Upper White Trash: Going on the Dole

(Editor's note: the following dispatch is from a middle-aged, college-educated Manhattan resident who has just given the hell up and gone on welfare. He offers these notes as a cautionary tale, or as a how-to -- whichever way you want to take it.)

Recent events have forced me to seek government assistance. (Briefly, I had not worked steadily in a long time, and my electricity was turned off). So, I figured, it was my turn at the public trough.

There's a huge Human Resources Administration building in my neighborhood, newly constructed (the old one was full of asbestos). Having been the recipient of Unemployment many times, I expected that applying for Public Assistance would be similiar: huge waiting periods in dreary rooms, the result being some money. Armed with a book and several magazines, I was prepared for the ordeal, and I wasn't disappointed.

Some of the waiting areas have huge TVs, so you can watch CNN while waiting for your number to be called. My social Wworker, an officious but obviously high strung and probably overworked Asian lady, kept berating me because I had so many problems at once: no power, landlord threatening to evict me, and a need for foodstamps. "Why you do this all at once?" she moaned at me.

She immediately awarded me emergency food stamps (something other people told me is rare if you don't ask for it) and went into high gear to get funds for my electric bill, until she noticed the name on the bill is in my sister's, not mine. "Why you waste my time?" she kept repeating. "Bill not in your name! Come back when you fix!"

(Despite this, my electric bill was paid a few days later. I still don't understand how that happened, but I've found it's best not to call them up and say, "There must be some mistake.")

Then she told me to go downtown to pick up my benefits card, and to another department to get Metrocards. When I asked where that was, she barked, "How should I know?" Then she became almost apologetic and explained that they had all just moved to this building and she was still unfamiliar with the layout.

Along with waiting, social services is fond of sending you to various locations (uptown to apply for assistance, downtown to get the card -- they take your picture on Dyckman, but put your picture on it at Canal -- and to Brooklyn to register your documents).

Why it isn't all centralized is a good question, but my feelings are that they want to annoy you enough that you'll walk out in disgust. In keeping this with decentralized attitude, the woman who first helped me was only authorized to give me food stamps and emergency cash funds; to get help with housing, I had to go to the second department, where a rather unfriendly worker demanded a rash of documents, plus documents from a friend or relative who would cover the rest of the rent.

(HRA only covers 215 bucks! This is utterly incomprehensible to me. I don't know about you, but I don't happen to know anyone who can fork over several hundred dollars a month to help me. I'm told by long time users of the government this is one of the major changes Clinton's workfare revisions wrought: Welfare used to cover your whole rent, now it's partial. Who came up with the 200 dollar limit? Anyone out there paying 215 for rent? Some time travellers, perhaps? And on top of this, to prove someone else can cover the rest of your rent, the friend, or whomever, must give you copies of their paystubs, their W2 forms, and a money order for the balance of a month's rent to bring to Brooklyn. Why don't they just ask for your firstborn, or a vial of blood?)

Next: buying lamp chops with food stamps.

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