I don’t talk about my work much. Partly that’s due to the fact that I tend to be pretty paranoid and partly because there’s not a ton of stories I can tell that’ll produce a reaction other than this:
I work at the intersection of nonprofits, social work, and welfare, and in spite of the relatively complexity (chaos might be a better term) of all that, I would still like to try to clear some things up about the system I work in and the people I try to serve.
I. The “Welfare Queen” is a Myth
There’s an imaged that’s been popularized in this country of the lazy, entitled so-called “welfare queen” who does nothing but collects a nice fat check every month which she blows on drugs, luxury cars, and plasma TVs.
This person, for all the outrage and bile she generates, does not exist.
In all my time working in the sector I have only ever heard of a single individual who begins to resemble the caricature painted above. The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people on welfare are simply down on their luck. Contrary to the widely held belief that welfare is for the lazy, the vast majority of people on food stamps are elderly, disabled, or have children, and the average participant in the food stamp system is only in the system for about 9 months.
The reason I keep bringing up food stamps is because that’s really the extent of welfare in this country. In some rare circumstances I’ve seen people get rental assistance or minor help with utility bills, but there really is no big blank check that gets handed out to you. Ever.
See, welfare isn’t a lifestyle, it’s a safety-net, and a pretty shoddy one at that, and mostly that’s because…
II. The System is Designed by People Who Hate Welfare
We spend more time, money, and manpower in ensuring that a homeless man isn’t getting a penny more than he deserves than we do making sure our meat doesn’t have E. coli or that our oil rigs won’t explode.
We live in paralytic terror that people- excuse me- poor people are mooching off the system. We’re okay with our tax dollars being used to build drones that’ll wind up bombing an Afghan wedding or two (or eight)- we just shrug our shoulders and say that you gotta expect a certain degree of collateral damage during war.
But if you even consider extending food stamps for people living 130% of the poverty line…
The horror that the public (and most politicians) have of welfare-fraud has led to very strict regulations on what you can or can’t use you the money for. Food stamps, for example, can be used only for foods that have to be prepared at home. Guess who that really sucks for?
Yeah- people without homes.
And welfare isn’t just made tough to live on, it’s made tough to get.
III. Seriously, Welfare Is Really Tough To Get
How do you think the average person on welfare gets started?
Is there an office downtown where you can stand in line for “free stuff”, or does the check just get mailed to you every week, along with gas vouchers and medical marijuana cards?
Let me paint you a more accurate picture.
You beg or scrape or borrow or do whatever you have to do to buy a bus pass to get to program orientation, praying that nothing will delay you. Should you manage to make it there on time, you’ll probably sit in a room for two to three hours filling out forms. Your forms will be processed (which can take a couple days) and if you’re eligible, you’ll be asked to fill out another assessment. You’ll probably also be drug tested, subjected to a criminal history search (both of which require you trekking off to other facilities), and, if you’re a male born after 1960, you’ll be checked for your draft registration (if you’re not registered, it’ll take 4 to 6 weeks to get you into their system). Once all your information has been compiled it’ll be sent for an internal review, which can, in and of itself, take weeks to complete.
And that’s all if you’re put in the fast-track.
Chances are you’ll be required to stay in contact with a case manager on a weekly basis, submit a minimum number of job applications, and continue to be randomly drug tested and asked to bring in new forms of income verification.
All so you can get about 130 bucks in food stamps.
Because you’re lazy, and just like to kick back and collect.
Oh, and did I mention?
IV. You Get Welfare When It’s Already Too Late
Welfare is “designed” (i.e., viciously maintained) as a last resort. ‘Course, that means if you’re about to lose your house in 30 days, you’re probably not going to be considered for rental subsidies until you’re out on the street. I mentioned above that you generally have to be well beyond 100% the poverty line to be considered eligible for food stamps, and that’s generally true for every other kind of public assistance out there. You can’t be working a couple of jobs to make ends meet, get a tough hospital bill, and then get some basic funding to keep you afloat- you have to be in serious ****ing trouble.
With how extreme your situation has to be to get welfare, exactly how effective it’s going to be when, or rather if, you get it is kinda left up to chance. The equivalent would be telling people that they can get an ambulance ride only if they’re currently on fire and/or being mauled by bears (oh- fun fact for non-American readers: the average cost of an ambulance ride in the States is $2,000).
V. Welfare Workers Don’t Like It Either
In spite of the popular image of the lazy public sector worker, the honest truth of the matter is that your average welfare worker isn’t a big fan of the long lines either. All the paperwork you have to go through to get into welfare? That’s a third of what what average welfare worker has to do per client.
Believe it or not, “Bureaucracy” is going to be the number 1 complaint of public sector workers too. We don’t like having to enter all the minutiae of everyone we meet into a laggy, outdated Federal database. I don’t need to spend a month assessing whether or not a person deserves a 25 dollar gas card to get to his or her minimum wage job.
But you do.
Ultimately, you are the cause of welfare as it exists today. When we have a culture more obsessed with monitoring the poor than the wealthy or the powerful, this is the result. A slow, top-heavy system that takes so much to produce so little for such need. A system that requires you to be bleeding out on the sidewalk before we can even think about giving you a band-aid.
Don’t take this as some cry for bigger government- that’s not what I want. I’m just asking for some bigger hearts, people.
Phrasing used in the original version of the piece was found to be incorrect, and has been subsequently altered to properly reflect the terminology describing the poverty line.