A View from Inside the Welfare System
This August, it will be three years since I left a job as a clerk with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (now the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services). I held that job for eighteen months, and not by choice. It was the first full-time job, with benefits, that became available to me after a year of unemployment and hair-pulling stress. The job gave me a look inside a government agency that’s often viewed as a black box — one with a number of misconceptions around it. These misconceptions are not only about how the welfare system works, but who uses it. Until I took the clerk job, my only experience with welfare was applying for Medicaid to pay the bills for a concussion I suffered in college. The hospital did all the heavy lifting for me. As intolerable as the work was, I learned a lot about the system, and I feel I should share it.
Nobody walks into the Welfare Office with a smile on their face, as if they would walk out with the magic card that would give them free food, rent, and healthcare. Everyone walks into the Welfare Office with a look of either desperation, or resignation on their faces. The Welfare Office is the place of last resort for many people. Even if you think you’ll take the system for all it’s got, stepping into the always crowded waiting room would wipe the smile off your face as you face the obstinate power of bureaucracy. I walked through that room every day, twice a day, until the police came to deal with a violent “customer” who threw chairs and attacked other people in line. I opted to come and go through the office’s back door after that.
My former district, Delancey, covers a large, diverse chunk of West Philadelphia. This includes the campuses of Drexel and Penn, University City, middle class Black neighborhoods, and out to the deep West Philadelphia ghetto. None are quite as poor and dangerous as North Philadelphia or Kensington, but I would be wary to be out by the office at 58th and Market streets after dark. The waiting room contains a cross-section of West Philadelphia: Penn and Drexel grad students, kids doing a stint with City Year, unemployed middle-class families in University City, single mothers of all ages, races, and reasons, men fresh out of prison, the homeless, and more. They all needed help. Every last one.
I know this, because my job was to process applications.
It’s your typical bureaucratic nightmare to get benefits: endless forms, documentation, verification, interviews… and if anything is missing or looks off, the caseworkers will deny the claim. People can, and often do reapply several times before they get it right. Welfare offices are so understaffed and overworked that there’s no time to help anyone through the application process, to say nothing of the compassion fatigue that comes with it. At the time I worked there, Delancey had 35 caseworkers, of which twelve handled intake. One handled hospital applications for healthcare, and five handled special issuances for job training, transportation, and other needs. This left just eighteen caseworkers to handle every active case in the district, of which there were thousands. Between the other clerks and myself, we routinely handled over 100 applications per day. Many physical applications came with handwritten notes, begging for help.
While many of the active welfare cases in the district didn’t require much work, the ones that did would be overwhelming. Caseworkers come in every morning to full voicemail boxes. Halfway through my time there, they doubled the storage for caseworker voicemails. They still came in to full mailboxes, but now they were twice as full. Periodically, I handled the phones for the office, and would get calls from people with cases in other districts. I had to tell them that I could not help them from where I was, and to call their district. The response was always the same: “But they never answer the phone there!” I understood.
Of course, once you have benefits, it’s easy to lose them for many of the same reasons it’s so hard to get them. Forms are sent out regularly for reporting and renewing benefits. Miss anything, and you’re cut off. This was especially problematic for people who moved around, which is common in the welfare system. If your renewal or reporting forms don’t get delivered, you’re in trouble. People wondering why their benefits were terminated were the largest number of calls I had to field by volume alone.
There’s little incentive to fix any of this. For cash-strapped governments, including Pennsylvania, welfare is just a money sink. In 2012, then Governor Tom Corbett, along with the state legislature, cut the state’s cash assistance benefit, which recipients could use to cover what food stamps cannot, to reduce the state’s budget. The day I left my job, August 3rd, was two days after the cash benefit was dropped. I specifically chose the date to avoid the horror show of calls and complaints that I knew would pour into the office. Instead, money was spent on programs to digitize archives, or improve computer systems to manage applications and cases — rarely, if ever, to add more manpower.
Money was also spent to investigate welfare fraud. The bugaboo of welfare fraud, to root out people exploiting the system, is something that’s easy to get bipartisan support for. Problem is, most fraud in the welfare system isn’t coming from recipients. It comes from inside the system. A few months after I started, someone in my district stole over $100,000 by issuing cash benefits to the card of a dead man. This made the local news, and we were ordered not to talk to anyone from the media — not that I knew anything anyway. In my last months with welfare, the idea was even being floated to drug test welfare recipients. As if the system isn’t emasculating enough already, the idea of forcing desperate people to piss in a cup just to get money for food is worse.
If you’ve never needed the welfare system, consider yourself lucky. If you’ve never needed to have strangers pore over your bank balances, had to pester your landlord for a letter about your bills, beg your friends and family to document their financial support, or had to face the stigma of trying to buy groceries with a food stamp card, you are lucky. Next week, if things turn for the worse, you could be waiting in line to have the same process happen to you. That’s the biggest problem of all: so many people are willing to support the welfare system when they need it, but when someone else does, they don’t — especially if that somebody is black, a single mom, or both. You can’t have it both ways.