CINCINNATI — Keishea Ewing is in the best financial shape of her life, but she's worried that this year she can't afford to give her kids much of a Christmas.
It's a cruel irony for moms like Ewing who work their way off of public assistance.
"A single mother of four children, trying to make the transition from welfare to steady employment, there's no help for us in between," Ewing told me.
When Ewing was on welfare and her kids were younger, there were plenty of social service agencies and programs to help her with Christmas gifts.
Last year, Ewing skipped a couple of bills so she could buy presents for her kids. But after going through a bankruptcy proceeding to straighten out her credit and get her financial house in order, she knows she can't do that again.
"I have bills to pay, and I need to make sure I pay them on time because I just got a second chance," she said.
Writing about poverty at WCPO this year, I have interviewed a lot of experts about how difficult it is for single moms to work their way off of welfare. The Women's Fund of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation released a report in 2012 that stressed just how perilous the transition can be.
"The Women's Fund PULSE Briefing: Women, Poverty and Cliffs" showed how a woman who gets a raise of 90 cents per hour — going from $16.49 per hour to $17.39 — is much worse off after losing government childcare benefits.
The raise would translate into an annual increase of $1,872 in pay, but the new childcare costs would amount to $14,928 per year, leaving the hypothetical woman with a net increase in costs of $11,903.
I talked to Keishea as part of a story on Price Hill nonprofit Santa Maria Community Services.
For Keishea Ewing the ups and downs and dollars and cents have been anything but hypothetical.
She decided more than seven years ago that she didn't want her kids to grow up on public assistance like she did.
Ewing, who is now 37, went back to school and got an associate's degree, all while raising three kids and working a part-time job. She got pregnant with her fourth child and gave birth to him during that time, too.
In 2009, she got a part-time job at a local nonprofit that paid her more than she had ever earned.
But the more she made, the less she got in food stamps and the more she had to pay for her Section 8 rent. Making everything work got more and more difficult.
"People think just because you get food stamps you don't need for anything," she said. "Soap powder, tissue, deodorant — those things were not in the budget. The budget only paid for food, utilities and rent."
She was earning more than minimum wage — and later got a raise — but she was struggling.
"I was really thinking of quitting my job to get (public assistance) because I felt like the job wasn't doing it for me," she told me.
Instead, Ewing found help and support at Santa Maria Community Services in East Price Hill.
Amelia Wehr, a Stable Families specialist there, became her go-to source for financial and emotional support. Wehr would give Ewing a $25 Kroger gift card every so often to help her buy soap powder and deodorant. She encouraged Ewing to focus on her successes and what she wanted for her children.
Still, just when things were looking up for Ewing, the bad credit decisions she had made as an 18-year-old came back to haunt her. All of a sudden, she was making enough money for her creditors to come after her, and creditors started garnishing her wages.
She was earning more money than she ever had in her life — and taking home only half of it.
Ewing finally told Wehr about her credit troubles, and Wehr referred her to the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.
A lawyer at Legal Aid helped Ewing file for bankruptcy protection, a process she finally completed in late October.
"I was able to see my entire paycheck. I never knew how much I actually made until all that stuff was taken away," Ewing told me, choking back tears. "I feel like I had a fresh start on life when all that stuff was taken away."
Ewing is determined to stay on the right financial path. She will stick to her budget and pay her bills on time and hope her kids will appreciate the big picture.
Her story shows just how difficult it can be for moms who want to work their way off welfare and how important it is for them to have the support of places like Santa Maria along the way.
"You remind them of the success that they have had and they can keep moving forward. Just keep pushing yourself, and that's really what Keishea has done," Wehr said. "She has come a long way from being on Section 8, having her wages garnished. She's gotten off of all that."
Ewing is proud that she has.
"My kids, I think they're really starting to see the difference in Mommy," she said.
But Ewing can't help but wish that she could afford to give her kids some kind of Christmas.
When Ewing left Section 8 housing, she moved out of the Price Hill communities and is no longer a Santa Maria client.
She has called nonprofits that help needy families, but most seem focused on younger kids this time of year or already are helping as many families as they can. Her youngest child is 7 years old, and the older three are 13, 14 and 17.
She has worked so hard to get where she is. She knows she is doing the right thing for her kids long-term. Ultimately, she is working to build up her credit score, go back to college, earn more money and buy a house.
But like any mom, she would like to bring them short-term happiness, too, all wrapped up in boxes under the tree on Christmas morning.
If you want to help Ewing and her kids, email Lucy May at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.