Essays on Technology and Culture

A View From Inside the Welfare System

Just over two years ago, I walked away from a job as a clerk with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. I worked there 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 is too often seems like a black box—one with a number of misconception around it. These misconceptions are not only about how the welfare system works, but who uses it. Until I started there, 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 that must be shared. The time has come to do so.

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 the 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 waiting room—always crowded—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 back door after that.

My district, Delancey, covered a large, diverse chunk of West Philadelphia. We covered the campuses of Drexel and Penn, the nice neighborhoods of University City, middle class Black neighborhoods, and out to the deep West Philadelphia ghetto. None are quite as bad as North Philadelphia or Kensington, but I would be wary to be out by the office at 58th and Market streets after dark. A cross-section of everyone could be seen in the office: 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 off, the caseworkers will kick it back with a denial of the claim. People can, and often do reapply several times before they get it right. The biggest cause of this is that the offices are understaffed and far overworked. 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 things. 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.

Many of these active cases did not require a lot of active work, but the ones that did would be overwhelming. Caseworkers come in every morning to full voicemail boxes. 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. How can they, with so many people needing help. 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.

Once you have benefits, it’s easy to lose them for 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. To cut costs, Pennsylvania 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. Two days after the cash benefit was dropped, was the last day I worked for Welfare, specifically so I could avoid the horror show of calls and complaints that would come. Money was spent on programs to digitize archives, or improve computer systems to manage applications and cases, but not to add more manpower.

What there is also incentive to do is 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, 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 worst, 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.