Marlene Stewart raises three kids while chasing a college degree, but some days her most stressful chore is facing the stigma of living off the government.
“You don’t tell people you’re on welfare anymore or you open yourself up to attack,” Stewart says.
Stewart, 32, lives in a tidy, plant-strewn, north Spokane duplex with her three boys, ages 14, 8 and 7. She’s been on public assistance for most of the last decade.
The young widow gets $668 a month in survivor benefits, a $400 rent subsidy and another $200 a month in food stamps. A student loan buys her schooling at Eastern Washington University.
She smiles sheepishly when she says she hopes to be a city planner some day.
Stewart grew up in a poor east Spokane household and ran away at 13. She didn’t spend a day in high school. She married at age 18, and six months later her street-kid husband died on a motorcycle, leaving her alone with their child.
She later remarried and had two more children. That ended after five years of little cash and a frequent reliance on welfare.
Stewart and others describe welfare as a month-tomonth, high-wire survival act. Most of the check goes to the landlord. The wad of food stamps vanishes before the end of the month.
One Hillyard woman says the only way she makes it is with frugal tricks like taking her trash to the dump herself and shopping at Value Village.
Car problems and other mini-disasters can wipe a family out. It’s nearly impossible to get a credit card.
Stewart and her kids spent many nights in a tent in the back yard of her mother’s small home. “They were young,” she says. “I told them they were camping.”
During recent years her life has improved. “I’ve learned to overcome the day-to-day crises.”
She now volunteers on boards around town, including the Fair Budget Action Campaign, an advocacy group for the poor.
Stewart tires of the subtle insults of poverty - the condescending stares in the grocery stores, and the surly doctors and dentists who don’t welcome welfare patients.
“When you pull out your food stamps, people look over your stuff to see what you’re buying,” she says, noting she’ll go out of her way to visit the same cashiers who don’t scorn her.
“I haven’t gone to see a dentist in two years because I refuse to go through that,” she says. “You get much less of their compassion and their time.”
Stewart says she needs about $13 an hour to make it without public aid. Even with a college degree she doubts she’ll find that in Spokane. She says she’ll likely have to move.
To critics who say taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay her way, she says: “Walk a mile in my shoes. I’m out educating people (about poverty), volunteering my time and raising a family. So, walk a mile in my shoes.”