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JUNE 29, 2008 3:19PM

Living on $500 per Month

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Two adults, one twenty year old boy, his 18 year old girlfriend, her 2 year old baby, a 16 year old girl-woman, and two large dogs live in a 1200 sq ft three bedroom, one bath ranch home in a town of about 65,000 people. The adult female’s parents own the home carrying a mortgage of over $600 per month. The motley group living here scrounges to come up with $500 plus enough money for the utilities each month. How is this possible?

The mother works at Target and collects social security for her sixteen year old daughter. This precocious sixteen year old is struggling to graduate from high school because during grades one through three, the family lived in a car parked wherever it landed. She cannot spell, but seems to be able to pass her classes in spite of all. The mother’s boyfriend is a short order cook, bringing home “left-overs” from the kitchen. 

The 20 year old boy dropped out of high school, completely illiterate. With the help of his grandparents, he passed the written portion of the driver’s licensing exam on his fourth try, at $125 per test. He is frustrated because being unable to read, he had been unable to fill out the job applications without help. After getting his driver’s license, however, his grand mother took him to a class to get a job as a forklift driver, which apparently landed him a job. Will he stay with it? Who knows, he has survived without working for a very long time. 

Previous to this, he and his girlfriend were living in his mother’s home, spending the day sleeping late, watching TV and playing with the baby. When asked how he paid their share of the rent ($100 per adult, plus $40 each for the utilities), it was acknowledged that the pair of them were living off her welfare check, food stamps and free food from the food bank.  

 They manage to live on $500 per month by making due with little in order to take it easy. Not a new thing being a welfare-dad, but who knew? Find yourself a girlfriend with a baby if you don’t want to work. Your mom will keep a roof over your head and allow your lady to live there with all of you…Oh dear…Grandma says he loves the baby more than the mother…no doubt.                        


Back to the 70’s, taking a year off college in order to save money; I landed a job as a teacher’s aide in my local school system. My small home town was adjacent to an extremely impoverished unincorporated area of east-central Illinois, near the Indiana line. Their homes were rickety and old frame construction with little to no insulation; others were built of concrete block. Many were heated with kerosene space heaters. You could smell this form of poverty on the most unfortunate of them. 

How naïve I was back then, so it was tough at first for me. A “whitey teach” in a school with an enrollment of about 95% African Americans, four percent poor whites, and 1% small business owner's or farmer’s kids. By the end of the first month, my students determined: “She all right”. Those who didn’t know me, and dared threaten me were soon put in their place.  I was most grateful for their ongoing protection.

I was hired to help teach math in a Title I program. Most of the students could add and subtract, with the exception of the school’s track star, 21 year old Joseph who had to count on his fingers….My job was to help all but Joseph to learn multiplication and division, and to keep my mouth shut about Joseph’s age or the prospect of his graduation any time soon. 

I learned something very quickly -- math was an abstraction to my students. But give them a word problem, such as how many pairs of $12 jeans could they buy if they had $50, they could figure it as well as the change. It wasn’t their fault – the elementary school system in their home town was horribly understaffed and under funded – truthfully, a huge disgrace. They were then bussed to a high school that was ranked second from the bottom in the entire state for its level of education.  

The students made me laugh with their stories, and if I didn’t try to hide it, they could also make me cry just as easily. On a grey winter day, one of the more quiet girls waited after class to tell me something. “Ms. Goodwin, I don’t want to have no babies”. Thinking this was pretty easy I volunteered this bit of wisdom:  "Well, just don’t get pregnant then.” She waved me off with the motion that meant, “Forget you then”. Oops, wrong thing to say.

So, I ventured out of the classroom to ask her why she was concerned. She told me her momma wanted her to have a baby. I thought she was kidding me, so naively, I asked “Why?”

Again, the hand. “What, Debra?”  Why, would she want that?  

For the check, Ms. Goodwin. For the check”.  

Well, now I was baffled; she knew it, stomped off in a mixture of hurt and disgust that the trusted Whitey Teach couldn’t help her.

So, I got some help and went at it, again, the next day. OK, Debra, I know Anita and your other sister already have babies – how much money is that, one hundred twenty dollars per month? Is any one working - No. Can’t one of the other sisters have another baby next (maybe unfair, but they didn’t seem to mind). “NO, MS GOODWIN!!! IT’S MY TURN!!!” (Oh God, here I go, again.)

OK, then Debra, please listen to me, (this quivering 21 year old fount of wisdom). Just tell your mom “NO”. Tell her you want something else for yourself; tell her you will get a better job when you get out of high school. 

Debra was not a girl to smile, but I saw the light come on in her eyes. To this day, I am not sure she knew that was an option. I encouraged her to come to me if she needed my support, and that I would have the teacher talk to her mom if need be.

Later, she quietly confided that she told her mom, “No”; apparently that was all it took at that time. Debra continued to stand her ground – no pregnancy by the summer. Just before summer break, I learned that Anita (her sister) was pregnant, again. Yes, of course, I felt some guilt.

I don’t think Debra knew it at the time, but I was returning to college in the fall. I worried about her, but she had no phone in her home for me to stay in touch. By all accounts, she did really well her junior year, but after that summer, she was pregnant. All of this for $60, which even then, I could earn in two days as a lowly teacher’s aide, or in one good day of working at my second job in the restaurant. I didn’t get it then, and don’t like that I get it now.                                                 


This situation is likely to get worse right in line with the declining economy. Although not broached as the reason, those young girls in Gloucester might not have done too badly. As far as I can tell, and unless something has changed, each mom will receive $500 per month, food stamps, and day care vouchers if she wants to work or go to school. 

She might be one of the lucky ones (as seen on a You Tube clip from ABC News) that was able to snag a twenty year old father that loves both her and the baby. He cannot marry her cause, well, then the check will go away. Neither of them care – it’s all good.

Don’t forget, she has two years to stay home with the baby, get pregnant and birth another baby, and start all over, again. Or, she can go to school, or receive job training with Massachusetts providing day care vouchers to use while bettering herself. Imagine if the boyfriend works a decent job – not too shabby. Better than working at McDonalds and having to PAY for day care…that just would not be financially prudent, would it? 

Is there incentive in an impoverished area to do much else? By all accounts Gloucester has been hard hit by the economy. Having a baby may be the very best option for some of these girls, if the parents allow them to stay in their home. These young ladies might even be credited with planning ahead, but of course, they are only girls…And, sure it will be cool that all their babies will be the same age and can be friends with each other – why not? 

There is always a portion of American society that believes that this is the best they can do…poverty and lack of opportunity can do that to people who cannot read or perform basic math. And, whose fault is that…? 


(Massachusetts information taken from: Eastern Economic Journal,,  "Transition from Welfare to Work" by Robert  Lemke, 1995)   Hopefully, this is current information!

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politics, family, teenagers, welfare

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Hi Neil:
I think that would be an interesting post. I am also going to share a letter I received from the 20 year old couch potato. Not sure if he wrote it, or his girlfriend or sister, but it did warm my heart.
Much to bibliofiles post today, some of the young just have no ability to write anymore...I hope he did write it...I would feel much better about things!
Excellent post. It's so heartbreaking -- when are things going to change? How many generations do we have to throw away before something changes in this country? And I can see why it would seem more enticing to sit on your couch with your child as opposed to getting a crappy job working in retail or fast food, since you don't have the skills for anything better. It depresses the hell out of me.
Wow that is some article. I guess making do on $500/month isn't to hard even without a job. If your looking for more nformation on how to live on $500/month please take a look at