Safety Net Success Stories: Four Former 47%-ers Speak Out

Shila and Chad Morris with Misty and Gary Young (Johnstone Studios)
Shila and Chad Morris with Misty and Gary Young (Johnstone Studios)

At some point in your life, were you a 47%-er?

On the heels of a leaked videotape in which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke harshly of those who pay no federal income tax, some now-successful Americans have been stepping forward and publicly answering this question in the affirmative.

In his remarks, Romney identified the "47%" as those "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it... These are people who pay no income tax."

It's widely recognized that Romney was alluding to a Tax Policy Center statistic revealing that, as of July 2011, 46.4% of Americans do not pay federal income taxes. He also seemed to be lumping that larger group in with the smaller set of Americans enrolled in programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (known as WIC), as well as Medicare, Medicaid and others.

Romney continued, saying of the 47% that, "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

But, in fact, many of those who are today or were once in the 47% have practiced a great deal of personal responsibility and care for their lives, pulling themselves out of difficult circumstances.

Regardless of who you vote for this November, the fact stands that many Americans have received an important leg up from government assistance programs. Here are four.

From Rags to Restaurants

Misty Young, who owns four Squeeze In restaurants in California and Nevada, offers this tale from her days in the 47%: "Twenty-six years ago, my husband and I were on WIC and food stamps, standing in line for government cheese and chunky chicken in a big silver can. Our baby daughter was our everything," she says. The family lived in an area where gunshots, breaking windows, late-night fights, and sirens were the everyday sounds of the neighborhood.

"With the help of Pell grants, student loans and scholarships, I went to college, the first of the seven kids in my family to do so," she says. "I made progress. I went to work for a U.S. senator, then a state attorney general and a governor. The same government that helped me start helped me grow professionally. I went into the private sector and learned about business."

Today, Young and her family own four restaurants, and their business is growing. "We live in comfortable homes with no gunshots ringing out and we drive reliable cars," she says. "I was the 47%, and now I'm in the middle class .... I'm very, very thankful for the help I received and do my best to 'pay it forward' with jobs, health insurance to my eligible associates and a generous and giving approach to life."

And that baby daughter? She's a business partner in the family enterprise. Now grown up, Shila Morris says her parents' tale is an "amazing triumph and example of the American Dream."

"The overall tone of my growing up was constant improvement and increasing success," says Shila, "and it's yet to stop."

From Childhood Hunger to the Middle Class

Olivia Ghafoerkhan of Dale City, Va., says she was also once part of the 47%, when she was growing up in a trailer in north Florida with her mother and sister.

"Looking back, it's hard to pinpoint for certain if my story is one of abuse, or poverty," says Ghafoerkhan. "My mother received $600 a month in child support, and did not receive any other assistance at that time. There was food in the kitchen, but how much? I think now she decided to not feed me in order to feed my sister, who is 11 years younger than me."

The free breakfast and lunch program at school was an important source of food for Ghafoerkhan. "But if the bus was late in the morning, as it often was, I wouldn't get breakfast," she says. "Or if I got in line for lunch too late, there wouldn't be enough time to eat lunch. Occasionally I'd shove leftovers into my pockets as classmates watched and snickered."

Ghafoerkhan maintains that her teachers and the adults at her church -- she was baptized into the Mormon Church at 15 -- were also important sources of help and support.

"Today, my life may seem pretty boring and mundane. I'm a stay-at-home mother with three children. I drive a minivan," she says. Until recently, "I've never really talked about my early life, my struggles when I was a teenager, but recently, I've been meeting a lot of people who question if hunger and poverty are really serious problems, and if the programs aimed at ending them really make a difference."

While her life today is far more comfortable, Ghafoerkhan hasn't left her past behind altogether, and she says she's glad to pay higher taxes, if necessary, to support the programs that helped her out of poverty.

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Julianna Baggot
Julianna Baggot

Best-Selling Author: "We Represent the 47 Percent"

Julianna Baggott of Tallahassee, Fla., watched the leaked tape and felt that Romney's depiction of those "struggling to make ends meet," as she puts it, was wrong and sad.

"The reality is, most people don't stay on government assistance forever," says Baggott. "The 47% isn't even necessarily the poor. It's soldiers, those on disability, and those who consider themselves middle class."

The best-selling author and Florida State University associate professor was inspired to start a blog, We Represent the 47 Percent, her first foray into political activism. There, she posted her own open-letter style response and responses from fellow writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Russo and Connie Shultz, as well as contributions from teachers and members of the military. Some of the posts are charged with political anger, while others are wrenching accounts of childhood poverty.

Baggott says, "What we're hoping for is to humanize the 47% ... I believe that there's an instinct to blame those on government assistance. It's a way to distance yourself. If the poor are poor because it's their fault then we don't have to worry about them -- or ourselves."

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Though Baggott is now successful -- her most recent novel, the young adult thriller "Pure," has sold in 15 countries and is in development with movie studio Fox 2000 -- the author is no stranger to money struggles.

When she and her husband, Dave Scott, were first married, they earned very little, had student loans to repay, and two young children to raise. For about four years, Baggott says, her family paid payroll taxes, but not income taxes.

"My husband was making $17,000 as an editor of small-town weekly newspaper in Delaware. I was at home with two children. We rented out rooms to foreign students, and I provided breakfast and dinner to them. We gave up things like privacy and dignity to help make ends meet," Baggott recalls.

Nowadays, Baggott finds herself "squarely in the 53%" but maintains of her early struggles that "it was important for me to grow my empathy in that way."

Lisa Milicaj
Lisa Milicaj

From Food Stamps to a GOP Political Career

In the late 1990s, Lisa Milicaj of Pleasant Valley, N.Y., found herself on food stamps for about two years. "I had left an abusive arranged marriage and was in in such financial disarray, so I applied," Milicaj says, "and I would have to say it was the lowest point of my life."

"It was very difficult to survive on what was provided and the waiting list was extremely long (years) to be able to get any other additional assistance," says Milicaj. Eventually, she found a job on her own and started making ends meet.

Today, this mother of three not only owns her own insurance agency -- "I started my own company almost five years to the day after coming off of public assistance," she says -- she was also recently elected to her town council. Of her entry into the political world, she says: "I had a full time job, I just wanted to make a difference."

A Republican and a Romney supporter, Milicaj is concerned about abuses of government assistance programs. But, she also says, "My views are that without a doubt government assistance is important. This should be used when there is absolutely no other way to survive, but not used when [one] can stand up on their own. There are some people that are truly disabled and just cannot provide for themselves and understandably, in these types of severe circumstances, it is necessary."

What's your take, DailyFinance reader? If you are now or used to be a member of the 47%, share your story in the comments section below.