By Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
The Welfare office was depressing. This wasn’t a surprise; welfare offices are not known for their cheeriness or décor. The carpet was worn and tired, so much so I couldn’t tell what the original color was. All the clerks looked worn and tired. There were toys in one corner, with a Disney version of Alice in Wonderland book on the floor. On the wall was a television blasting Family Feud, Louis Anderson yelling “Survey said!” I wished Louis would come on down and do a routine in the office. They needed some jazz hands, some cheer.
I was grateful the TV was set on Family Feud rather than CNN, which was broadcasting coverage of the Lacy Peterson case all day/night long, along with horrifying images of Iraq being bombed. I tried concentrating on my Nick Hornby novel. I knew it was going to be a depressing experience so I wanted something funny to read. All I could think was what am I doing here? I should not be here. This isn’t me. I’ve worked since I was sixteen years old. Fifteen years later, I was in a welfare office. It made no sense. However, I was having no luck finding a job. An unpaid internship became hellish. I’d been sending resumes out daily, no luck. I’d gone through my skimpy savings. Welfare was the last resort.
This was my second visit. The first visit I filled out the paperwork, then talked to a social worker. He had a glass eye I tried not to stare at. I had to come back for a follow up appointment. There were others in the room. We avoided making eye contact. A woman called us one by one, and then we had to sit down and watch a video. It described that we weren’t going to get food stamps (they had their own program) but there were several types of welfare: TANIF, which helped parents and children, and General Assistance. I’d be going for the latter. I then had to speak to a different social worker (Glass Eye Guy had the day off) who asked if I had children.
“Do cats count?” I asked, trying to lighten up the mood.
She stared at me. “No, I don’t have children.”
“Well just know if you get pregnant, your welfare payments will increase.”
I debated saying “Wow! I’ll go procreate right now!” but decided against it. Humor wasn’t going to work here. Their senses of humor had to be removed.
“You will be required to give us proof you have looked for work every week. We will need copies of applications for jobs.”
“Can I print out emails?”
She gazed at me. “Internet doesn’t count.”
“But most of the job searching I’ve been doing is on craigslist. CalJobs…”
“The county doesn’t recognize internet job searches as legitimate. If you see a help wanted sign in a window and fill out an application, then that’s legitimate.”
“I have a learning disability that affects my handwriting. That’s why I prefer to apply for work through email.”
“Then you’ll need to have a friend fill it out. Or we will do it for you.”
I knew this was wrong. This was 2003! Couldn’t Contra Costa County Welfare join the 21st century? Instead I just nodded.
She then proceeded to tell me that I was going to earn my benefits. No free ride here. No gravy train. Nope, I would be working at the recycling plant. “What will I be doing there?” I asked.
“You will weigh the items coming in to be recycled and calculating their worth.”
I debated saying who is calculating my worth? Instead I nodded, then she told me to go wait in the waiting room where I’d get fingerprinted.
It took half an hour to get fingerprinted because they forgot to call my name. Finally I was fingerprinted with invisible ink. Then they told me how much I would be getting per month: two hundred dollars. I thought at first they were joking. “That’s all?” I asked.
“That’s the limit for general assistance.”
I was confused. The way politicians talked about welfare recipients, they were living high on the hog. They were using the money for alcohol and cigarettes. They were buying those new flat screen televisions. Ronald Reagan had his own special name for these people: Welfare queens. Two hundred dollars a month wasn’t even possible in the Bay Area.
I made another appointment, and then I stood up straight. I was raised on a diet of movies where the heroine might be down, but not defeated. “No offense, but I’m hoping I’ll cancel this appointment because I find a job.”
This would be the part of the movie where the music would swell, the audience would clap. Instead, the clerk said “Just let us know twenty-four hours in advance.”
I came home determined. I knew some people didn’t have any resources to call on, to help them out. I knew I had to call on my resources for help. I kept on thinking of JK Rowling, how she was on welfare when her daughter was a baby. She persevered. I would too.
I made a list of everything I was good at: reading aloud. Dealing with people on a one on one basis. The Internet. Of course writing was on top of the list. Also on the list: helping people with their writing. I remembered my community college had a tutor training class. A friend told me that they paid nine dollars an hour. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I could learn something plus work and get paid. I went to the college’s website and enrolled in the class. I got the last spot.
I printed out my class schedule then brought it with me to the appointment with Glass Eye Guy. He looked it over, and then said “Well, it’s a start.”
“There’s no way I can do this and also get benefits, is there? I am working.”
He shook his head. “No, they want it to be at the recycling center. Otherwise, they would deduct it from your check.”
“But I’m working. It’s not going to be a lot, but the extra money would help.”
“They’re pretty unflexible.”
“I don’t want to sound rude, but what skills can someone learn at a recycling center?”
“Well, troubleshooting, customer service…” He rattled off more skills. I just became more irritated.
“No offense, but the system is really outdated. If applying online isn’t allowed, and you can’t choose where you can work, what choices do people have? Filling out applications and looking for Help Wanted signs can be pretty futile.” Since I wasn’t going to get assistance, I decided I could finally be honest.
He looked incredibly sad. It reminded me of the worn colorless carpet. “They don’t have that many.”
I looked at him. I knew I had choices. I would never go through anything like this again. Nor would I judge anyone that had to go through this; as writer Carolyn Chute once said no one chooses poverty. No one chooses anger, sadness and rage.
“Well,” he said, standing up, “good luck with school. If this helps, I knew something was going to work out for you.”
He was right. A year later I’d be getting ready to go to Mills College. I turned that tutoring job into several. But all I knew at that moment was I was not going to let anyone get my spirit down.
I stood up and shook Glass Eye Guy’s hand. Before I left the office, I saw many people staring at the carpet. I wanted to say to them good luck, but decided to head for home. Instead I left the office just when Louis Anderson was asking a contestant to name a popular breakfast item.
Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons has been published in Salon, Germ Magazine, Stereo Emebers, and Manifest Station. She is the author of the ebooks I Woke Up In Love This Morning, Take What You Got And Fly With It, and Ella Bella. She lives in Central California.