People think they know all about 'welfare;' here's a look at the real world
It starts as polite conversation. What do you do? "I am a caseworker for Mahoning County Job and Family Services". They stare blankly at me for a moment. I say "Medicare and food stamps ..." Their eyes widen in recognition, and so it begins. For a half an hour I will hear things I do not want to hear.
"Oh" they say," you mean 'welfare'" This is usually followed by something racist and a comment about women popping out babies just to increase their check. Inevitably, "my tax dollars supporting these people" and the ever popular, "I have to work" is also thrown into the conversation. Eventually, with a wink and a nudge they will remark about my "cushy government job". And it is there that they think the conversation should end. But it doesn't. And for the next half an hour they, too, will hear they do not want to hear.
"Those people on welfare" are called clients. They are spiritually, culturally, and racially different. They are men and women. Our clients are chronically ill, mentally retarded, mentally ill and physically disabled. Our clients are single parents and intact families. Our clients are children -- sick children, foster children, parentless children, and children of a parent who has died, left the home, or become incapacitated in some way. The elderly are our clients. They are in nursing homes, living with their adult child, living on their own in a little apartment, or living alone in the home they worked 30 years to pay for. The only commonality our clients share is poverty.
For some of our clients, poverty was brought on by a catastrophic life event. Illness. Lay offs. Job loss. Death of the primary wage earner. However, with the exception of the disabled, and contrary to popular belief, our clients work. They work in restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, trucking companies, cemeteries, day care centers, and stores. They work. They just do not make enough money. This is the nature of poverty today.
It is the uninformed person who thinks that welfare recipients do not work; who thinks that all welfare recipients are minority women and their children; who thinks he can know what is and isn't fraudulent behavior without knowing the income guidelines, the resource limits, or the age limits which vary from program to program; who thinks it is easy to qualify for these programs and is dumbfounded at having to wait for his mother's case to be to be processed. This person does not know that the cash program is time-limited and to receive cash the client must do 30 hours a week of school, employment, or a work experience program that we send them to. This person does not know that "popping out another baby" will only increase the "check" from $336 (family of two) to $410 (family of 3). Reasonable people would agree that $74 is not an incentive to bear a child.
Finally, it is the uninformed person who will describe casework at Mahoning County Job and Family Services as a 'cushy government job." Honestly. The case workers for Mahoning County have caseload sizes of 400 and up. We receive 25 to 30 phone calls every day and conduct five interviews a day. We are torn between the bureaucracy of government work and meeting the needs of our clients.
We work in a building with no ventilation and no windows, where the carpet cannot be cleaned because in the words of our director, "it will disintegrate". We work at a back breaking pace every single day. There are always clients. The work is never, never done.
I am a caseworker for Mahoning County Job and Family Services. I love what I do. I am proud of the work I do, humbled by the clients I have, and challenged every day in a million ways. I tell all of this to the polite person who started this conversation with me, but he stopped listening to me a long time ago. He prefers his idea of "those people on welfare." He prefers to envision a "cushy government worker" getting undeserved perks on his dime. This way, he can look down on who he wants. Most folks think the way he does and will only learn the truth when they are sitting across from me in my cubicle on Garland Avenue.