The following is a story I wrote three years ago. Our prejudicial perception of what goes on at the Welfare Department and what sort of people receive benefits remains a topic in the news. To be among the poor and examine the challenges they face can help to erase some of the stereotypes that block our national sense of compassion.
I arrived for the 8:00 a.m. appointment fifteen minutes early. I’m from Ohio. I can’t help it. People in Ohio are bred to be punctual. Today, I am in California. My appointment is at the county social services building in Richmond. I am applying for public assistance as part of a research project.
An older couple, probably in their late seventies, are standing at the door which reads, “General Assistance and Food Stamps”. In a few minutes, more people begin to assemble. Two middle-aged men dressed in work clothes, Mexican, I assume, sit on the concrete bench at the corner. One-by-one, the crowd grows: young black men, a few thirty-something black women, several more Latino men and women, some with children, an older Asian woman with a sweetly-dressed toddler that I assume is her granddaughter, a young white family with two small children, and a gray-headed, bearded white guy in a ragged baseball jacket.
A car pulls up to the curb. I can’t see the driver through the tinted windows. A young woman with long blonde hair gets out and walks around to the driver’s side, leans in, gives the driver a kiss goodbye. She skips over the curb and onto the sidewalk. She wears a leopard-spotted hat with kitty ears and long ties with snowball-sized pom-poms that dangle on her pale green corduroy jacket. Tight jeans and high-heeled boots complete her look. She’s clutching a large red book with the title, “Holy Bible,” prominently displayed outward for all to see.
“It’s not open yet?” she asks me.
“No, not for a couple more minutes,” I reply.
“Well, I’ve got an appointment,” she asserts and briskly turns around and sits down on a nearby bench.
I hear a click at the door to signal that it is unlocked. I had imagined a stone-faced social worker doing that chore with a heavy ring of keys in hand. How naive of me, as if our age of security would allow for placing a social worker in such a vulnerable situation. The crowd surges inside to fill the elevator. No stairs to the third floor. Again, for safety reasons, I assume. I’m in the first elevator group. It dumps us out directly in front of the social services office. A lady with a microphone in hand announces loudly that we should not get in line at the window, but sit down until the class for either food stamps or general assistance is called.
Over the next few minutes, the waiting room fills to standing room only with a good fifty people as more elevator groups emerge. Two neatly-dressed gray-headed black gentlemen in cuffed khaki slacks and polished shoes sit down behind me. I overhear one say to the other, “You know, I never thought I’d be here, you know, at welfare, needing a helping hand like this.” His friend replies, “Yeah, I know what you mean. We were hard-working men. Got up early every day to provide for our families. Made sure our wives didn’t have to worry about the bills. Put our kids through school. Saved up for retirement only to see it slip away. Thought I could trust my company’s plan.” The other responds, “Yeah. You never know how life is gonna go, even when you think you had the best of plans.”
A door opens and a worker shouts over the din of the room that the general assistance class should line up in front of her. I will have to wait for the next call. Today I’m here for food stamps.
A Short Course in Food Stamps
I line up with about twenty others in the waiting room when the food stamp class is called. Each one of us has been given a white envelope containing information and forms to fill out. We’re escorted by a uniformed security officer through the door, down a hallway, past cubicles where workers have photos of their families on their desks, potted plants, and sweaters hanging over chairs. Social services looks like any other office except for the armed security officers.
We’re ushered into a classroom with rows of tables. In front of each chair is a numbered file folder. The officer stands at the doorway after we are all assembled and gives a small speech on the seriousness of the process, the need to follow directions carefully and the necessity to fill out all forms honestly.
An older woman sits at the head table with clipboard in hand. Another woman, no more than thirty years old, stands in front looking over the room while clutching a stack of papers. She is dressed casually in jeans with her wavy brown hair cascading over a faded red sweater.
She introduces herself as our class instructor and begins by telling us to put our photo identification, social security card, and any other documents we may have to verify residence, income, medical condition, etc., in the file folder in front of us. She gathers them up, looking in each folder to see what is there. She hands the folders to the clipboard lady who disappears to make copies. The instructor continues.
“Listen up! This is the class for food stamps. Please follow instructions carefully and DON’T JUMP AHEAD! You will make mistakes if you do, trust me, some of these forms are difficult to understand. There’s always a few who don’t follow directions. Your group is no different from the others that fill this room every day.”
The first paper we are told to take out of our white packet is the one entitled, “Early Fraud Prevention and Detection Information.” The class instructor says, “This is the government. All of our systems are linked. We can find out anything we need to know about you. If you lie or withhold information, we will find this out. Trust me. The government can cross-check everything now. If you are caught trying to scam the system, you will be prosecuted up to twenty years in prison.”
We are told to sign the document and put it aside.
“Now,” she asks, “how many of you have a permanent address? Raise your hand!”
I raise mine. I look around the room. Of the thirty or so applicants, only a dozen have their hands up.
The instructor holds up a new form, “Take this one out of your packet now. It’s blue. This is the one for those who do not have an address. Those of you who have a place to call home will have to wait while the rest fill out the form.”
It takes several minutes while she makes the rounds to answer individual questions. Everyone has a different circumstance and needs help with the form.
The next form to fill out is titled, “Statement of Shared Housing.” There are boxes for putting in the names and relationships of everyone you live with. Questions follow as to how much you contribute for rent, food and utilities. Multiple lines skip across the bottom of the page for the signatures of anyone over the age of eighteen who lives in the household.
“The next form has questions about your health, your job and if you go to school,” the instructor announces, “again, I ask that you follow me as we answer each one. Don’t jump ahead.”
We get to a question about convictions for felonies including drugs. It’s a two-parter. The first has to do with felony convictions; the second part has several boxes to check with questions about drug rehab programs, possession charges, and other details. The instructor tells us to fill out the first part completely before moving on to the second set. She tours the room as we proceed and stops halfway to hold up an applicant’s paper.
“Here’s an example of what you were not supposed to do. Just because you have been in rehab doesn’t mean that you are a felon. But by checking the boxes under the question on felony convictions, you are placing yourself in that category. I told you not to jump ahead. So now, you have to draw a line through those answers.”
A collective groan circles the room.
“By the way, if you are accepted into the food stamp program you will be tested for drugs. If you fail the test, no food stamps for you. Oh, and just to let you know, the maximum benefit for food stamps is $200 per month. And if you're signed up for General Assistance also, the maximum cash benefit is $159 per month and you can only draw that for nine months in any calendar year."
We get to the question on school.
“If you are in school and not working, you will be automatically disqualified.” she explains, “I know that doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it is.”
A young Latina raises her hand and says that she is in school and not working. She explains that she is diligently looking for a job but hasn’t found anything yet.
“Well, do you have a little sister that you can say you babysit for?” the instructor asks, and without waiting for the woman’s reply, tells her that she needs to find a way to truthfully answer the question. The solution invokes laughter from the back of the room.
We get through the entire packet of forms in about an hour and a half. Toward the end of the class, the instructor says, “I know you guys are getting tired of all this. I can’t wait to get out, too. It feels like jail in here,” she remarks.
A guy in the back row says, “Well, at least you got a job and with benefits, too.”
The instructor looks at him, “Yeah, I got a job, but I don’t have benefits. They upped the premiums and I can’t afford ‘em anymore.”
The woman who had taken our documents to be copied steps inside the classroom holding the numbered file folders. It takes a few minutes while they are distributed to each applicant. Class is finally dismissed and we’re told to sit in the waiting room until our names are called to get our next appointment time. Mine is for Thursday of the following week.
At home that evening, I think about the instructor not being able to afford the cost of her healthcare premiums. Later I mention this to a friend.
“That’s probably her own damn fault for not managing her finances well. I’m sure she could afford her premiums if she got rid of her cable TV and cell phone,” my friend says.
I reply that healthcare coverage can be several hundred dollars a month these days, much more than the cost of cable TV, cell phone and internet service combined. My friend agrees that premiums are high, but sticks to her argument that the woman should be able to afford healthcare above anything else.
I leave the conversation at that. Maybe it’s true. Maybe this woman is a lousy money manager, but then again, maybe she has a slew of bills that she’s trying to pay off, or student loans, or maybe she’s a single parent and has children to feed, or aging relatives who live with her, or disabled family members, who knows, all I know is that I’ve got to get my forms ready for my general assistance appointment on Thursday.
to be continued in the next issue of PONDER