Why writing about TANF this week made me cry

I had a hard time writing my last post about rule changes to and the privatization of the ASPIRE-TANF program. There were a few reasons, like, frankly, writing about the extent to which the LePage administration is decimating our social service net is getting … I’m not sure what. I need a word for depressing, mixed with redundant to the nth degree.

Google the names Matt Stone, Erin Rhoda, Maine DHHS for a dark synopsis or click here for the latest update.

Stock photo

Stock photo

I’m sick of writing about increases in childhood poverty and food insecurity and hunger in Maine, and sicker still not to be writing about the righteous outrage being expressed by our elected officials about these crises.

I’m sick of the shortsighted changes to the service provision system that extreme conservatives like to frame as “welfare reform.” For that matter, I’m most sick of that phrase itself.

News flash folks — “welfare reform” should really be called “societal reform” because it encompasses not only service provision systems, but also economic factors, psycho-social factors, and other circumstances that span many fields, community frameworks, and levels of government.  The same can be said for policing issues, inner city unrest, criminal justice and most of our most pressing domestic challenges.

I know that’s a complex and wordy thought for our digital age, but we need to start fighting our tendency to think in soundbites.

But back to the changes to TANF-ASPIRE and the reasons why I hated writing that post. In the middle of perusing the proposed rule changes, I was running errands and happened to bump into an adolescent with whom I worked in a professional capacity a few years ago. She was working, but was excited to see me and had a minute to update me about her life.

I won’t violate her privacy, but let’s just say she got me thinking about TANF and other programs and interventions under the auspices of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

This young lady had such spirit when I worked with her — so unique, so individualized, so strong — and not afraid to be herself, which is rare in the pressure-filled arena that is middle-school America. I found her very entertaining and inspiring.

While she recounted the sequence of events since I’d last seen her, I looked into her eyes to try to see that spirit. I saw it for a quick second. It was when she got to the part about her days starting at 5 a.m. for school (still working toward her high school diploma), then straight to work and then finally home to her infant around 7 p.m. or later. She must have felt the glimpse of her former self surfacing because her eyes started to tear up, and she stopped talking momentarily.

The glimpse of her former self disappeared into whatever dark recesses keep it hidden away now. That made me sad.  Sadder still, she told me about her future plans. She can’t take the pace of her daily schedule with the baby not sleeping through the night and all, so she’s going to stop school for a while and just work.

She’s quitting her current job because she’s lost her transportation and needs to get a job within walking distance of where she lives. Somehow, in her young inexperienced mind, she’s interpreting all the pressure from the grown-ups and professionals in her life as, work is so important, it’s more important than high school or learning how to be a parent.

I had to try to hide that hearing about her reality took my breath away. I had to try to keep myself from tearing up when her eyes started getting watery. We were standing at her place of employment, and we both knew she could not afford to let her guard down.

When you’re in her shoes, you’re not even allowed to have feelings. Rules and regulations and external pressures don’t allow for feelings — there’s no time for them. Feelings are for adolescents who haven’t experienced such falls from grace or such challenging childhoods.

I pieced together a lame pep talk about knowing that things really suck for her right now, and that I could see she’s feeling overwhelmed and that it’s understandable. I said I wished that I could change things, but all I really had was to tell her that she needed to stay strong, now more than ever.

I wish I understood why, with more than one program involved in this young person’s life, she hadn’t been put on a very singular track that involved school and learning to parent as the top priorities. What chance of success and long term financial stability is there in a young mother working for far less than a living wage with no high school diploma?

What chance does her infant have being parented by a young mother cracking under pressure from a variety of angles?

Sure extreme conservatives will hear this story and want to waste time judging the young woman, her family, and the most enlightened may also want to include her school, but judging doesn’t change the fact that we have a young mother who is unprepared for parenting and the workforce.

And no, I am not saying state programs are singularly at fault for this young woman’s situation. I am saying that all taxpayer interventions be it TANF or any other in this case should be supporting her in achieving the two primary goals:  1) becoming a stronger parent and 2) becoming a stronger future employee.

Our best chances for turning her into a financially self-sufficient, tax paying citizen who is raising a future positive addition to our community rests in supporting her in achieving those two goals. She should be hearing no other message.

Her days should be full of high school level classes, parenting classes and appointments with an assigned public health nurse and Maine Families worker.Given her capacity to learn, she should then be supported in at least a two year post-secondary program like at Kennebec Valley Community College where she could increase her earning/taxpaying potential at a school that offers onsite daycare.

If she did that, she’d be graduating and entering a full-time workforce just in time for her baby to go to school. That’s not what’s happening, though. That’s not the message she’s hearing in her still developing mind, which is a sad testament to the programs and interventions going on in her case.

She’s hearing, work like a dog around the clock at jobs that won’t make ends meet for you and your baby who you won’t really know or understand how to parent. She’s hearing, welcome to a long harsh reality and good luck because you’ve made your bed and you’re on your own.

At least once a day for the last few days, I’ve teared up thinking about her. I’ll be more honest and say I downright cried in the middle of writing that post about rule changes and a contract proposal that look like they’ll make these outcomes more likely instead of less.

It breaks my heart to think of that beautiful, spunky little spitfire turning into the young woman standing in front of me the other day, wearing a face that epitomized utter despair. If that’s the current face of state intervention and state programs, taxpayers should have grave concerns.

I know I do.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.