Life Happens –That’s Why We Need a Safety Net

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Things don’t always work out the way you expect. I’ve gotten to mix with celebrities and travel to the other side of the world. But I’m also a single mother who’s experienced health crises, homelessness, and food insecurity.

What I’ve learned is we need public policies that look out for people no matter where they live, what they look like, or how much money they have.

I’m from Georgia, where Tyler Perry headquarters his media empire. I went to college to study theater and film and started getting roles as an extra on Perry’s productions. I was eventually hired as a casting assistant.

I felt that I was going somewhere. But then I began to get seizures, and my kidneys malfunctioned. The doctors thought it was likely lupus and fibromyalgia. I couldn’t continue to work — and on top of that, I was pregnant with my first child.

After my child was born, I began taking medication, felt better for a while, and worked toward becoming a teacher. I even got a job teaching English in China. But when my child’s father threatened to sue for custody if I brought our daughter to be with me, I had to give that up and return to Georgia.

When it comes to people who struggle financially, some say it’s our fault — that we’re lazy, weak, that we deserve to be poor. It’s not true — I’m a strong, hard-working, well-educated survivor. But when you’re a single mother with serious health issues, you quickly run out of options for jobs that pay well.

I’m hardly alone. According to the Poor People’s Campaign, there are 140 million poor and low-income people in this country — including about 4.5 million here in Georgia. In fact, we’re about 43 percent population both in the state and nationally.

To meet our basic needs, a household with two adults and two children needs to earn over $23 an hour. But Georgia’s minimum wage is just $7.25. At this wage, I’d have to work 116 hours a week just to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. (There are only 168 hours in an entire week.)

That’s why the safety net is so important.

Thankfully, I was able to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as “food stamps”) and Medicaid, which were lifelines. During the pandemic, the expanded Child Tax Credit also allowed me to meet my family’s needs — and even save a little.

But as pandemic programs wound down, I lost those expanded Child Tax Credit payments, our extra SNAP benefits, and nearly our health coverage too thanks to onerous read tape, even though we qualify for Medicaid.

Last year, after being on the waiting list for two years for a Section 8 housing voucher, I was finally able to start the process of getting a place to live. But even now there are layers of approval that can take months to complete. I’m still waiting.

In times like these, neighbors look out for each other. But there’s only so much people can do on their own. With the need so high here in Georgia, the food banks have less to share — and what they do have is primarily dried beans and old bread.

What we really need is to renew, expand, and cut red tape for those safety net programs that are proven to keep people above water. And we need to work together to get it.

I received a flyer about a meeting of the Georgia Chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign and I attended. I felt so empowered that I’m now one of the Tri-Chairs for the Georgia Chapter.

I’m helping to see that the nearly 2.5 million poor and low-income voters here make it to the polls to back candidates who support a living wage, a healthy safety net, and other policies to help us meet our families’ basic needs.

I hope you’ll join where you live. Together we’ll make a difference.

Xzandria Armstrong is a mother of two in Macon, Georgia. She’s a Tri-Chair and Impact Speaker for the Georgia Chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign: A Moral Revival.