Upper White Trash: Workfare Without Work


(Editor’s note: This dispatch is from a middle-aged, college-educated Manhattan resident who has given the hell up and gone on welfare. Previously at Runnin’ Scared, he described the process of signing up for the dole, and the gourmet cuisine he bought with his food stamps.)

When we last left our intrepid but financially bereft hero (me), I was assigned to a Back to Work program. To re-cap, when you apply for welfare, you must now meet several obligations: You must attend a work training program, and you must work from 16 to 18 hours a week at a job the agency suggests for you, usually something involving maintenance or simple clerical tasks, like filing or easy typing.

I had been sent to a job site, and waited for hours (turned out they had openings for 100 people, but about 400 showed up). I had to sign a paper that said I was late (though I wasn’t), and was told that I would be reassigned a new work date by mail. Instead I got a letter informing me they would terminate my welfare. I asked for a hearing, and got one.

Now “hearing” is perhaps not the right word: I expected to show up at the Brooklyn offfice, on Boerum Street, and make my case. I arrived a bit late, because the city has this habit of sending you to addresses without street directions. They tell you what subway or bus to take, but not what to do from the station. (This is a constant and valid complaint: I often run into other, confused-looking welfare people on the street, trying to locate the address of wherever we are supposed to go.)

Anyway, a friendly cop pointed me the right way, and after the usual wait (no matter what you do with HRA, it will take an hour to do it) my name was called. There was a judge and a witness. They asked my name, checked my address, and dismissed me. That was it. I didn’t even get to make a statement.

But my welfare was restored.

My next attempt at work was to be at an office way downtown (I have to say, I’ve now been to parts of the city I didn’t even know existed), where I was on a list for a low-level maintenance position (there was a waiting list for clerical, and you had to do maintenance in the meantime). We got to watch a charmingly out of date film about sexual harassment and workplace safety. Then I was assigned my work site, a building on Centre Street. When I got there, I was told there was no work, but I’d get a letter in the mail assigning me a new site when work was available.

This was completely shocking to me, and a true indication of how bad the economy is: There isn’t even free work available!

Another sign of how bad things are: when I returned to the MATCH program I found several social workers had been terminated, including two I thought were really good and actually cared about the clients. One guy was a musician and single dad who had extraordinary insight into people’s motivations, and another was a gruff, straight-talking ex-corrections officer.

These terminations coincided with a huge increase of clients into the system. When I first stared with MATCH, you’d do job searching on in the morning, and workshops in the afternoon. Now, no more workshops — some of which were actually useful. Their job interview workshop, for example, involved videotaped role-playing exercises. Others taught basic skills: banking, credit management, and because MATCH is in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis building, an AIDS workshop (where, once again, people’s incredible capacity for ignorance was revealed to me. But I digress, a temperemental weakness of mine).

And that leaves me pretty much where I began: doing job searches, waiting for a job placement, and hoping the economy doesn’t collapse entirely. Oh, one other thing: I got a HEAP grant to help pay my Con Ed bill. and they upped the food stamp allowance for a single person to 200 bucks a month, which one of the HRA workers told me was about time. And of course Medicaid: the health insurance everyone should have. It pays for almost all my medical procedures, and I’m probably healthier in poverty than I ever was when working. Always gotta look for that silver lining.