An Open Letter to Kristi Noem

Dear Kristi Noem,

Today, I read an article on our local news channel that you are seeking to cut government assistance, or as they were referenced “poverty programs” because, in your opinion, they keep people poor. I want you to know about the day I chose to ask for public assistance and what kind of public assistance was received. I think, given our very different paths in life, you might not understand how some of this works for we that have never had an inheritance to be taxed or a thriving farm we could claim over $3 million in subsidies for.

It was March, 2004. I was one month shy of 20 years old and had left an abusive relationship with the father of my then six-month-old daughter, but it was not the first time I’d ever left him. I don’t know how familiar you are with the psychology of domestic abuse, but once you are in a situation like that, it is painfully hard to break away. He had sent me away and pulled me back in several times. I turned to the local domestic violence program. They told me they couldn’t help me until I filed for divorce. I went to the courthouse and they told me I couldn’t file without a lawyer. I went to a lawyer and she wanted $1,000 I didn’t have. It all turned into a ridiculous “if you give a mouse a cookie” situation. Meanwhile, he would come to the door and cry and threaten suicide if I didn’t work things out. At a time in my life when I was unable to stand up for myself, I did the only thing I knew to do- try to keep him happy and save myself a beating.

This time, though, it was different. The day I left him, I went to the local library and began reading law books. I was determined to divorce him even if it meant educating myself on how to do it on my own. This was before the state offered Pro Se divorce forms. So, there I was- barely out of high school and educating myself on civil law and the divorce process in my state.

I’d left the baby with a friend that day to do my research at the library. Around noon, I was hungry so I decided to run through a local drive-thru for a fast and cheap lunch. As I waited in line, my passenger side door opened and before I knew what was happening, he was sitting beside me. He told me to drive away. I said no, at first. Then, I looked and he had a knife pointed at my side. I started driving.

The next twenty to thirty minutes were the stuff of nightmares. As he sat beside me, sawing into his arms with the knife, he begged me to tell him he could come home. Every time I tried to stop, he would point the knife back in my direction and tell me to keep going. I blew my horn at a police officer as we drove past and he thrust the knife into my leg, right above my knee, then pulled it out. I looked back through my rear view mirror and the police officer was still sitting in the same place. He hadn’t even looked up to see why I honked.

With my leg bleeding and him now screaming at me to drive down a minimum maintenance road to an old abandoned warehouse, I had to make a fast choice. Instead of turning right onto the minimum maintenance road, I turned left and hit the gas heading as fast as I could toward my friend’s dad’s house.

Realizing that I was not going to go without a fight, my abuser opened his door and rolled out as I drove. I did not stop to see if he was okay. I took a hard turn so the door would shut itself and I drove straight to the police station. They went looking for him and they found him alive, but they did not charge him. They simply referred him to counseling and then issued me a citation for leaving him, which was eventually dismissed. That’s a story for another time..

It was finally enough, though, to get a local attorney to help me file my divorce pro bono. He was ordered to pay child support and I decided to try to go to school.

I worked three jobs for a while: two to pay bills and one to pay for daycare. I refused to accept food stamps or housing because it was not the way my parents raised me. My mother, though, was critically ill and dying and my father was losing the house to foreclosure because he had to leave his trucking job to care for her. Her medical bills were heaping and the doctors were refusing to continue her care if they didn’t get payments, so my dad chose to pay to try to save his wife and let the house go. My older sister quit college to finish raising my little sister.

I couldn’t ask them for help. I couldn’t even bother them with the specifics about what was going on in my life. I just worked.

My daughter and I lived in a decrepit one-bedroom apartment where the windows were broken and sealed shut with rags and duct tape. The door didn’t lock. The water ran about half the time.

My abuser called CPS- his final attempt at ruining me was to try to have our daughter put in foster care. The CPS worker who came to visit me told me I didn’t have to live that way. Rather than threaten to take my daughter, he insisted on helping me apply for help.

He told me to quit two of my jobs because my daughter needed me. He got me into low income housing and he helped me get her on Medicaid and he helped me get food stamps. Then, he told me I should go back to school.

And I did.

I used the help provided to me for two years. At that point, my circumstances improved and I didn’t need them anymore. However, because of these programs and because of Pell Grants, I was able to go to college.

Today, I own a small business. I live comfortably with my current husband (a loving man and a disabled veteran, by the way, whose mother is a proud supporter of you). We have three daughters between us and will soon welcome home a son.

That baby I talked about? Her name is Meredith. She’s fourteen. At the age of seven, she rallied a community to raise funds for Epilepsy Awareness and was able to meet country singer Lee Brice because of these efforts. Today, she helps with a volunteer effort to help feed and provide veterinary care for pets with low income families. She is bright and she is beautiful and she is thriving and she is a strong young woman with big dreams of bettering the world around her. She is not unlike what I imagine you must have been at her age.

I can’t imagine who she’d be if it weren’t for the help we received, though. Would she even still be mine? Would she be a product of the foster care system? Would she be in the hands of an abuser, still?

Would either of us still be alive?

I urge you to reconsider your view of those who use these programs and the role they play in society.

It was you that once said “We have to get the government out of the way of picking winners and losers.” From this once-upon-a-time loser, let me close with this:

I made a choice one day that I was going to win. Thanks to the programs that exist in our great nation, I was able to achieve that goal, even with a broken judicial system and overwhelming obstacles in my way. The fact that I was helped is not lost on me.

Don’t let it be lost on you that there are a world of troubles you’ve never had to face and an entire class of people that deserve a shot at succeeding.

Jennifer Mitchell

Fellow Hard-Working Woman
Product of Poverty Programming