• Learning the Culture of Blame as a Child at the State Welfare Office

    David Ambroz on the Hunger, Red Tape, and Unspoken Rules That Accompany Childhood Poverty

    “I know too much,” Mom tells us. We’re all in a row behind her, riding in the back seat of a forest-green Volkswagen Beetle that shudders whenever she hits the gas. “I helped the Irish. Your mother is at the table. We need to end the Troubles,” she says, referring to the Northern Ireland conflict. It is two years after the coldest night of walking, people are pursuing my mother again, and we fled Manhattan this morning. Mom chain-smokes Marlboros, lighting the next with the last, until we arrive in Albany. Our first stop is the state welfare office so Mom can apply for rent and food stamps.

    Article continues below

    All the welfare offices follow the same labyrinthine process that makes securing help a job in and of itself. Sometimes the meeting is brief, but usually we arrive and wait for hours before and after talking to a social worker. The rent voucher provided limits our options to the poorest areas, and we inevitably run out of money and food stamps toward the middle of the month, at which point we turn to food banks, foraging, church meals, and thieving. The end of the month ticks by slowly until the next allotment comes.

    Mom figures out when and where we need to go to reapply. This is our first time going to the Albany County Department of Social Services, but the waiting room looks just like all the others: worn and spiritless, with a familiar whiff of poverty and hopelessness. The flooring is shiny around the edges but dulled to exhaustion everywhere else. The seats are attached to each other. I scan the other families. Many of them sit guard over all of their possessions. Every mom has brought all of her kids—even if they’re school-age, they have to be here in person to prove that she’s taking care of them. The room is full of brown faces, but to me, they all look like us—tired, hungry, in need of a bath, and too familiar with this routine. Some of the younger kids run wild, but none of them talk to us.

    The harder it is, the more we connive, and so the system teaches us the very qualities it condemns.

    There is nothing to do or to play with, so I study the brochures that are scattered on the side tables. One of them is called Healthy Nursing. From it, I learn how vital it is to breastfeed a baby. There is a line drawing of a breast that I know Alex will appreciate. When I show it to him, he glances at Mom to see if she is looking, and then says, “Give me that!” and snatches it away from me.

    When the social worker finally calls our name, she greets us with a forced smile and leads us into her office. I sit on a chair, and the social worker starts asking questions.

    Article continues below

    “Are you actually looking for work?” Her tone is skeptical. The welfare worker is as much a part of the system as we are, except that she is paid to robotically ask us a series of questions while we are given money for answering them correctly. Her role is not to be a helper but to be a gatekeeper. Her goal is to make sure we don’t abuse the system—that Mom truly doesn’t have the money to feed us, that she’s trying to get a job, that she’ll use the money the way the government wants her to. She’s going to ask for papers we don’t have—pay stubs, proof of how much rent we pay—and I know Mom won’t appreciate her skepticism. I brace myself for a reaction, but she is in control of herself. She wants the money. Mom gives the woman the warm smile that she uses when she wants something.

    “What’s your name, dear?” Mom asks.

    “Vaynessa,” the woman says.

    “That’s beautiful. Vaynessa, this is my son, Hugh,” Mom responds. “Say hello, Hugh,” she orders, so that Vaynessa will know that she’s the kind of mom who raises her kids right. My name is Hugh John David Ambroz, and my mother will start calling me David next year, when an unexpected shift happens. But until age eight, I will be Hugh.

    “Hi, Vaynessa,” I say, and Mom introduces Jessica and Alex.

    Article continues below

    Vaynessa’s face softens when she looks at us. In all likelihood, she lives in the same neighborhoods we do. Her church is probably one of the ones that feed us between checks. “Hi, sugars, are you hungry?”

    I don’t know the right answer. Mom has taught us to lie when we’re asked questions. After she hits us, she says, “You got this bruise fighting with your brother,” feeding us the explanation to give if anyone asks. Giving the wrong answer could ruin everything. The authorities could take us away from Mom, breaking up our family. No matter how bad things get, being separated from my siblings would be worse.

    I am very hungry, but Vaynessa might be checking to see if Mom is taking good care of us. I think I’m supposed to say I’m well-fed. But if I say I’m hungry, will she deny us the food stamps? Or do I need to be hungry to get them? I can’t tell, so I stay silent.

    Vaynessa holds out a bowl of mixed candies, including Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Nobody ever gives us candy, and here’s a whole dish of free candy being held out in front of me. I can smell the chocolate. It’s like Halloween. Or is it another test? I look at Mom for permission.

    “That’s so kind, thank you, Vaynessa. Children, pick one treat,” Mom says.

    Article continues below

    We each take a single piece of candy, careful not to grab.

    “Did I say thank you?” Mom asks, making direct eye contact with Vaynessa and smiling. She says this a lot when she’s trying to charm people.

    Vaynessa looks down at the form in front of her. Pen in hand, she asks, “Are you taking care of these children? Are you feeding them three times a day? When did they last see a doctor? How are their grades? Do they have their own rooms, or do they share?”

    I’ve heard these questions before. Vaynessa is trained to be wary of the people who come to her for help. The system doesn’t trust people in poverty. If my mother isn’t feeding us, it must be her fault. If she can’t support us, it must be because she doesn’t care. She must be doing something wrong. She must be shirking her responsibility. This culture of blame makes it harder to get benefits, forcing the needy to look for loopholes and work-arounds. The more we use these tactics, the harder it is to get benefits. The harder it is, the more we connive, and so the system teaches us the very qualities it condemns.

    Mom has won the social worker over. She’s on our side now, and, for the moment, she sees Mom as a person instead of a case. She sees us, and it matters.

    And yet, right now, our survival hangs on the razor’s edge of Vaynessa’s own mood. Did she get enough sleep last night? Did she have a fight with a loved one? Was her boss mean to her? What if she feels sick today and just wants to be done with us? The subjective nature of this process is our crucible.

    Article continues below

    Mom’s quiet worries me more than Vaynessa’s state of mind. She is remarkably still, a placid smile on her face. I’m always afraid that feeling disrespected could set Mom off, and something bad could happen. Is this the eye of the storm? Will having her mothering and work ethic questioned make her explode? I’m protective of her dignity. We need this money. If Vaynessa denies us benefits or, more likely, tells us to come back when we have more paperwork, we will walk away with nothing.

    The silence stretches out, and I inch forward to the edge of my chair, ready to intervene. If Mom throws something or yells, I’ll shepherd us all out of here before security has time to react.

    Then Mom says, “I am taking care of them, Vaynessa,” as pleasant as can be. I’m relieved and relax just a bit, sliding back into the scooped seat of the chair. “I try to give them balanced meals,” she continues, “but as you can see, they do enjoy sweets too.” Mom reaches over and puts her hand on top of Vaynessa’s, breaking the unspoken rule that says there is no touching in this environment of us versus them. I’m worried, but then, when Vaynessa doesn’t pull away, impressed. Mom is doing this for us.

    Then she asks, “Are you a mother, too, Vaynessa?”

    Vaynessa says, “Yes, these are my boys.” She rotates a picture frame to show us. Now there’s a big smile on her face.

    “They are so handsome, how old?”

    “That’s my husband. Our oldest is fourteen, then our middle son is ten, and our youngest is six,” she says, gesturing to the image of the husband in the picture.

    “I love my children, Vaynessa. I know you understand as a mother,” Mom says. She deepens her imploring eyes and rueful smile. “I am looking for work, but I can’t find childcare, and the jobs I do find don’t pay enough to cover all the bills if I have to hire a babysitter.”

    “Lord, I know it’s hard, and I have help,” Vaynessa acknowledges. Her eyes blinking with sympathy, she hands my mother a stack of forms.

    “Okay, Ms. Mary. Listen. Take these back to your seats and fill them out. Sign here, here, and here. When you’re done, come back to me specifically, okay?” Vaynessa says. Mom has won the social worker over. She’s on our side now, and, for the moment, she sees Mom as a person instead of a case. She sees us, and it matters. This victory will keep us alive another day.

    Mom smiles broadly, giving Vaynessa’s hand one final squeeze. “Did I say thank you?” Mom asks before getting up to leave.

    We wait for four hours. It’s unclear why. Maybe Vaynessa took lunch. Maybe she was waiting for someone else’s signature. Maybe another case distracted her. Poverty is one long line. We wait at welfare offices, food banks, and shelters. At last, Vaynessa returns and summons us back to her desk. “Mary, this is for the balance of this month and for next. These stamps are for you to buy necessities, not alcohol. There is enough here to get you through the month if you spend it wisely. Here is a pamphlet on healthy eating. Here’s a pamphlet on self-care, and here’s one on anger management with children. You’ll have to come back in and talk to us about your efforts to find work in three weeks. I’m also giving you a rent voucher approval form. When you find a place, you need to get your landlord to sign off and then return this form. It can take a few weeks to process, so make sure your landlord understands this.” With a beneficent smile, she hands Mom two manila envelopes, one fatter than the other. “You take care of these kids, Mary, okay?”

    “Did I say thank you?” Mom asks again, beaming. Just outside the main office, Mom pulls us into the women’s restroom, and into the wheelchair-accessible stall. The powerful flush from the adjacent stall doesn’t faze her. She tips the contents of one of the envelopes into her other hand. The food stamps come in neat booklets of different denominations. Mom thumbs through them, doing the math in her head. Her expression is half smile, half grimace. It’s not enough. It’s never enough. But we won’t be hungry tonight. Mom puts the money back in the manila envelope, pulls her shirt up, and tucks the bundle into her bra.

    We take a bus to a twenty-four-hour Dunkin’ Donuts. The Beetle died on the way from the welfare office, and we abandoned it on the side of the road. Mom orders a coffee that she’ll stretch to last days by refilling it with creamers. Jessica, Alex, and I take handfuls of creamers and sugar packets, which we mix and eat for a meal. We’ve just received food stamps that we could use to buy food, but they’ll never be enough. This is a regular part of how and what we eat. Taking up two brown faux-leather booths, we each spread out on a bench for the night. It’s not as soft as the car, but stretching my legs feels good, and I sleep well under the fluorescent lights and the hum of the ventilation, feeling the warmth of my mother.

    The next morning, Mom circles job listings in the newspaper, then starts making calls from the pay phone outside. I see her laughing and gesturing as she talks to potential employers, her smile stretched wide as if they can see her through the phone line. It works, and on our third day in Albany she lands a job interview. She spends a long time getting clean in the bathroom and comes out fresh, washed, and dressed in her long skirt and jacket. She beckons us to follow and walks briskly out the door.

    Later, we are waiting on the sidewalk when she emerges from St. Stephen’s Hospital.

    “I start work tomorrow,” she says. “St. Stephen’s is very prestigious.” Mom is all smiles and warmth, and we bask in her elation.

    “That’s awesome, Mom. What will you be doing? I mean, I know you’re a nurse, but…” Alex asks.

    “They have me filling in right now, but soon I’ll be back in the ER,” Mom says, beaming. She pulls us all into a clumsy hug. I’m crushed into the softness of her arm and chest. She smells nice—it’s the perfume sampler she sprayed on at the pharmacy just before her interview.

    “Mom, that’s great!” I say into her shoulder. It isn’t really great. She’s better at getting jobs than she is at keeping them, but I want her mood to last.

    “This changes everything. We’ll get an apartment, get you into school, get things sorted out this time.” Alex and I exchange a knowing look. We’ve been here before.


    Excerpted from A Place Called Home. Copyright © 2022 by David Ambroz. Reprinted with the permission of Legacy Lit

    David Ambroz
    David Ambroz is a national poverty and child welfare expert and advocate. He was recognized by President Obama as an American Champion of Change. He currently serves as the Head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon. Previously he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television, and served as the President of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, and as a California Child Welfare Councilmember. After growing up homeless and then in foster care, he graduated from Vassar and later from UCLA School of Law (J.D.). He is a foster dad and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

    More Story
    “A Romantic Poem” by John Koethe  It’s supposed to be solemn and settled And in celebration of the individual human life, Whatever it is. It’s each...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.