Kids’ Quill: The Pressures of Poverty

May 1, 2000

The American Economy is booming, and many people say we've never had it better. But that's not so for many of the kids served by youth workers. These two teens look at the pressures of poverty in their lives.

Doing What It Takes To Survive

by Dean Torres

What does it take to put food on the table, put clothes on your back, and keep a roof over your head? What would you do if you couldn’t get a good job: sell drugs, go on welfare, or try to find a minimum wage job like McDonald’s that pays $5 an hour?

I think a lot about how I’m going to support myself.

For some of my friends, the easiest way to earn decent money is by hustling, so that’s what they do. If they don’t hustle, it seems like the only option is a dead-end job. It doesn’t help that places like Burger King and McDonald’s pay $5.15 an hour. The minimum wage should be a least $6 or $7 an hour.

I know a few people who are or used to be on welfare. Tricia, who used to live in the Bronx, decided to go on welfare because she thought she had no other options. She had no job to support her kids or herself, and she was hanging out with the wrong crowd. They encouraged her to take drugs, and, to support her kids and her habit, she started dealing, too. Tricia was also purposely getting pregnant so that she could get more money from the welfare department. Now she has seven kids.

Things got so bad that her kids were taken away from her and put into foster homes. Tricia’s home was no place for any child to live. It was a rat-infested, one-bedroom apartment with no heat and broken windows. It looked like an abandoned apartment with people still living in it.

But when she realized her kids were really gone, Tricia woke up and decided that she had to get her life together. She found herself some help through a friend, who got her into a rehab program. After searching for months, she finally found a decent job, starting at $8 an hour. Tricia got custody of her kids back and now she is living in North Carolina, working at an even better job.

Unfortunately, I see other people following in her footsteps, not realizing which path they are walking down. My friend we call Venom (because he’s supposed to be deadly) started dealing drugs about three years ago, and has already been in and out of jail. But he has no plans to stop. He does his street pharmacy to take care of himself, his girlfriend, and his one-year-old daughter.

“It’s hard finding a job,” he claims, but I don’t think he’s ever tried looking for one. The problem with Venom is that he tries to find the easy way out of things all the time.

The mother of his daughter, Keeshia, is working to support herself and the baby, and she’s not happy with what Venom is doing. They had a big argument about that, but to Venom, dealing is his career and his life. For him, this is the only way to survive. Kids in my neighborhood feel like selling drugs is their best option, since looking for a job didn’t work for a lot of people they know.

I think my friends need to take responsibility for their lives by staying in school and away from drugs. But I also think the government can do more to help poor people.

The government should do a better job providing child care so mothers can go back to work, and should work harder to help the unemployed find jobs that pay enough to actually support a family. When I look at people like Tricia and Venom, it makes me sad and angry at the same time.

Sad for them and mad at the world, because people know what’s going on in these poor communities and it seems like nobody helps. But when poor people do something wrong — like selling drugs or abusing welfare — everyone gets upset, even though they know our situation and make no effort to give us the help that we need the most.

© New Youth Connections, New York

Getting By on Crayon Money

by Diana Moreno

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 I came into the picture. 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 hated knowing that my family had to rely on the government for help. I guess I was worried about what it said about us.

I really started to feel ashamed when I got to junior high. I know there were a lot of kids on welfare who attended the school. 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.

They laughed when anyone said 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.

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.

I hated going grocery shopping at the local supermarket. 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 always wanted to fall through a black hole in the floor.

As I got older, though, I slowly began to feel less ashamed. 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. I began to see that my grandma really needed welfare to help us live. Without government aid, we would be barely making it. I also began to see that it was not my fault that my family is on welfare. I began to feel like I could change things in my life. 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. 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 majority of them paid in food stamps. It helped seeing how many other people were in the same position as my family.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you have financial problems, or are on welfare, as long as you use it, don’t abuse it. Welfare has helped me a lot, and I hope it will keep helping me — until I don’t need it anymore.

© New Youth Connections, New York

Torres, Dean. "Doing What it Takes to Survive." Youth Today, May 2000, p. 21.

Moreno, Diana. "Getting By on Crayon Money." Youth Today, May 2000, p. 21.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.