I was an eligibility worker for over ten years, in two different states, three different counties and three different decades. But in spite of all of the changes, the job is basically the same, no matter where or when you do it. And since I have seen public assistance from both sides of the desk, I have a few insights and comments about the profession.
I started working in welfare in 1980, as an Income Maintenance Worker in western Pennsylvania. Back then, we didn’t have computers and all income and budget computations were done by hand. It was my first “real” job after getting my BA in social work in 1978. We were trained in all programs – AFDC (now TANF or CalWORKs in California), Food Stamps (now SNAP), Medical Assistance (now Medicaid) and General Assistance. The training was long and thorough. It was a good job. I made a lot of friends, many of who are still my friends 30 years later. Because I grew up in the area, I was always encountering people who I had known in grade school or high school.
I remember one girl, who I had admired in high school because of her good looks and intelligence. She had been a cheerleader or majorette at school – but now she was a single mother of two living in the projects. What happened? Why was she on the recipient side of the desk? But as I found out with many people, it was just the way things happened. A wrong decision, an unexpected pregnancy, a forever love turned sour – and you find yourself with no means to provide for your family. Sure, there were always some people who were just lazy, but they were the minority. Even guys who spent their days hanging out on the corner, many of them had learning problems in school that were never diagnosed, family issues that were never resolved, or no positive role models to show them that they could make something of their lives.
But by 1987, I had encountered so many people who had been no further north than Erie, no further west than Cleveland. By then, I had been to England and had traveled to different cities on the East Coast. I didn’t want to be like the seniors I met who had lived their whole lives in the same community. Then, one of my co-workers, who had dedicated her life to helping her clients, had a heart attack and died one night after we had worked overtime until 9 PM. It was time to go. In 1988, I moved to northern California, in search of a new life. But I found my way back to welfare, becoming a caseworker for single, homeless General Assistance recipients in San Mateo County.
It was my first experience with homelessness. But I tried to treat everyone with respect, the same way I would have wanted to be treated. As I did in PA, I called all of my clients “Mr.” and “Ms.,” unless they requested I call them by their first name. I believed that everyone was entitled to a little dignity. But as a representative of the government, I wasn’t always given the same courtesy. I was threatened and called a “bitch” by clients who were mad at the system. Even when I tried to point out the ways in which they may have contributed to their situation, it fell on deaf ears. Like the client who was sitting in the waiting room with a bottle of vodka. When I called his name, he stood up and knocked over the bottle, which was on the floor next to his foot. The cap wasn’t sealed tightly, and as vodka flowed over the floor, he looked at me shaking his head, “It’s not mine!”
In 1991, I left welfare, for what I thought was forever. But after working a few other government and social service jobs, I accepted a Human Services Specialist job with Sacramento County in 2005. In spite of the fancy title, more stringent regulations, and new technology that was supposed to make the job easier, I found that welfare hadn’t changed much in twenty-five years. But I couldn’t get the hang of the computer system, which seemed to create more problems than it solved. Even though I loved my co-workers, I took a higher paying job with the state government. But like my former high school classmates who ended up in my caseload, all it took was one bad decision to change my life completely.
After impulsively leaving my state job a few weeks before the start of the economic downturn, I could not find another full time job. I worked part time for six months in 2009 and received unemployment benefits until I had exhausted all state and federal funds. Like my clients, I had never heeded the warning to “save for a rainy day.” I applied for food stamps and general assistance in the County where I used to work. The general assistance worker refused to make eye contact with me. I used to always look my clients in the eye. After all, they weren’t that much different from me. But $300 a month wasn’t enough to pay rent and I was evicted from my apartment of ten years.
I went to Los Angeles to look for work and encountered the Los Angeles County version of public assistance. Once again, another caseworker that refused to look me in the eye or even consider that I might have something valid to say. I was just a case, a problem to solve and folder to get off of her desk. After completing all of the requirements for eligibility, I was still forced to wait thirty days before receiving payment. I thought of my former San Mateo County clients as I slept in an emergency shelter in West LA. But I knew not to announce my former occupation to a room full of people who probably blamed “the system” for their homelessness.
After returning to Sacramento to stay with friends, I started applying for welfare jobs again. Even though I interviewed several times with three Counties, not one of them found my experience worthy of a job offer. I couldn’t pass a credit check, my last job reference was four years old, and I was over fifty – the trifecta of the long term employment sweepstakes. I was a loser, a food stamp recipient permanently on the wrong side of the desk. I sleep on the floor of my friends’ spare bedroom and dream of the days when I was employed, with a car and my own apartment to come home to. I think about the seniors I visited in Pennsylvania. They may have never seen the world, but they had homes and people who loved them. Maybe I should have learned more from them. But hard times can happen to anyone. A bad decision, a mysterious illness, a fire or natural disaster – anyone can go from being a “have” to a “have not” – no matter how diligently you planned for the future.
But I take some solace in that fact that I was a good caseworker. I tried to make a difference in people’s lives.
Maybe I did. I hope so.