Upper White Trash: A Welfare Christmas Miracle!


(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, the gourmet cuisine he bought with his food stamps, and his frustrations with his workfare program.)

My adventures down the rabbit hole that is the bureacracy of New York’s Human Resources Administration continue. A few months back I showed up late to re-certify for my benefits, and they closed my case. It took months to get it all worked out, the one upshot being I got all my back benefits in a lump sum. I ended up with about 800 dollars in food stamps, and believe me, I ate like not only a king, but an emperor for a few months.

Upon my return to the MATCH (Moving Ahead Toward Career Horizons) workforce development program on 24th Street, I found that still more of their social workers had lost their jobs. (Who knows why some go and some stay? The conspiracy buff in me says they always fire the ones who care too much about the clients.) They also lost their coffee machine, which I’ll miss; it served tea and hot chocolate, too.

No sooner was my case re-opened than it was closed again for another “failure to comply” with back-to work-regulations. (I had arrived late to my Work Experience Program site one day.) There followed a “fair hearing” where I had to present my case. I got the distinct impression the judge didn’t believe me; she seemed almost belligerent, thus confirming my feeling that most HRA workers exist to magnify any small error and throw you out of the system. Or maybe she’s just heard it all before, and was weary of it.

Anyway, later I got a letter saying I’d lost my case and would be terminated. A few days after that, I got another letter directing me to the office at Dyckman Street for a “conciliation.” There a social worker told me they’re reinstating my status. I asked the guy, what about this letter saying I lost my hearing? He told me he didn’t know anything about it, checked the computer, and told me my case had been reopened.

I could have gone to customer service to see what was going on, but my feeling is, when things go your way in this system, it’s best not to disturb the machinery. Chalk it up to a Christmas Miracle!

Back again to the MATCH program, and a new WEP assignment at the Board of Education — which, in a touch of Old World elegance, requires a test for TB. (Why not a test for smallpox or the Plague?) The one good thing is the Board of Ed is on Court Street, right around the corner from the Damascus Bakery and Sahadi’s, so a trip there is not a total wash; Damascus makes their own halvah, and it is amazing stuff. They also sell incredibly tasty pita bread. Sahadi’s is a wonderful place for cheap olives (three bucks a pound and less, depending on the olives; compare to Fairway, about six bucks a pound, or Whole Foods, eight bucks.) Also, Sahadi’s has the best selection of malted milk balls around, though what malted milk has to do with the Middle East is beyond me.

I’ve said before that I don’t mind doing some of this stuff in exchange for the help the state gives me, but it’d be nice if I felt the work had some value. WEP gives you meaningless busy-work. One of my early WEP assignments was at an elderly assistance program; I helped empty trays after lunch. It was pleasant enough, but not a real use of any of my skills, and hardly something I could put on my resume. (The plus side was the recreation room, which had a pool table and a large screen TV, and nobody seemed to mind if I switched to Syfy or the History Channel. Unfortunately, they didn’t get TCM.)

I also get a HEAP grant to help pay my energy bill, but this amounts to an annual sum of just 50 bucks! When was this decided, in 1863?

And the amount of paper HRA generates is frightening. Even a simple document telling you where to go for a hearing requires a three-page missive. And they copy every piece of paper, no matter how meaningless. Ever wonder where all the forests are going? Wonder no more.

When I pointed this out to a social worker, I was told, “Well, this is a bureaucracy,” as if that justified the waste.

I remain grateful to the good things, like food stamps and the free weekly MetroCards, that make putting up with the endless rules of HRA bearable. And please remember: it’s the Democrats who dealt this mess with Clinton’s welfare reforms, not the Republicans — another reason, if you ask me, why this country needs a viable third political party.