Adventures in the Welfare Office

Some months ago my husband and I decided to apply for food stamps. He's a graduate student working on a PhD with uncertain income from semester to semester and I am a full time mother. We knew from previous experience that applying for public assistance requires lots of waiting around in crowded rooms so we decided that I would go to the office while he took care of the kids. I gathered up all of the paper work that I would need and we loaded everyone into the car.

On the way to the welfare office all of the stereotypes that I had ever heard about people on welfare were running through me head. The welfare queens, the "baby daddies" and "baby mommas", the ghetto superstars. I was sternly telling my self not to succumb to these images because they are all most likely false. After all, my husband and I were applying for food stamps and while we don't have a lot of money we are not uneducated single teen parents.

Well, the first thing I noticed as I walked up to the civics building was the pregnant teenager standing outside of the front door. She was taking a few puffs on a cigarette before heading inside of the no-smoking building. There were also several apparently able bodied young men, some smoking some not, doing a fine job of looking thuggish. Okay, so there were a bunch of stereotypes standing around outside the government building but that didn't mean anything.

I went on inside to my destination on the second floor. I foolishly went on a Wednesday morning thinking that the office would be relatively empty. Unfortunately, I chose a Wednesday that came after an election day. The office had been closed the day before so now it was swarming with people.

As I stood in the long line to get my application I studied the people around me. There were lots of tired looking elderly people waiting around. There were immigrants, some with interpreters, and their children. I saw lots of men and women with crying and whining children. The air in the large room smelled of stale cigarette smoke and, thankfully, not much else. Everywhere there were signs telling people not to put their feet on the furniture and to take their trash with them. The door-knobs had been removed from most of the doors leading to other rooms. I wondered what prompted them to do that. I was glad I had left my children with my husband.

After I got the application I sat down to fill it out and then got back in line to give it back to the woman who had given it to me. How efficient! Then I was given a number and sent to wait some more. I didn't bring a book or my knitting so I did some more people watching. I was struck by the abundance of young men in the room. Both black and white, some with better looking clothes than others. Most of them sported the gangster thug look with baggy clothes, lots of name brands, and some over-sized jewelry.

I over heard more than one conversation about who was sleeping with whom. I was witness to a welfare office high school reunion where the recent graduates talked about their babies' mothers and fathers. There was a rather loud young lady with her perhaps three year old daughter and a friend. The only reason she was in the office was because she was threatened with losing her benefits. I tried not to listen to their conversation but it was kind of hard to miss. I heard all about the antics of various friends in bars and bedrooms, run-ins with police, who had kids with whom, etc.

Finally my number was called. I walked to the counter to face a tired looking worker who looked like she had had enough nonsense for the day (it was still before lunch). She looked over my paper work and asked me about how much money we had in the bank. She informed me that we had too much money in the bank to qualify for food stamps. I informed her that my husband and I had been saving money because we were never sure if he would be employed from semester to semester. We were applying for food stamps because our reserves were running low.

"Well come back when you have less money." And with that, my ordeal in the welfare office was over. My husband and I were denied government assistance because we were fiscally responsible. About two months after my initial adventure in the welfare office we received a letter informing us that our resources exceeded allowed limits by $1.

So all of you responsible people who know how to hang on to your dollars don't bother applying for food stamps. The government will only help you after you've hit rock bottom. They don't seem to have much interest in keeping you from getting there.

The longer I live the more I realize that there is always a disturbing amount of truth within stereotypes. And they are all hanging out at the welfare office.

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