We all need physical safety before we can do anything else. Without a roof over our heads, that sense of security is impossible. And with two small children in tow, things get scary.
And after fleeing a dangerous domestic situation with my baby and 9-year-old son, with no home but the small moving truck I had rented to escape, I still felt unsafe and terrified.
I left economic security and a beautiful Victorian home overlooking a lush green park in Savannah, Georgia and drove to Jacksonville, Florida — where I discovered the only affordable options for housing for us were uninhabitable apartments.
In my comfortable Savannah neighborhood, I’d been that person who looked down at people who got government help. Maybe because of what I’d heard from the media.
I didn’t seek government assistance to find appropriate housing when I left, because I didn’t know anything about it. Instead, I settled for an apartment with no appliances, no air conditioning, no heat, dangerous concrete stairs, and suspected asbestos flooring.
Though we had a roof over our heads, we were barely surviving. Then another single mom in our dilapidated tenement building told me about food stamps.
That was a big help, but it wasn’t easy. Our stamps only covered pantry staples that could be cooked at home — and we didn’t have a stove. Still, in those days, I received cash as change from food stamp purchases and saved it to use for laundry, bath soap, or shoes for my children.
This same neighbor also convinced me to sign up for Section 8 housing vouchers — but warned me to do it immediately, as the waiting list was long.
A year and a half later, we finally got federal assistance to find a better apartment. It was a lifesaver. The kitchen had a stove and a refrigerator, and we had subsidies for heat. I could finally exhale and focus on how to get us out of poverty.
And I did. I went back to college and worked my way up to being one of the few black female journalists in the country in those days, with my big break as a freelance writer for USA Today. I even went on to write a book about my journey into — and out of — poverty.
But will my children’s and grandchildren’s generations have the same opportunity to get help if they need it?
The new Republican-led House of Representatives is trying to cap all discretionary spending at 2022 levels, despite inflation and rising need. This would cut funding for Housing and Urban Development by over $8 billion — all at a time when rents are rising at a historic clip. There is no state in the U.S. where a two-bedroom apartment is affordable on the prevailing minimum wage.
This new agenda takes aim at people who are in the same spot I was, just trying to do the right thing for our families and get out of poverty. Cuts to food and housing assistance move us in the wrong direction.
President Biden, on the other hand, has released a new plan to ensure fairness in the rental market as part of the White House’s new Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights. It affirms that renters deserve “safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing.” It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.
All of us need the basic security of housing and food. We all must come together to protect this critical assistance that’s helped folks like me, in temporary need, go on to bigger and better things. Don’t bargain with our basic human needs.
Pamela M. Covington is the author of A Day at the Fare: One Woman’s Welfare Passage and a RESULTS Expert on Poverty. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.