It Happened To Me Contest Entry: How I Went From Welfare To Work And What I Learned On The Way

It did take a long time to finally start earning a living wage. Much longer than I had anticipated. Moving from welfare to work didn’t happen overnight. It took years.

Jan 28, 2013 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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By Kezia Willingham

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One sultry August day when I was 22 years old, my whole life changed the moment I found out I was pregnant. 

Just a week earlier, I’d broken up with my boyfriend after I discovered he was addicted to crack, and that most of everything he ever told me was a lie. Since he’d made up so much, I didn’t know which parts were true and which weren’t. When he told me he loved me, did he mean it, or was it just a game?

That young man, with his espresso-colored eyes and that warm, mahogany skin, gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life at the same time he left me with a permanent inability to trust anything, or anyone, at face value ever again. 

That summer day I sat in a creaky white wicker chair in an old Victorian house, secretly hoping that I really was growing a baby inside me. When the middle-aged woman called me back, I had to watch a video about developing fetuses in exchange for the free test.

I knew my secret desire was irrational.  

Young and unmarried, I only had a GED, a part-time job, and rented a room in a big old house with four male roommates.  

I didn’t have a driver’s license, a mortgage or money in the bank.

It was 1996, the year that welfare reform was enacted and the ill effects of single motherhood raged on the nightly news. 

Why in the world should I want to have a baby?

In that electrifying moment when I learned I was pregnant, it was like the old, young me dissipated and I was filled with both anticipation and dread at the prospect of becoming a mother.  

My mom and my best friend handled the news well and said they would support whatever decision I made after I confessed the truth.  

Everyone else told me to have an abortion.  

My mentor waged a pro-abortion campaign. She enlisted two of my former high school teachers, both of whom convinced me that choosing to have the baby would ruin not only my life, but my innocent baby’s as well. After all, I was poor and single. The baby would be biracial. The baby’s dad would end up in prison or dead. Our lives would be nothing but misery.  

These women were educated and professional. They were older than me. They had teenaged kids, or had had their own abortions when they were young. They knew more than I did. One of the teachers offered to pay for me to have an abortion.  

So I called and scheduled an appointment at a clinic. I asked an ex to drive me. 

While he initially, reluctantly, agreed to do so, at the last minute he couldn’t go through with it and backed out.

I never made it to the abortion clinic. 

That was 15 years ago.

Today I am the proud mother of one of the most beautiful teenagers you’ll ever meet. She’s not only physically gorgeous, but smart as hell, too. She is wise beyond her years. She’s sassy and opinionated. She can make me laugh like no one else, and is, simply, one of my favorite people on this planet. 

I look back to that time when I was young and filled more with uncertainty than confidence. I realize that at the same time I gave birth to my daughter, a fierce determination was born within me: a desire so profound that I would do anything to build a good life for my baby. I didn’t know then how long it would take, or really even what I was up against, in an earnest attempt to blast my way into the middle class and leave the constraints of poverty behind.

I was on welfare when I first became a mother. And, yes, I had a plan to get off as soon as I could.

When my little baby was three months old, I got a case management job in a domestic violence shelter that paid $7.00 an hour. It allowed me to meet welfare work requirements and gain valuable experience, but it was not enough to move forward financially. Every morning when I dropped her off at daycare, my baby cried. My already broken heart shattered again and again on a daily basis. 

When baby-girl was one year old, I decided to apply to college again. I’d been a junior when I got pregnant but had dropped out because of the drama with her father. I needed to come to terms with all the changes in my life. So I took an Americorps position at a domestic violence shelter in the middle of my pregnancy.

I decided to go back to school because I wanted to make more money to provide a better life for my daughter, but I also wanted to do more to help women like me -- women who had good intentions but found themselves in bad circumstances. I knew that as a case manager I would continue to watch women come into the shelter in a never-ending cycle. I was there to help, but was unable to change the system.  

Finishing college would allow me to achieve both of my goals: find a career that paid a living wage and one day find a position that might do more than just bear witness to the cycle of domestic violence and poverty.

I will never forget the day I hauled my daughter’s stroller up an ancient flight of stairs to meet with my advisor in what was then the college of Home Economics and Education.  

“How are you going to do well in school and take care of a baby on your own?” she asked, her look of skepticism daunting a fragile belief in myself.  

I didn’t know how I would do it, but I knew I had to try. It seemed like everyone around me was asking the same question,

“You know, college is a lot of work and babies need a lot of attention. How are you going to be a mother and a college student?”

The more people questioned my ability, the more I was determined to show them that I could. Success became my new way of saying fuck you to the world. In the past, before becoming a mother, I might have spent a night drowning my sorrows in a few too many drinks, or telling myself over and over how stupid I was.

Now, instead, the more people expected me to fail, the more my determination to succeed grew. Books and papers took the place of self-harm and negative self-talk.

Three years later I graduated with honors. I received a number of academic awards and scholarships. The most treasured of which was the 2001 OSU Student Mom of the Year Award. 

It did take a long time to finally start earning a living wage. Much longer than I had anticipated.  

I obtained my master’s degree in 2005. 

Today I work full time for an educational program that serves children and families with low-incomes. Since I joined the management team, I have finally earned enough to not quality for food stamps or housing assistance.

Moving from welfare to work didn’t happen overnight. It took years. 

I could have taken any low-wage position. According to welfare regulations, it would have been acceptable. They don’t care what job you get, as long as you get one. But I wanted a career, not just a job. I wanted health and retirement benefits and a consistent daytime schedule.  

Today I have that career, that schedule and those benefits.  

I haven’t changed the world, or the system. But I have shown my daughter that education can improve your life. I am living proof that hard work and dedication can, in the long run, help you achieve your goals.

I think back to that time when I was so young and vulnerable. I wanted people to support my decisions, to tell me how I could do this, instead of how I couldn’t. Those people made me feel like a piece of crap when what I really needed was encouragement. As a result, I questioned my own value as a human being.  

The lessons I learned from that experience, though, are invaluable:

A woman’s choice to have a child, or not, should be supported and respected because it is her decision to make and she will live with the consequences.

Single parents can go to school and be good parents, too, but they need support in order to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Trust your own intuition. You know what is right for you, and what isn’t. 

Life is not easy and there are no quick answers.  

Hard work does pay off, over time, and success is the best revenge. Especially when it just becomes a way of life.

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