantry, no matter how long it had been there and send it.  Gross!  Now I have received those foods.  My kids won’t eat them, I won’t eat them.  So when you are going to give to a food pantry, give them money…they can buy fresh food, food that people will actually eat.  I have a big box in the back of my car of food to donate…because we don’t eat it.  But I hesitate to send it back because I hate for another family to get a whole box of cranberry sauce and yams!
  4. IT IS REALLY HARD to get ahead and by ahead I mean paying your bills on time or at least on time enough not to accrue late fees, when you can only get help when you are SO far behind.  Since I’ve known I had this part time job for months now, I also knew that if I got to my start date being so far behind on bills, I would NEVER catch up.  And while I knew I wouldn’t make enough to cover all the bills, but I figured I would be able to at least “borrow from paul to pay larry and vice versa every month.)  Do you get what I’m saying?  But if I am even one day late on my rent, there is a fee of over $400 added on.  And with other bills the fee ranges from $5-25.  So I knew I needed to stay as current as possible.  And by the grace of God, awesome friends and community and family assistance, thus far I’m pretty close to on time (4 bills currently in arrears, 2 due to dog bite medical treatment/insurance fiasco,) but I know not everyone in my situation can.  So if you want to help someone who is struggling, don’t give them “stuff” or gift cards and I know most don’t want to give money…but you can, absolutely can, pay a bill for them.  It won’t take too much time out of your day to make a phone call or take them to a payment center and pay it.  No expectations, no strings, just pay it.

I won’t keep preaching.  But I can tell you this, I have changed significantly since starting my BAD journey a couple of years ago now. But these last months have made a forever imprint on my life and my attitudes, I have learned so much about the populations that I have wanted to serve my whole life.  And I have learned so much about the systems, they are dealing with, I am dealing with.  When I am through this phase in my life, I can promise that I will be paying it forward like a crazy person AND more importantly I will work to help improve the systems/services that are supposed to be “helping” these communities.  I think for the most part, they are just holding them down…the responsible ones that is. And I promise you there is more than just me that falls into that latter category!

I know the holidays are over and I know this is a debt pay off blog, but I will tell you this, if you are reading this, there are others who are a whole lot worse off then you.  I challenge you to reach out, lend a hand, even during your payoff journey. 


  • Reply Denise |

    You have nothing to be embarrassed for. Your situation is the exact reason we have social programs. It is a shame so many people have learned to scam the system over the years that when families legitimately need the help, they feel bad accepting it.

    As for canned cranberry sauce and yams… those are two of my favorite things! Here’s an easy recipe that might make those items more enjoyable to you. Mix one can of yams, one can of cranberry sauce (whole berry is best), and chopped apple (canned or even apple pie filling is fine) together and then put in a 350 degree oven until everything is hot. It makes a great side dish, especially for chicken or turkey.

    • Reply Hope |

      Hey Denise,
      Thank you for the words of encouragement. I will have to try this recipe as we certainly have our weight in yams and cranberry sauce right now along with powdered potatoes and powdered milk.

  • Reply Ashley |

    This is seriously powerful, Hope! I feel moved! And, I echo Denise’s sentiment that you have nothing to be embarrassed of! You are EXACTLY the type of family I would want financial assistance money going toward (and it’s a crying shame that the system doesn’t give more when you literally don’t even have enough to cover rent). YOU/YOUR FAMILY are who the system was originally designed for. As you mention, that’s not the way things have worked out in practice….but you should feel no shame in asking for help when its needed in a temporary situation. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    • Reply Hope |

      Thank you, Ashley, it has definitely been a humbling and eye opening experience. I will never look at welfare recipients the same.

  • Reply Taira |

    Hope you have nothing to be ashamed of. I have been reading this blog for a few months and you have always been an inspiration in more ways than one. I am sure that you opening up about your tribulations here have helped others. You are doing what you need to do to make sure your children are taken care of. You are using the system appropriately and should realize that that makes those who abuse the system look that much more shameful. Maybe you should use your background to find a job working in the system somewhere to help others like you and to help fix the system, Just a thought.

    • Reply Hope |

      I would love to find a way to “fix” the system that from my experience definitely holds people back rather than helps then get back on their feet. Thanks for your encouragement, I am so grateful for this outlet!

  • Reply Judi |

    You are providing for your children and fighting as hard as you can. There is no shame in this! While I’m sorry for this terrible trial, it’s a blessing you’re willing to share your story to help others overcome harsh judgement of welfare recipients. Thank you for being open at this difficult time I can’t imagine how hard this has all been.

    My husband is an attorney at a nonprofit that provides legal aid to those in need, and I tutor girls from welfare families during the summers to get them interested in STEM fields. The conditions/ circumstances that led these families to seek assistance always amazes me, and it’s humbling to know that anyone could face these choices. Without family support everyone is at risk with a medical emergency, prolonged illness, job loss, or even an accident. Alternatively, if it seems like they “chose” these conditions there are survival stories that are heart wrenching many come from abusive homes or escape from slavery (prostitution, etc). Without a support system or a foundation to cope they are left to figure life out, the people who do escape these conditions are exceptional and should be praised not used to judge those struggling.

    I am praying for you and cheering you on. You are a warrior and you will rise above these hard times. You have so much grit it’s astounding and you are passing on this powerful trait to your kids in this struggle.

    • Reply Joanna |

      I agree. As a public defender, I see the cycle of poverty and how difficult it is to escape it. With a situation that may seem like the person is taking advantage of the system, it’s just as likely the person can’t get a job or a steady place to live in the first place. Even with your skill set, Hope, it’s taken you months to find just a part time job. Now imagine if you didn’t have marketable skills! Imagine what that kind of hopelessness would do to a person. Yes, there are ways the system can and should improve, but blankety stating that most people are scamming the system is a pretty irresponsible statement and I was shocked to hear that from you, given your current situation and how easily you fell into it. It just goes to show that most of us are one paycheck, one emergency, one tragedy from financial hardship.

      • Reply Hope |

        I was trying to say that that statement WAS my perception and NOW I am one of those people and it’s changed my perspective quite a bit. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear.
        But I do still believe that many people having been one myself, see welfare recipients that way, and I wanted to show how my experience has and is changing my perception.

    • Reply Hope |

      Exactly! It’s hard when you are looking in from the outside and just seeing those monies come out of your salary to understand what it’s truly like to be in the system. My whole perspective has changed significantly now that I am here.
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and words of encouragement. I definitely want to encourage my children to be the change we want to see in this world.

  • Reply CanadianKate |

    Your comment about not getting assistance if you are responsible resonates with me. Thirty years ago, I did daycare for a very poor family. They lived in a hovel. Their combined income was enough to pay me, have a car and drive from a crappy roadside motel on the outskirts of town to my suburban home to drop off the preschooler. Their apartment was in the basement of the hotel, had water weeping through the walls and was a cringe-worthy. For that they paid the same as a nice place, but nice places weren’t week-to-week and required first and last month’s rent up front. There was no social service that would get them out that hovel because all they needed was the equivalent of a loan for 2 months rent. Instead, when I inquired on their behalf (they were too proud to do so) I was told they had to go onto a waiting list for subsidized housing but because they weren’t homeless, they would be low on the priority list (i.e. years before anything would happen.)

    I let them pay me because they didn’t want charity, they just needed help. I’d bathe the preschooler for them because she was terrified of the shower in the place. I’d go pick her up because that saved them gas and time. I didn’t have older children than her so couldn’t help with hand-me-downs but any other way I could help I would.

    They would pass on a eating themselves in order to make sure there was food for her and I made sure she was well fed and sent her ‘leftovers’ home with her. This was before the internet and I gave them my day-old newspapers so they could search for better jobs. A neighbour commented that if they were out of work, a newspaper should be a priority. I pointed out that a week of newspapers added up to a week of milk for the preschooler.

    Eventually, they found their way into a garden home by co-renting with a co-worker who covered the first and last month rent. So I lost touch with them then. I knew they’d be OK though, because they were incredibly hard workers who didn’t give up.

    But why, oh why, cannot the system be designed to give hands-up, instead of just hands-out?

    • Reply Hope |

      I love that…a Hand Up instead of a Hand Out! That is exactly what I see being here now. I really appreciate you sharing your experience and the hope that it provides that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Just takes baby steps and not giving up!

  • Reply Den |

    You are amazing Hope! Thank you for sharing this story. Keep your chin up – you have nothing to be ashamed of, but much to be proud of!!

    • Reply Hope |

      Thank you, Den! I am certainly trying, choosing my attitude sometimes seems the only control I have right now so being hopeful and positive definitely makes a difference!

  • Reply Anon |

    I think way more conversations like this need to happen, so I think it’s great you’re putting this out there. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors (including the stressful timing!) many people in these situations aren’t able to share the realities of their experiences.

    I also wanted to share – if you have yams or sweet potatoes and cut them up like fries put a little oil and salt and bake them and they are delicious. We sometimes add cheese on top near the end of baking for sweet potato or yam cheese fries, but just baked are a very cheap, healthy and delicious meal or side.

    • Reply Hope |

      Ooooh, kind of like sweet potato fries and with cheese, now this I will have to try! Thank you for your encouragement and the idea of what to do with all these yams!

  • Reply Jay |

    Good luck and I hear what you are saying about not being able to climb out once you are behind. Unfortunately, the very poorest of us pay the highest rates in terms of borrowing money, paying higher fees, etc. Thanks also for the thoughts on gift giving to the needy. I an definitely guilty of putting miscellaneous cans of food into the food pantry, and they probably end up with tons of cheaper can items and not nearly enough fresh and meat items.

    • Reply Hope |

      I have definitely been convicted through this experience of how I gave/helped those less fortunate, specifically when it comes to food. I’m glad that resonates with others. It just takes the word getting out as I believe many do not think from the recipient’s point of view…I certainly never did.

  • Reply Marzey doats |

    May I suggest that readers consider supporting one of my favorite charities “modest needs”? These are exactly the situations that this charity tries to address – hard working people who have an extraordinary expense. Instead of falling behind and getting evicted, Modest Needs helps them keep their home or car, and stay employed and productive. Check it out Hope, they may be able to help with the medical bill. And anyone else, consider donating. Im not affiliated in any way, just a fan.

  • Reply Katie |

    Still sounds pretty judgemental when you start saying the majority of welfare recipients don’t really need the assistance or could work, your entire second paragraph. You’ve put your life out here, and let’s face it, you’ve made some decisions that we’ve all questioned too. You haven’t walked in anyone else’s shoes, and you really don’t know their struggles. So, maybe a little more charity. Sheesh.

    • Reply amy |

      I agree, you don’t know anyone’s story and that was a VERY judgmental thing to say that perpetuates a lot of the stigma surrounding needing help. There are a lot of people that end up in incredibly dangerous situations because of that stigma and refusing to accept help they need, let’s use your experience as a way of disillusioning people of it.

    • Reply Jen From Boston |

      I agree. Hope, I was pretty shocked and dismayed at the level of judgment that came through in this post.

      Welcome to the cycle of poverty. If you were born into this cycle, and if you didn’t have a family that could keep you on the straight and narrow, just think about how much harder it would be to climb out. You even have a college degree!!! Add to this the shame you feel. Imagine feeling that shame and judgment from others your entire life. Add to that being turned down for assistance. After a decade or two of that your self-esteem might be so worn down you give up and “scam the system.” Well, my beef with the system is that it builds in incentives to game it!!

      And don’t get me started on donating expired or gross food to the food pantry….

    • Reply Adam |

      I’m really sad about this comment thread. Hope is at the end of her rope and doing all she can. And I didn’t read the post as judgmental, but rather that Hope has previously been judgmental but is going through a time that is changing her perspective. That has happened to me so many times in my life. You feel a certain way about something until you go through it yourself, then you change your mind completely. The title of the post is “lessons learned.” Its a powerful read and I am glad Hope opened up about it.

      I hope she doesn’t put any stock in these few comments because they all really come across as kicking someone while they are down. This handful of commenters should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Reply Angie |

      Wow come on. Really you are all so perfect that you’ve never had the thought cross your mind before? Or a similar thought on another issue (drugs, homelessness, convicted criminals, etc.)? Of course you all are so perfect that you never make assumptions about anyone ever….. I’d like to see you all open up about your PERSONAL thoughts on a public forum. Political correctness is so out of hand these days.

    • Reply Hope |

      Just to clarify..the second paragraph actually says that I know there are people who truly need long term assistance because they can’t work or the work they can do won’t support them….but I also know that the majority of recipients do not fall into these two categories. I believe they fall into two others…1) those like me who are trying to be responsible/want to be responsible and for whatever reason can’t at any given time (lost job, illness, death of provider and many more) and 2) those who are gaming the system.
      This statement is made after almost 20 years in and and around the social world field in some form or fashion. I have certainly contributed to my own demise, I’m not excusing my own actions. The point of this post was to show how my perspective has changed on welfare recipients since becoming one myself.

  • Reply Joe |

    I too didn’t appreciate the quite judgmental aspects of this post, nor do I agree. The idea that the majority of welfare recipients are “gaming the system” is a pernicious lie that has no support in any reputable study.
    I’m sure that Hope means well, but it’s so clear from her own circumstance how difficult it can be to catch up once you get behind — as Jay notes above, when you don’t have money in this country you even end up having to pay through the nose to do anything — whether it’s fees, sky high interest rates, etc. It makes perfect sense (from the pure math) and no sense (it’s a self-perpetuating cycle) at the same time!

    • Reply Hope |

      I never said or meant to say that the majority of welfare recipients are “gaming the system.” I said the majority do not fall into the category of being wholly unable to work or support themselves for whatever reason.

      • Reply Joe |

        In that case, I withdraw my comment about the “judgmental aspects of the post”. Thank you for the clarification!

      • Reply Jen From Boston |

        Thank you for the clarification. The way it’s worded in the post it could go either way, and obviously many of us got a meaning that wasn’t intended.

        Having said that, I DO agree with you that the system ends up penalizing those who want to support themselves but just aren’t there yet.

  • Reply Sandra |

    Hope, have you considered signing up with several temporary agencies? You seem to be computer savvy and might be able to get work in that way. You need to sign up with several in order to get the most jobs, as a number of companies sign exclusive contracts with agencies to fill their needs. Would this impact your home schooling? Is there any way you could transfer your children into another home schooling system or even regular school, since it is still the beginning of the semester and thus free up your days? Also, are there any faith-based food pantries in your area? I think you have to sign up through United Way at the pantry, but they might be able to help with the groceries and sometimes rent and utilities. Good luck!

    • Reply Hope |

      Thankfully, we are not short on food at all. We had to re-arrange our typical month a bit but with SNAP of $569 per month and us used to living on $600 per month for the past year for groceries…we didn’t have to give up too much.
      Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective, it was the United Way who first said to me “you must have an eviction notice before we can help you.” And in our county, not sure about others, all the faith based are tied into the same system with the United Way so has become a party line. And other than a tank of gas, I have received no assistance at this point from any organized group which I thought were meant to help in these types of situations.

  • Reply Consuelo |

    I have mixed feelings about this post. First, I wish you and your family the very best Hope–the programs you refer to are SUPPOSED to help people who fall on hard times as you have, even if part of the reason is poor choices, and, as you’ve admitted, you’ve made a few of those too. Second, I wish we were not living through a time in this country when so many people feel free to judge others so harshly…I think almost all of us make bad choices at one time or another. The big difference is usually whether or not there is a helpful safety net (often family) that can help when times are bad. I highly recommend two fairly new movies that put this issue into perspective: “99 Homes” and “The Big Short”. Yes, many poor people have exercised poor judgement, but larger forces are often at work too that have worked to the distinct disadvantage of many.

    • Reply Hope |

      Hi Consuelo,

      I totally agree with you. My poor financial choices have definitely led me here in many ways. On the flip side, a system that should be used to help people get back on their feet, really, in my opinion, forces them further down. It’s a catch 22 and arguments can be made for both sides.
      I will definitely check the movies out – thanks for the recommendations!

  • Reply Jen From Boston |

    One quick tip/thought about food pantries – it’s a good idea to check with the pantry if there are any non-food items needed that they will distribute, e.g., toothbrushes, soap, etc. Also, check if ethnic food items are needed. In some cities and towns there may immigrant families that need food assistance, and being able to use ingredients from their culture would be helpful. Plus, they’d know how to cook it whereas a box of mac & cheese might be puzzling, and even gross if their native diet is low on fat.

    • Reply Hope |

      Excellent suggestion! One of our favorite receipts was a box of lentils in some sort of sauce. Most likely an Indian meal which we received a case of. Vegetarian too. It was easy and quick and super nutritious!

  • Reply Adam |

    Hope one idea – I know home school is important to you and your family and I respect it. But it occurred to me that if your kids were in public school, they’d probably get at least free lunch and maybe breakfast.

    Just an idea, maybe a short time of enrollment in public school would help you temporarily?

    • Reply Hope |

      I hear what you are saying. Blessedly, food is the least of my worries! I have been living on a super frugal food budget all of 2015 in order to help pay off debt…right at $600 per month. I qualified for $569 in SNAP benefits, so our food budget really hasn’t changed too much.

      And in my experience, the free food, which all of my previous foster kids were on…well, let’s just say, it left a lot wanting as far as quality, quantity and nutritional value. Sacrificing what I believe is a superb education that they are getting for that is not something I would consider.

      But I do understand and appreciate the thought behind it.

      • Reply Adam |

        Understood. Always an option if it comes down to it. And I’m sure you are right that free/reduced lunch is mostly garbage nutritionally. Even paid school lunch was in my experience.

      • Reply JayP |

        Have you ever considering public education for other reasons as well? I’m sure they get a superior education via homeschool, but it would occur to me that maybe you just can’t do everything(as much as you are surely trying!) Is there any possible scenario where you can work full-time, homeschool, do kids activities, and raise 4 kids as a single parent? If not something would have to give, and that would be my choice – to free up your time for working. That opens up a lot of other possibilities in terms of physical work places versus only virtual. Anyway, best of luck and keep fighting!

        • Reply Hope |

          I will not consider public school for my children. I know many here don’t agree with me and that is a point we are just going to have to agree to disagree. There are things and reasons beyond the scope of this blog in addition to my very firm belief that they are getting a superb education so we will just leave it at that.
          I am currently applying heavily to return to the corporate world which would mean a significant change for our lifestyle and schedules but homeschooling, working and activities would all still be viable.
          And yes, I will never stop fighting to provide for my children in every way.

  • Reply Heather |

    I didn’t take Hope’s post as judgmental, I took it as she was judgmental before, and now she see’s that she was wrong. That she see’s this situation as one she doesn’t like being in, and will do just about anything to get herself and her family out. As to the thought that she did this to herself, that is just not true. We all don’t make the best choices 100% of the time, that is how we learn from our mistakes.

    I think she is doing fine, and applaud her efforts to keep herself and her family above water.

    • Reply Hope |

      Thank you, Heather, I’m glad some readers saw what I hoped to say…where I was before in my beliefs and where I am now. There is certainly a big difference between the two.

      I appreciate your support!

  • Reply Brownie |

    Hope thanks for posting your experiences! It’s amazing how fast financial situations can change. You are doing a wonderful job as a mom and I love how you are talking to your children and turning this into a lesson of learning. I grew up on food stamps and know the shame that is causes. Like you said, it is short term, and I’m so glad you applied and are now receiving food assistance. It’s hard finding a new job and I admire how hard you are working on finding one.

    • Reply Hope |

      Thank you, Brownie. Searching for jobs sure has changed since I last was in the typical workforce, but I’m doing my best! Thank you for sharing your story. This experience sure has changed my perspective.

  • Reply revdrmd |


    I checked out your website and had a thought. Have you considered teaching online courses full or part-time? There might also be some opportunities at a nearby community college or university. There might be other opportunities in helping students navigate online programs and courses that could be done online or onsite. I know that you value homeschooling so that you are qualified to teach. The usual prerequisite is that one can teach in a program granting a degree lower than the one you have received. Many students need help with technology because it is constantly changing so colleges and universities hire people to help them navigate through the process in computer labs or resource centers.

    • Reply Hope |

      I hadn’t thought about resource centers or computer labs, I will have to check them out. I am currently putting together 3-2 week workshops on different technologies that I am going to be able to offer through our homeschool co op. They are being super supportive and allowing me to waive the typical registration fee for those that are not part…that fee would have made this endeavor cost prohibitive so I’m really grateful! Started putting the schedule and content together today in fact, after running the idea by the powers that be on Tuesday. Great minds!

So, what do you think ?