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Growing Up On Welfare

A firsthand perspective of growing up in a family that relied on government assistance.

This is not written to evoke any sympathy — it is designed to provide another perspective.

One of the more controversial issues facing Mount Vernon these day is the proposal to construct 67 “affordable housing” units on the North Hill property, which is the wooded area on Route One just north of the Woodley Estates “trailer camp.” I handled that issue for Supervisor Gerry Hyland and heard, on a regular basis, numerous condescending comments about the project’s future tenants.  “Those folks on welfare” was a phrase regularly tossed about. Meanwhile, on the national level, it seems that every political candidate, including some Democrats, enjoy making those who rely on government assistance an easy target.     

It’s no secret that some people have abused the welfare system. Ronald Reagan, for example, was quick to talk about the woman who bought vodka with her food stamps or the notorious “welfare queens” who milked the system for years. People will always rip off the system.    

And then there are families like the Fitzsimmons family in the early 1960’s.

In 1964, my father left me, my mother and two younger siblings to go live with another woman. He took with him the entire checkbook and never sent us any money. To that point, my mother, Alice, had never worked much because her “job” was to raise us kids. She never finish high school, had a drinking problem and, actually, a few years later was committed to an institution where she received electric shock treatment. She could not get a job and, thus, she applied for welfare. 

At the beginning of each month, we’d get a check for about $250. That paid the rent and bought food that lasted about three weeks. By the end of the month, we were destitute. We regularly ran out of heating oil (seeing our breath from under the covers in the morning was the telltale sign). The electricity would be turned off. At night, my brother and I would take our garbage and stuff it in our neighbor’s garbage pails because we couldn’t afford the pick-up charges. I remember the time when we couldn’t afford to get our sewer cleaned out and the raw sewage filled up our only bathtub. We were “that welfare family” —  and we were very ashamed. 

Yes, at times my mother would “abuse” the system. She would buy far too many cigarettes. When the check came, she’d cash it right away and bring the three of us to Jahn’s Ice Cream parlor where we’d “splurge” on chocolate ice cream sodas. She’d even break the law, picking up an extra $5 by cleaning our neighbor’s houses — another source of embarrassment when my schoolmates told me how my mother had cleaned up their bedrooms. 

About a year later, my mother found a job in a factory where, for the next twenty years, she assembled circuit boards. She was thrilled to write the letter telling Social Services that she no longer needed their assistance. She didn’t make much money working and, although we begged her for years to take money from us, she was too proud to accept it. For the rest of her life, she lived alone in a small room in a drug dealer-infested motel, had her group of friends at the Laundromat and, if she had to go anywhere, knew the 12Y bus route like the back of her hand.   

The point is that Alice had no choice but to accept welfare and the government helped us in our time of need. My siblings and I survived and today we are successful adults with great families. Indeed, I think we are stronger because of our brush with poverty. 

So, before you start generalizing about the future population of North Hill in such a negative way, before you refer to the “trailer trash” that might be coming in, remember that North Hill might also be housing a family like the Fitzsimmons’ — and a proud woman like Alice. 

Ron Fitzsimmons January 18, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Thanks for everyone's comments. Fortunately, we got out of that cycle of poverty so it's easier to write about it. Think about the others who can't escape.
Kari Warren January 19, 2012 at 02:07 AM
Dave, this article touched me very deeply. So deeply that words seem trite. I'm sure that others feel the same way (or are reconsidering their "bashing" of those who are on assistance). Ron...GREAT job. I know how hard it is to reveal things about your past. But, in order to make a difference and to shed light on a topic, sometimes it is a necessary evil. Thank you for what you did for families that will never even know your story...but, are living it every day.
Jody February 07, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Ron, Thank you for sharing your story with us. I don't have any problem with the North Hill housing. These would be nice new units that people need. This is probably not the place to pose this but I do worry about the large older apartment complexes that the county is leasing/preserving. I wish the people (and especially the children) living there in "hard" neighborhoods could also get a fresh start somehow. Yes, we are preserving affordable apartments, but it also seems to be preserving neighborhoods not conducive to raising children in a safe environment. Would it be a good thing if we could build more new North Hill type developments and let the apartment owners rebuild their properties as they wish? Giant clusters of poverty don't seem to solve anything except the immediate good of saving people from homelessness or having to move to where housing is more affordable. Just trying to think about solutions.
Joseph P. April 11, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Ron, I have always enjoyed your posts but this one hit close to home. Thank you for posting and sticking up for the other side of things.
Ron Fitzsimmons April 12, 2012 at 12:23 PM
Thanks, Joe. Appreciate your comment!

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