By Ashley Ramsden
I remember the day I had to walk into a WIC office for the first time since my mother took us when I was 4. My first child was 5 months old. The July humidity made my 20-year-old Jeep feel like a sweat lodge. My husband had just lost his job and I had just decided I was going to try to get back into the workforce after 4 months as a stay-at-home mom.
That day, I remember signing in on the little notepad and sitting down on the chair closest to one of those fun mirrors that makes your body look thin and lanky, my infant in his car seat on the floor, and thinking, “Will there ever be a time when I don’t have to worry about being poor?”
I took an Outreach Coordinator position with Home Base, Inc. doing social work in the Valley as my first job after having my son. We moved to Moundsville in February of 2016 and I still had no idea where anything was outside of Jefferson and LaFayette Avenues. One of the primary benefits to working that job was the extensive amount of travel. One day I’d take a case up in New Cumberland, the next day I could be as far south as Parkersburg, or driving a client from Wheeling to see their kid at a home in Weston. I learned to navigate the Valley by driving broken families, usually children, around the area for supervised visitations and support services, all while trying desperately to bring home enough money so we wouldn’t miss payments for car insurance or the one car we had that wasn’t running on prayers and miracles. We went 48 days without health insurance that summer.
“Will there ever be a time when I don’t have to worry about being poor?” This thought comes from a lifelong history of personal poverty. I grew up in Appalachia. Statistically, about 1/4 of WV youth live in poverty. I know I’m not the first person to have come from a low-income household and have poverty follow them into adulthood. Generational poverty seems to be a staple of “West By-God”.
TalkPoverty.org published 2018 statistics for WV that include the following: 25.5% of children under the age of 18 come from families ranked below the Federal Poverty Line. 22.2% of working-age women and 17% of working age men had incomes in 2017 that fell below the Federal Poverty Line. West Virginia is ranked 45th in Hunger and Food Insecurity, with nearly 15% of households that were reported as having difficulty providing enough food due to lack of money or resources. Of the 1.76 million residents in the state, at least 336k were listed as living in poverty.
My parents did the best they could with what they had. We never went hungry thanks to WIC, Food Stamps and the Child Nutrition Program for Free and Reduced Lunch through the USDA. We never went without clothes thanks to family, hand-me-downs and clothing vouchers. But, as the adage goes, it took a village. We spent a lot of time with other family members while my parents worked, sometimes multiple jobs, and struggled to keep bills paid. I know there were many months during my childhood where their paychecks would hit the bank and the money only reduced a negative balance instead of letting them get ahead. My parents worked hard, and I am a better person for having seen them work through financial hardship. It wasn’t until my sisters and I had grown and they had empty nests that they were able to purchase their first home.
I know other millennials who lived similar lives, came from the same situation. There are people I went to school with who have struggled to make ends meet since before they knew there was a struggle to overcome. A close friend of mine and my college roommate for a time, “J.W.”, came from a small town outside Beckley, WV. She has been a great source of support as we’ve both been trying to navigate an adult world that still sees us as kids, that demands so much of us that it’s impossible to come close to meeting that level of expectation.
We are living in a society that assumes we are lazy, poorly educated, and entitled. That I need welfare and safety net programs because I don’t want to work, or I’m too senseless to seek a job that pays more, or worse—I expect everything provided without the effort. Of my working years, I’ve spent more time working more than one job than I have just one job. Before I had my first son, I worked 3. I helped manage a gas station, I was a home health aide for a terminally ill elderly woman, and I often worked shifts at other gas stations for the chain. During that time, I worked an average of 112-120 hours per week.
I graduated from a private liberal arts college in December of 2013, a full semester earlier than projected. I took between 18-20 credit hours every semester during my undergraduate program. Also during that time, I was in more than 8 organizations, several of which I was on the executive boards, I was a peer tutor, and I wrote for both the school newspaper and the literary magazine. I graduated with two Bachelor degrees in English. One specialized in Creative Writing, the other in Literature. I minored in Education and Honors. I completed 122 credit hours in 3.5 years and finished with a 3.34GPA. The education I received from Alderson-Broaddus University has been invaluable by way of knowledge, even if it’s been underwhelming for my bank account.
I started my MA program at WVU in Fall of 2017 hoping to find a career that would pay enough to survive on. It’s been difficult to stretch $13 and change an hour. I’m projected to finish either Fall or Spring of the next academic year. And, so far, I have maintained a 4.0GPA. But, I’ve also accumulated nearly $50,000 in student loan debt to achieve this. Individuals in my generation shouldn’t be expected to incur thousands in debt for additional education to get a job that doesn’t pay enough to survive.
I have an incomprehensible amount more to learn over my lifetime and I know how valuable education is, especially in a time when I have seen a decline in the quality of education being provided and even more the decline in the value people see in education. Education is more than books– it’s on-the-job training which develops lifelong skills.
Thanks in large part to my education and experiences in and out of the workplace, I have developed a very broad set of skills (not Liam Neeson impressive, but they’re not too shabby). I have been able to work multiple database and reporting programs including Access, Argos, and Ellucian Banner. I’ve developed proficiency in many technologically relevant areas (not just social media). I have had the privilege of experience in multiple areas of higher education including student services, financial aid, and student accounts. I have provided health and medical services to several terminally ill individuals including medication, hygiene and general household care. I have provided adult life skills and parenting education to families in CPS. I’ve ushered and monitored supervised visitations for children in foster care. I’ve managed a gas station for a town of 1000 and for a city of over 30,000. I’m still relatively new in the workforce, as I have only been working since 2012. But in 6 years, I’ve fit in enough experience to equal 2 times that. In general, I show up to work early or on-time. I rarely take a sick day.
“Will there ever be a time when I won’t have to worry about being poor?” If I could count how many times I’ve been told that I’m uneducated or that my education holds no value because of my age, I don’t know if the numbers would sadden or surprise you. I’m from the “participation trophy generation”. “No Child Left Behind” supposedly “left me behind”. I had a “liberal education that deprived me of the essentials”. Meanwhile, these same individuals think the teacher strike this last year was unfounded and that we don’t need to put more money into education because the teachers ‘aren’t performing’ well enough to warrant a pay raise.
These same individuals claim I need greater “experience” to get a job that pays me enough for my husband and our kids to get out of the one-bedroom we’ve been living in at my in-laws’ home for the last 3 years. But, I have also been told that if I’m not making enough where I am I should get a better job. The odds of finding a job that pays more AND provides equivalent benefits are pretty slim. The benefits of working a state job have been greater than my wage. But, why should I have to sacrifice being able to afford necessities in order to be able to have affordable healthcare and retirement benefits?
I’m 26. I know there’s time to find a dream job that pays me what I feel my work and experience are worth, in addition to being able to afford a home for my family and a vehicle that isn’t 20+ years old and falling apart. But, I know I’m not the only person my age struggling to make ends meet in one of the richest nations in the world. I’m not the only young mother who needs safety net programs to feed her babies while she balances work and school. There are countless others, including millennials, who are just like me. They are reliable, educated, skilled and hard-working.
I remember the day I walked into the WIC office for the first time since my mother took us when I was 4. Before they handed me my benefits card, they asked me what my goal for the next month would be. I told them, “To cancel my appointment for next month because I don’t need the help.” I have had that goal for almost 3 years now, while I have struggled to keep healthy, nutritious food in my kids’ mouths, while my husband and I have been pursuing an education that will allow us to get employment that provides financial security, while we have had to figure out how to afford medical care for surgeries, sickness and mental health, and while we’ve been trying to figure out how to afford the cost of child care.
“Millennial” might be my generation, but it doesn’t define me.