Rainbow Rowell is a former columnist for the Omaha World-Herald (the first woman to hold that job) and the author of two novels, Attachments and Eleanor and Park. In 1994, as a 21-year-old journalism student at the University of Nebraska, she wrote the following for the Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper.
Sometimes I think they can tell. “They” meaning everyone, meaning you probably. “They” meaning professors and friends and prospective employers. Sometimes I think it shows in everything I do and say. In the way I walk and dress. Sometimes I think they smell it. Beneath my perfume, seeping out from my well-soaped skin.
Sometimes I think no matter how hard I study and smile and struggle, the poverty is still in me, rotting in my breath, devouring my stomach, burning in the back of my throat. In my eyes. And sometimes I think they can tell.
And so I run. I excel…. Out of fear. Fear is my motivation and drive. My muse. Because if I make everyone happy and pass every test, they can’t send me back. They can’t.
But it can. It can catch me. It can catch me, and it can catch you. Don’t ever think you’re too smart or too clean. Don’t ever think you’re too hard working.
“I don’t like welfare,” someone told me yesterday. I don’t like welfare either. I hate it. But I don’t know where I’d be without it…. My mother went on welfare when I was 8. My father left us—three kids, a pregnant wife—on a farm in eastern Nebraska. A farm with no phone. No car. No heat. No electricity. And a few weeks before they turned off the water. No nearby family to step in. No benevolent private sector.
We needed a safety net. And I thank God—and this state and this nation—that there was one. Being on welfare was hard. Harder for my mother than for me. The monthly check was hardly enough for a family of five…. But we were warm and safe and fed. Above all, we were together.
Now…for the first time in my life I’m not wearing used shoes, and I own more than two pairs of jeans. I’m two semesters away from a degree. I have a decent shot at being middle class. After a few years on the job, my taxes should pay back those welfare checks, food stamps and school lunches.
I’m hearing more and more about welfare. I hear important men and women talking about trimming the fat from the budget. About setting loose welfare queens and cheats. About the government’s role. About waste. About orphanages. Welfare, it seems, is dragging our nation down.
But Aid to Families With Dependent Children saved my family. Welfare gave me a chance. Most people on welfare aren’t lazy. Aren’t dirty. Most people on welfare are children, children neck-deep in poverty. Children who already face more obstacles than they should.
And I don’t want them to fail. I want them to have the same chances I had. The same hope that maybe someday they’ll crawl out of poverty. That if they work hard enough they can get away. That if they study and smile and struggle, they will rise above it, beyond it. And maybe no one will ever know.
Click on Rainbow Rowell for her home page.