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Getting By on Crayon Money
Diana Moreno
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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 my twin and I came into the picture.

She came to New York when she was 14 years old. I believe she was alone. I think her mom sent her-I don't know. I don't really get into the history of my grandma's life.

All I know is that she knew no one and spoke no English. She had nowhere to go and she was too young to work.

When she was 15, she had my aunt Lucy. Then she had my aunt Carmen, then my mom, followed by Luis, Edwin and lastly the baby Marisol (yes-all from the same man-my grandpa).

He was in the picture, kind of. He gave a couple of dollars but it never covered the bills or the needs of this household.

Raising Six Kids Single-Handedly

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 Didn't Want Anyone's Pity

I didn't want to be the butt of anyone's nasty jokes. And I didn't want to look at someone who knew about my situation and see the pity in their eyes.

Besides, I hated knowing that my family had to rely on the government for help. I guess I worried about what it said about us.

I really started to feel ashamed of being on welfare when I got to junior high.

I know there were a lot of kids on welfare that attended this junior high school. But they had designer clothes by Guess, Kani, Nautica, Polo.

'I Don't Mess With That Paper Money'

To top it off, 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.

Maybe their parents didn't mind trying to make ends meet as long as their kids looked jig.

They laughed when accused that 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 like them.

I didn't want to act like that.

I Dreaded the Supermarket Stares

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.

She used to make fun of me for being such a little coward.

I hated going grocery shopping at the local supermarket the most. 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 have to count them-the paper so dry-and pull them from their books, then wait for the cashier to count it like 10 times over.

I always wanted to fall through a black hole in the floor.

image by Jacob Reinstein

'Hey, They Don't Know Me'

But when I would go see my mom in the Bronx, I would go in the stores with this mean face and roll my eyes like I was in a rush.

I would quickly give 'em the stamps and be on my way with my packages. I would think, "Hey they don't know me. Who cares?"

Besides, most of the people I saw buying groceries paid in food stamps. My mom lives in the projects so I guess I felt more comfortable because I assumed that the tenants were on welfare.

As I got older, though, I slowly began to feel less ashamed. Maybe it's because I just got older and didn't care that much what people thought about me anymore.

Also, 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.

Sometimes Being On Welfare Is a Big Relief

I began to see that my grandma really needed welfare to help us live. Without government aid, we would barely be making it.

Being on welfare helps us pay for really important things-like when you receive a hospital bill of $350 just for sitting in the emergency waiting room and the nurse takes your temp and pulse-you know that Medicaid covers it and it's a big "whoosh" of relief past your lips.

And what's great is that when I go to college, it'll give me a boost in the financial aid department.

I also began to see that it was not my fault that my family is on welfare. And as I became more independent, I began to feel like I could change things in my life and I wouldn't always have to be on welfare.

Welfare's good when plans fall through and you're in a real money bind and can't support yourself. It's good to know the government doesn't mind helping out for a while.

Welfare Can Also Tie You Down

But living with welfare also kind of ties you down. You can get so used to it that you look at welfare as "the back up plan."

I don't want to be a high school dropout who thinks she can relax and just get by on welfare.

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.

I was proud to be working and making my own money for the things that I craved.

Food Stamps Buy Me Food When My Tummy Screams, 'Feed Me'

But working at the store also made me see just how many people needed welfare to help them get by.

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 customers just kept coming and coming, and the majority of them paid in food stamps.

It helped seeing how many other people were in the same position as my family. I stopped looking at my situation with so much shame.

I'm not ashamed to shop with food stamps-it buys me food when my tummy screams out "Feed Me."

I still tend to feel a little weird about welfare, but just a little. I guess that's why I'm independent and like to work when I can find a job.

I hope that when I'm older and I have gotten a college degree, I'll be well off and independent.

Kids almost always grow up believing that they're going to be somebody someday. They have it in their minds to succeed. And I have the same belief.

I don't want to be a permanent couch potato always boo-hooing that my life sucks because I never went out to try and make something of it.

It Shouldn't Be Shameful to Be Poor

But I know that it is possible that my life might take some unexpected turns. I know too many people who that's happened to not to wonder if it could happen to me, too.

That's true of everyone. Some people have rich families to fall back on. Others don't. They need help, too.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's nothing to be ashamed of about having financial problems, or being on welfare, as long as you use it, don't abuse it.

A lot of people need help out there-I know that.

Welfare has helped me a lot, and I hope it will keep helping me-until I don't need it anymore.

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(NYC-1999-01-14)




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