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The real “welfare scum”

No, it’s not the clients, my fellow welfare recipients—for I’ve been eligible for welfare before, and, even though now steadily employed, may still be eligible for some continued welfare benefits such as limited Medicaid assistance. No, the real “welfare scum” are the officious, frequently rude, case workers and their superiors I’ve encountered regularly in Indiana’s welfare system: whether in the centralized Family and Social Services (FSSA) bureaucracy I deal with by phone that’s located in Marion, Indiana; or the decentralized bureaucracy I have the misfortune to encounter in the offices and on the phone of FSSA sub-agency Department of Family Resources (DFR) in Marion County (which encompasses the whole of where I live, Indianapolis).

These “welfare scum” have, because of my need for welfare in the not-so-long-ago past, my present uncertain status, and my vulnerability when such benefits were denied, have created very real personal problems for me. Problems, I suspect, not limited to me alone, but encountered by others denied benefits; but because of my education (university degree plus training as a paralegal), I was (and am) able to navigate through and overcome the frequently cumbersome and opaque appeals process when benefits have been wrongly denied. In this way, I suspect, I’m quite unlike a very sizeable number of welfare clients and applicants turned down, who were simply too discouraged by the complexity of the process to even file an appeal (and part and parcel of the complexity is the difficulty in finding a pro bono lawyer, whether through overworked, understaffed, Legal Services or elsewhere).

But welfare benefits have been wrongly denied me three times to date, early February, 2014; and as proof of their being wrongly denied, I adduce that, upon appeal for each and every time benefits were denied me up to the present, a total of three times, I won the appeal and had the benefits restored. That’s a 100% success rate for me on appeal!

But, let me add, in two of the appeals my benefits weren’t restored until six months after the appellate hearing—that’s typically how long it takes for a ruling to be rendered. In another case, it took well over a year: a year just to get an initial hearing, then another three months waiting for the ruling. But this is what’s typical—and just as typical is the long wait, usually at least a calendar month, from the time of filing the appeal till the actual scheduling of a hearing. Meanwhile, while on appeal benefits are usually not continued, which in the case of food stamps, can be especially devastating. Although once my appeal was won I did get all my back food stamps—often as much as $1,200 worth in one lump sum—it also meant I didn’t have them to contribute to my food budget for the prior six months, which, not surprisingly, was a major hardship. After all, one has to eat in the here and now; one can’t postpone it for six months!

Obviously, then, the concept of “welfare scum” needs to be expanded to embrace not just the individual case workers and their supervisors, but the whole working process, the whole paraphernalia, of the FSSA and DFR, the whole operation of the system of wrongdoing from the decisions of the individual case worker all the way up to the directors of the system who put this onerous process in place. A system that works much to the detriment of those who actually do qualify for welfare benefits, the successful first-time applicants and clients in the first place—whom the system makes implicitly “undeserving chiselers” who have to prove and continually re-prove their worthiness. Unlike the real welfare chiselers, the corporate beneficiaries of government largess, from the granting of a no-bid contract to Haliburton for rebuilding the infrastructure of Iraq to the Wall Street firms who benefited from the George W. Bush/Barack Obama bailout, to the continued subsidies for the behemoth oil companies, corporate agriculture, and myriad other private firms who get Uncle Sugar to provide them with public assistance for growing their profit margins!

A vivid illustration of how this works in practice is given by my exchange on the socialist New Politics website with Barry Finger, Business Manager of the New Politics hard-copy journal, and himself a retired employee with the Social Security Administration—where he himself knew, had to deal with, his fellow employees who were themselves “welfare scum” gatekeepers “protecting” Social Security disability payments from the alleged “undeserving.”

As for the particulars of my experiences with the FSSA/DFR, I relate below the details of the three times I had been wrongly denied benefits. The first case, after waiting a year for the appellate hearing, the appellate judge herself couldn’t see any justifiable reason why I had been initially been denied benefits, period. In the second and third, which are related in my comments to Barry Finger, I had been denied benefits because the case worker who had taken my pay stubs documenting work earnings for the past 30 days used the total amount earned for the year (some four months) as the alleged amount of my monthly earnings, thus not only overstating my monthly income by $2,000 per months, but also attributing to me an annual income of $42,000—which would make anyone wonder why I had applied for welfare in the first place! The third was an even more wretched farce, where I had been denied benefits because I was allegedly in England going to school, all of which happened because a hacker got into my address book and sent out a spurious e-mail stating I was stranded in England, please send money, and my case worker e-mailed back the allegedly “stranded” me, “When are you coming back?” which is incredible in itself; but then when the allegedly “stranded” me e-mailed back that I was in school (which, of course, directly contradicts my being stranded!), I was denied benefits for allegedly not being an Indiana resident—all of which was related with an absolutely straight face at my appeals hearing by the FSSA/DFR representative! (I wonder if the FSSA/DFR representative had any second thoughts whatsoever when I showed up in person at the hearing with a witness who could testify that I was indeed living in Indiana, and had been—when, instead, I was “supposed” to be in school studying in England!)

But Barry Finger wrote a most appreciative reply to my relating of the above, a reply informed by his own experience with the Social Security Administration gatekeepers he himself encountered in his 32 years as a federal employee there. My comment and his reply are here: newpol.org/content/public-sector-workers-and-crisis#comment-151691. A very enlightening exchange indeed on how the system works, which I urge all to access, read thoroughly.

Several commentators on the left have written in response to my welfare tales of woe that it is not the case workers at the bottom of the welfare agency feeding chain who are responsible for the malfunctions of the system, and that, ideally, there needs to be an alliance between the welfare clients and the lower-level welfare agency workers themselves against the supervisors and those who make welfare eligibility policy, the top administrators, political appointees at the very top, and the politicians who put the welfare system and its workings in place in the first place.

While all of this would be very nice, would, perhaps, even come about in an ideal world, in practice this works against itself to the detriment not only of the workers, but more crucially, of the clients (and new applicant potential clients) themselves. For the workings and setup of this very system of welfare “assistance” ends up directly pitting the clients and applicants against the case workers—for they are the first tier of gatekeepers designed to keep clients and applicants out, and not let them in. First, because the case workers themselves often see themselves as guardians of the system’s integrity against the automatically-assumed “chiselers” who apply for welfare in the first place—and case workers who are pro-client, who fight for the rights of the clients against the system, usually burn out or are dismissed, so they don’t normally last long in the system, period! Such persons simply aren’t congenial to bureaucratic survival, so don’t usually survive—unless they manage, somehow, to keep themselves low-profile. Second, the very way the system is set up, it’s the case worker him/herself who makes the initial decision to deny benefits, with this initial decision almost automatically upheld, given the stamp of approval, all the way up the supervisory pipeline. So, when a welfare client appeals an adverse decision, the first thing that has to be appealed is the case worker’s initial decision, with the client (or his/her lawyer or other representative) arguing before the administrative judge why this was wrong; while the welfare system representative usually defends the initial decision, or rarely, admits that mistakes were made, which will usually only remand the matter back into the system for reconsideration.

Currently I have another appeal coming up for a hearing in mid-February, resulting from an officious case manager who got angry and arbitrarily cut off my initial interview to re-determine eligibility, and concurrent with that, an adverse decision rendered because I didn’t give my current IRS filing status—which I wasn’t asked to provide in the first place! Any resemblances to my actual experiences and the ordeal of protagonist Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial only demonstrates that Kafka was depicting actual reality, not nightmarish surreal fantasy!

Last, and I really must mention this, as I’ve directly experienced this with Marion County DFR, is that jobs there are seeming sinecures for African American employment from the receptionist on up, and added onto the usual rudeness clients face when dealing with the FSSA/DFR is the attitude of far too many of these African American Marion County DFR employees toward white clients and applicants: they are looked upon as having personally owned their great-great-great grandmother as a slave! This may be due primarily to Indiana social backwardness, but it is something I’ve personally encountered. (Self-disclosure: I am white racially, though I do try vigorously to manifest a color-blind attitude; and have never actually been accused of racism by any African American, though I have by certain whites of the political left.)

Thus my portrait of the real individual and social “welfare scum” as I have directly, unfortunately, encountered such in Indiana.