//This Woman’s Story Will Change the Way You Think About Public Assistance

This Woman’s Story Will Change the Way You Think About Public Assistance

I had a kid… once.

Her name was Averi. She looked like my daughter, but she was my niece.

My sister was unable to care for Averi. It came down to me or foster care. I decided my life was no more important than hers, so the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) granted me temporary custody. At 27, I was suddenly responsible for keeping a 4-year-old alive.

Most parents get months to prepare; I had less than a week.

I made $360 a week, about $18,500 a year. Now, I had to squeeze caring for a child — day care, food, clothes and all those unexpected expenses — out of an already razor-thin budget.

On top of that, I was consumed by grief from losing my own mother that same year.

I kept telling myself I could do this. After all, it was only supposed to be for two months.

My First Days in the Single-Mom Hustle

Averi, who loved to play dress up with their thrift store finds, brushes her teeth before heading to bed. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bolling

My first days as a stand-in mommy presented more questions than my sleep-deprived brain was prepared for: Who was going to watch her while I work? How the hell was I going to afford this?

Luckily, there was a voluntary prekindergarten, or VPK, and day care two blocks from my apartment, and they graciously let me bring Averi by the same evening I picked her up from the DCF.

Averi curiously roamed about the classroom as I quietly explained the situation to the teachers and administrators.

Back in my apartment, we settled into our first night together.

I rolled out an air mattress on the floor of my bedroom. She was required to have her own bed, and an air mattress was the fastest and cheapest solution.

The first day I dropped her off at day care was emotionally taxing for both of us. I cried the entire drive to work.

And once I got there, I could barely focus. I kept thinking through this new set of obligations, commitments and sacrifices I was only beginning to unravel. My mind raced through checklists, appointments and my shoddy finances.

I knew my salary was no match for the expenses of child care. I lived paycheck to paycheck as it was.

Rebekah, my roommate and childhood friend, shouldered the circumstance alongside me. We split rent and utilities, which lowered my core costs considerably. But my credit card debt had nearly doubled since my mom’s death.

My approximate monthly expenses were:

  • Rent payment: $375
  • Car payment: $350
  • Electric bill: $75
  • Internet and cable: $65
  • Car insurance: $115
  • Cell phone: $75
  • Gas: $40
  • Credit card: $200
  • Groceries: $150

Total monthly expenses: $1,445.

My average monthly income: $1,440.

Adding in the cost of caring for Averi took me to a new level of financial anxiety. Trying to map out an impossible budget only made it worse.

It started to suffocate me.

The Maze of Applying for Public Assistance

Averi sleeps on an air mattress inside Bolling’s shared apartment in Dec. 2010 in Tampa, Fla. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bolling

During my first home visit with Averi’s social worker, I reluctantly shared my concerns. I was so scared of losing her to the system.

The social worker urged me to apply for public assistance, which I hadn’t even considered. I had never seen myself ever needing it. But I had to do something.

Asking for help wasn’t in my familial toolbox. My parents always struggled financially, but they rarely ever asked for help. So not taking “charity” was in my blood — from gifts to handouts, I always paid my way even if it secretly broke me.

But I cared more about Averi’s well-being than my dignity. It was too real. I needed the help. Any help.

I had no idea where to begin, so the social worker provided me with a list of all the programs I was eligible for. I dove in headfirst.

I swallowed my pride and signed my name on all the dotted lines I could. Applying for government assistance at 27 years old was my new reality.

School Readiness

The first program that came through was Florida’s School Readiness financial assistance program.

It subsidized the weekly day care costs, so I could continue working without spending most of my salary on child care, like so many parents are forced to do.

After a $125 deposit, I paid $9.20 a week for Averi’s day care.

She attended VPK in the morning and an after-school program within the same building after. I had to pick her up by 6 p.m. every day, or else face a non-subsidized, minute-by-minute late fee.

Temporary Cash Assistance

Initially, my circumstance made me eligible for temporary cash assistance (TCA), a $180 monthly stipend designed to help struggling families with minors.

The benefits help keep children in their own homes, or in the home of a blood relative, instead of foster care.

I received an Access debit card, the same card people use for food stamps. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) wasn’t born yet.)

The card was automatically loaded with $180 each month. I could use it anywhere that accepted electronic benefit transfer (EBT) payments.

Suddenly, I was that person scouting the exterior of stores for a “We Accept EBT” sign, or quietly asking the cashier if they accepted EBT cards, worried about being judged by other customers.

Eventually, DCF approved me for the Relative Caregiver program, and the $180 increased to $240 monthly.

Women, Infants and Children

Averi sits inside her freezer to see if she could fit. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bolling

Because of Averi’s age, I was also eligible to receive assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, WIC.

WIC provides assistance for low-income women with children under 5 years old. WIC serves 53% of all infants in the United States.  

Thankfully, my 32-hour-a-week job allowed some wiggle room for the sloth-like government waiting rooms. I spent a whole morning waiting.

Eventually, I walked out with a handful of food vouchers. They had date ranges and expirations and a list of specific items they could be exchanged for. How hard could it be?

The items on my monthly food allowance weren’t exactly the nutritional foods I’d hoped for.  

But I had to face it: These were the times of white bread, cereal and canned beans. No more organic eggs and vegetables or soy milk, which I’d become accustomed to consuming before I became responsible for Averi.

The monthly allowance included a whopping $8 for fruits and vegetables. While I would have hoped for more, I was thankful for food in our mouths, regardless of the form it came in.

Averi loved bananas and green beans, so I would purchase those fresh, along with a bag of carrots or apples, whichever I could squeeze out of that voucher.  

I won’t forget the first time I tried to use them at the register. I dreaded the whole experience, fearful of the disgusted eyes cast by other customers as they waited for me to shamefully get my government-issued rations.

I’d read the voucher over and over to be sure I followed the instructions perfectly to avoid any holdup at the register.

But at the checkout, the cashier informed me I’d made a mistake.

I’d picked up a 24-ounce loaf of bread when the voucher clearly stated I was only allowed the 20-ounce loaf. I was mortified. I couldn’t leave Averi there while I ran back, so I put everything back in my basket, careful to avoid the gaze of the line forming behind me.

There it was on the shelf, the 20-ounce loaf of bread with the letters “WIC” plain as day on the price tag.

After that, I spent much more time at the grocery store than necessary, cross-referencing my vouchers so I could avoid any unwanted hubbub at the register.

Medicaid

Averi caught a cold the first week at day care, and then I caught it. I hadn’t been sick in over a year, but my stressed immune system was no match for kid germs.

After that, it was pink eye.

Then Averi’s repeated sinus infections, futile prescriptions and doctor visits led to a diagnosis of asthma. She was prescribed a nebulizer treatment three to four times a day.

She hopped and bopped around with the cough of a 50-year-old smoker. Eventually, her breathing improved a little, and she got off the nebulizer.

The symptoms kept creeping back, though, so we went to the pediatrician again. She got chest X-rays that determined she had pneumonia. She needed bed rest. That meant finding babysitters or missing work.

By the summer, we both contracted scabies from visiting the place my grandmother lived. The scratching saga continued for months. I wouldn’t wish that itching on anyone.

I’m scared to think what may have happened to her if she didn’t have Medicaid.

What Life as a Single Parent Was Like

Stephanie Bolling sits going through old school and artwork that she saved from Avari in her home in St. Petersburg, Fla on December 26, 2018. Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

After the first week, I was informed that the original two-month timeline would actually be six months.

To pass the time, I kept her busy.

I found plenty of free kid-friendly events happening around town. We went to community festivals, parks and free concerts.

Friends gave me free tickets to museums and local events like the Renaissance Festival. Averi thrived on all of the new experiences.

I registered her for a Busch Gardens preschool pass, offered free for children ages 5 and younger. I already had a monthly pass — with a $7 monthly rate I’d been grandfathered into — so we frequently visited the park for free entertainment.

When she outgrew her clothes, there was someone bringing me hand-me-downs so I didn’t have to buy more. When I did, we went to thrift stores, making it a fun treasure hunt to pick out an outfit she loved.

You learn a lot about people when you fall between a rock and a hard place.

I’d come into work to find a handwritten note and AMC gift cards on my desk. Or a friend’s mom would slide me $20 when I hugged her. My boyfriend would treat us to dinner, or his mother would make breakfast on a Sunday morning without asking for anything in return.

Many endured DCF-required background checks just to babysit her for a few hours so I could have a wink of sleep, or time to catch up on work or other obligations.

On Averi’s fifth birthday, more than 40 people attended her party at Chuck E. Cheese.

At home, we danced around in all of the tissue paper from the gifts. The joy on Averi’s face showed she didn’t know about our struggle. She only knew the kindness of friends and family, which is exactly how I wanted it.

The network of support humbled me, and I allowed myself to lean into it.

That August, Averi started school. She received free lunches, and I made her breakfast at home. She adapted with ease, and I shouldered the expense of fundraisers, classroom activities and gifts for her classmate’s birthday parties.

One night before bed, I saw the light bulb click in her eyes as the words to Dr. Seuss’ “Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!” started to make sense. She read every last one of them (except Zumble-Zay).

Sharing that milestone was priceless; I’ll forever treasure the memory.

The Financial Toll of Being a Caregiver

Bolling bought washable markers for bath time to encourage Averi to work on her writing skills. She then snapped a photo of the message that was left written for her by Averi. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bolling

Soon August rolled into September, and as the time toiled on, so did my financial problems.

While everyone thought I was due some karmic reward, I was busy maxing out my credit cards.

I knew I’d literally pay for it in the end, but I didn’t care. My maternal instinct was to protect her at any cost.

The credit card companies started to lower my limits, because I was only making the minimum payments and overspending.

Overdraft fees on my checking account sent me to my Bank of America branch. I didn’t mean to cry when I talked to the teller, but the flood came anyway. All I wanted was to reverse a $30 fee for going $2 over my balance.

It happened more than once. One bank associate began to know my face and my circumstance. His patience and benevolence will always be beyond me, as was his advice.

He told me about financial hardship programs that would allow me to close my credit cards and pay little to no interest.

By September, I started closing my credit cards. I knew this would kill my “age of credit history,” but it was the only way I could keep from drowning in debt, consolidate and lower my interest rates.

The Life I Chose for Averi

Bolling and Averi pose for a photo during a free outdoor concert in the summer 2010. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bolling

I was granted permanent guardianship of Averi that November.

I wanted to keep her as close to my chest as she’d become, but I knew deep down I couldn’t continue to provide for her or afford our life together.

My older brother had recently moved back from out of state. We discussed the option of Averi living with him and what would serve her best long term.

On paper, I was single and broke. He had a wife and daughter and was financially stable.

We both knew living with him would be best for her, regardless of how it made my heart ache.

That Christmas came fast.

Between the donations set up by DCF and the continued generosity of family and friends, Averi wanted for nothing. Santa supplied maybe her best Christmas yet. Gifts towered over our 3-foot pink Christmas tree.

While she tore open presents, I snapped a ridiculous amount of photos, mentally preparing myself for the fact that our time, like 2010, was nearing an end.

I was coming to terms with letting go and the decision to give her a better life. A life not supported by the system. A life still with family and within an arm’s reach of me.

A week shy of a full year together, I packed her stuff, swallowing back tears.

Her moving in with my brother was an easy sell. She adored her little cousin and wanted to have sleepovers with her every night. The only problem, she said, was that she would miss me.

As we piled her stuff into my brother’s black Suburban, she hugged me tight and said, “I love you with all my heart, Aunt Stephanie.”

What My Year on Public Assistance Taught Me

Averi poses for a photo on the staircase outside Bolling’s apartment. This was the last night the two would spend together before Averi went to live with Bolling’s brother. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bolling

My year of living on public assistance was eight years ago.

Averi now lives 2,000 miles away.

My brother took a job up north, so they moved a year after she left my care.

We’ve seen each other only a handful of times since; we stay in touch with handwritten letters.

It took me some time to readjust to life without her, both emotionally and financially.

I had plenty of credit card debt before Averi, but it nearly doubled after a year of unexpected child care. The public assistance support ended the moment she left me.

While I did receive a boost in my tax return for claiming her as a dependent, it barely made a dent.

It took me a few years to get serious about paying it off instead of wallowing. I felt like I’d made enough sacrifices that I just wanted to live without worrying about it.

Obviously, ignoring debt doesn’t work. I couldn’t escape the financial obligations lest I file for bankruptcy. That wasn’t me, or who I wanted to be. I’d already danced with the public assistance system, and this time, I wanted to clear it for good. So I faced it.

I slayed that interest-laden beast with balance transfer credit cards and a personal loan to consolidate other outstanding debts.

I inched my way out of debt every year since, and as of August 2018, I’m finally debt-free — aside from a car payment — for the first time in 16 years.

My credit score rebounded, but I had to learn some costly lessons.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that public assistance helped me through the hardest year of my life.

My experience with social workers, courts and public assistance offices made me realize how many kids need our help. Those insights led me to seek out opportunities locally.

I learned that while it isn’t easy, asking for help is OK; people love you and want to help you.

And one day, you might even have the chance to help them.

Stephanie Bolling is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’d love to talk to you about your experience on public assistance.

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