The man who tried to assassinate President Obama by sending  him a letter laced with ricin launched a Twitter tirade against the oppression of the welfare state on the day Obama was elected two his second term – highlighting a widespread belief that welfare is both a tool of oppression and a matter of race.

Curtis was receiving a “monthly disability check” and had perhaps applied for “public housing” since he complains that this is the particular benefit being used to silence people. “Disability checks” are the latest spearhead in the rightwing’s egregiously misinformed attack on welfare.

The welfare approach in the United States are ridiculously fragmented, inadequate, poorly implemented, and outright broken. Political rhetoric from all sides raises the taxpayer’s awareness that their money pays for an enormous welfare system. Yet when the taxpayer turns to this system during their own time of desperation, they discover unanswered phone calls, months (if not years) of applications and appeals, bureaucratistans that don’t bother to deliver the measly few “services” they meticulously document on your “plan” (the California Department of Rehabilitation, which is supposed to be putting people back to work, is a major offender here), and have abundant means to retaliate (for example, by consigning your case to limbo or requiring you to fill out surveillance forms on your own activities instead of providing services) if anyone complains.

There is a deliberate  rightwing campaign to make stymied taxpayers believe that “someone else” (of a different race, religion, or political affiliation) is getting paid “regular checks from the government”, while anyone who has ever tried to deal with this system knows for sure it’s not them.  But while Republicans regular twist and ignore facts to shore up their 47 percent Entitlement Society propaganda, Democrats are failing in the other direction by blindly defending the system without acknowledging the problems or making any attempts to fix them. President Obama’s idea of a bipartisan bridge is cutting Social Security benefits, when many seniors are already struggling to get by on a few hundred dollars a month.

Last year I wrote a series of posts about my own experience of the welfare fiasco for Daily Kos, but I found this was the wrong venue since too many comments trivialized or even flamed a subject that is a matter of life-and-death to a significant segment of the U.S. population. I looked for another place to repost my series (including Firedoglake), but I could not find another place where I could convey what I knew about welfare to a broad audience of voters. Finally I just boiled down what I had to say in 10 Ways to Fix Welfare on a free WordPress blog and left my message to float on the ether. As far as I know, no one is reading it or referencing it. But as the Kevin Curtis incident shows, it’s vitally important to dispel the fog of ignorance that surrounds welfare. So it’s time to make another attempt to shed light on the real problems with welfare and how to fix them.

I am copying my “10 ways to Fix Welfare” here in the hope that this post will be passed around and spark a larger conversation, with testimony from the people who have actually interacted with the welfare system. My complete article – with a couple edits – is pasted below, and there is a little more information about me on the WordPress site.


The people who cry out for “welfare reform” usually want to dismantle the social safety net and let the bodies fall where they may. Politicians take advantage of the public’s general ignorance of the welfare system when they demonize welfare recipients. By representing welfare recipients as scammers and thieves – morally degenerate and racially “other” – politicians score cheap points at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society.

This is an open message to President Obama, Congress, and every State Governor in the U.S. I urge anyone who reads this blog to forward the information to local as well as national political representatives. Share this information with your friends and neighbors so they start to use their votes to shape welfare policy in an effective, positive way.

I am not what people imagine when they hear the word “welfare”, and I’m the first to agree I shouldn’t be in this situation . So how can the welfare system be fixed so I can escape it (or so people like me won’t end up there in the first place). What follows is the essence of my observations and experience.

10 Ways to Fix Welfare

1) Coordinate Local, County, State, and Federal social programs from the client’s perspective. Set up one-stop centers where caseworkers are empowered to assess the full range of the client’s needs, and give them the mandate to make client’s work-ready within the month. When people are poor, exhausted, in pain, and on the edge of homelessness – and probably traumatized by their situation – it is difficult for them to find all the resources and services they need.  A single point of access would also make it easier to address welfare fraud without demeaning and criminalizing everyone who applies for social services. If we have the political will to set up an utterly redundant organization like “Homeland Security”, why can’t we bring about a “Social Safety Net” Tsar to advocate for improvement in the life chances of U.S. citizens?

2) Shift the burden of paperwork away from the client. People who may not have a mailing address in a week are being besieged with paperwork, a ridiculous amount of small print, and bureaucratic procedures that make no sense from their point of view. Social workers are too over-worked to answer questions, and no one has an overview. Yet the paperwork is filled with threatening language about the consequences of doing something wrong, or failing to turn something in that you received a week after the deadline, or demanding documentation of things that are impossible to document (like the dollar you had to beg on the street in order to get to the required Social Services appointment). I have been thoroughly baffled by the whole process: I don’t see how people with little education navigate this system. Need I say that the desperate struggle to surmount this mountain of paperwork and survive the months, and even years, of bureaucratic process creates an enormous disincentive to give up any form of subsistence you eventually obtain?

3) If there is a significant (months long) wait for bureaucratic processing, people who in a stable housing situation already need “bridge services” to prevent them from becoming homeless while they are waiting for: 1) disability determination or 2) a job. The number one thing keeping people from working is the lack of available jobs. If the taxpayer wants to require people who are able to work to get a job instead of dole money, then they need to be given a job directly. People on the verge of homelessness have already been rejected by the competitive employment system: it’s time to just let them have a job if they are willing to work. The disability situation is even more complicated: if it takes up to two years to qualify for SSDI, and the disabled person is unable to work, how do they support themselves during those two years? What do disabled people do if their first application is rejected and they exhaust their “five year lifetime limit” of general assistance welfare while trying to reapply? Are people required to become homeless before being declared disabled? In this case a “bridge program” can subsidize their housing and basic needs during the long wait can either be recovered from back-dated disability payments. If the disability claim is rejected, the bridge money can be regarded as a loan to be paid back once the person gets a job. (For the record, “general assistance” – i.e. the cash portion of welfare that is often directly paid to landlords – is also a loan to be paid back once the recipient has some source of income. It’s not “free money”. The problem is it’s far below the actual cost of rent, which passes the cost of housing the poor on to a landlord that might be barely getting by him or herself).

4) Penalize social service departments and programs if they do not handle cases in a timely manner. People who fall into welfare needed help *yesterday*. Dithering for months and years just makes things worse. At this time many programs follow this procedure: client waits a month or more for a “screening appointment”, a few more months go by before the client gets to meet with an individual caseworker, a few more months go by while the client obtains documentation of their medical condition (hopeless if “specialist referrals” are necessary), another month or so goes by when the client falls through the cracks because of staff turnover, there may also be a few months involved for the client to do busywork to prove their commitment, and finally the caseworker documents the “plan” for the client. In the months after that, the caseworker forgets to arrange for the services called for in the plan, and the client – who has been holding on by his or her fingernails during this months of process – starts to consider suicide. The caseworker may retaliate if the client complains (by further delaying the case, requiring additional paperwork, not returning calls, or implementing surveillance) and mark the case as a “success” (for the sake of obtaining Federal funding) if the client manages to help themselves through other venues.

5) Once a person becomes eligible for welfare – and especially if they apply for disability benefits – PRIORITIZE them in the health care system. Fast-track actually *fixing* the problems that are interfering with employment. When patients are referred to specialists, get them to that specialist with a month, and automatically schedule a follow-up appointment with the primary care physician within a month. Health care records should be clear about the outcome: either the patient has been effectively treated/cured or they are disabled. How are patients supposed to get documentation of their condition for social service programs when every doctor’s appointment leads to “wait and see”? When the county hospital takes over a year to arrange specialist appointments, all the other programs which require health documentation fall into limbo. There should be incentives for doctors who save the taxpayers money by enabling a welfare recipient to work. Also, it makes absolutely no sense to offer “discounts” on basic prescriptions to people with no income: they will just go without the prescription, and the health problem that is keeping them out of work will continue and probably get worse.

6) Provide services to welfare recipients in an order that makes sense. Front-load the services that will help welfare recipients get a job: transportation, clothing, hygiene facilities, phone/mailbox/internet access. In what universe does it make sense to provide an interview suit only after someone becomes homeless and can’t take care of high-maintenance clothing? If transportation is only provided after a year-long application process how was the client supposed to follow up on job interviews during that year? If transportation is only allowed for job interviews, how is the client supposed to get food or go to subsistence-related appointments? Also, how does it make sense for a person without an income to be required to go to another city to apply for a bus pass, and pay a fee for the bus pass, before they can qualify to get transportation money to pay for the bus pass? Sometimes an indigent person’s problems can be significantly reduced by some timely out-of-the-box thinking: for instance, a new bra or athletic shoes can reduce joint pain and a good haircut might lead to more successful job interviews.

7) Everyone who works in the social services sector needs to raise their awareness of the small costs they impose on clients with no resources. Stamps and print-outs  and thank you note stationary cost money. Toll calls to other cities to arrange appointments or pursue job interviews costs money. People who need help with heating and other utility costs should not have to call a long distance number to obtain an application. Transportation to appointments costs money. Broken appointments mean wasted money. The well-meaning tip to dye your hair for job interviews costs money. What does a person without an income do when they no longer have pens and paper to take down important information? These are just the examples that immediately come to mind. It’s amazing how people who have worked with the poor through out their careers don’t think about all the costs that their procedures impose on people who have no income. When some program provides for one or more of these needs, it’s a disaster for the client when the caseworker forgets to renew it. For instance, a month without transportation can mean missed job interviews or a skipped referral appointment that took months to arrange. Also, don’t refer a person to Catholic Charities for basic necessities like shoes if there is no funding for bus money, and Catholic Charities in the next town. Sometimes costs can be imposed through other well-meaning social measures: for instance, in California there is a surcharge for grocery bags that can be subtracted from the already meager food-stamp money.

8 ) Assume people who apply for welfare are in poor health, if not outright disabled, and need reasonable accommodations. Social Services and other programs that serve indigent clients should automatically accommodate disability by allowing people to sit while waiting for their turn. The current DMV-esque situation makes disabled people wait in a line that winds around the block before they can even ask about accommodation for their disability. Also, some Social Services offices require disabled people to be accompanied by a friend or relative before they can get accommodation. Even if a person on the edge of homelessness has friends and relatives, will they be able to take a day off from their own work for a depressing day at Social Services?

9) Employment programs should not force their clients to choose between training and “intensive job hunt”. Once a person is on welfare, they have to choose the intensive job hunt. But if the main “service” is encouragement, and the “intensive” search is going to take many months in a tough job market, then the client would probably benefit from training AS WELL as the lengthy job search. Under the current arrangements the training goes to people with the leisure to to not search for work very intensively: i.e. not the people who need training the most. It’s the desperate client who is being rejected by employers for years on end who most needs training. Learning new skills might actually lift them from their dire situation, as well as giving them a social outlet. It’s hard for people with no income, who can’t afford a cup of coffee, to get out and network. Large employers should offer programs like Cisco did in the 90s: specific technical training with a guaranteed job upon completion.

10) Don’t require homelessness as prerequisite for programs and services. Once a person becomes homeless, it will be a lot more difficult (and expensive) to help them recover from whatever situation they are in. And by that time, the client will be suffering from trauma, additional health problems, and the loss of all the material accoutrements of their identity. Their first letter from a boyfriend – gone. Grandma’s heirloom Christmas ornament  – gone. The manuscript of the novel that was supposed to be published one day – gone. The pet that loved you – gone. All that’s left is the video of youtube that some jerk secretly made of you while you were screaming and crying as all your stuff was thrown out on the street as garbage. The time to help someone is BEFORE the point of that youtube video. If a person has no income and no remaining savings or other resources, and they meet the criteria to be eligible for food stamps and general assistance, then ALL relevant services that could help them recover should kick in at that point. People need work to escape from poverty. Forcing them into homelessness and heaping more stress onto what is already an emotionally paralyzing situation just so they will qualify for help in obtaining employment is ludicrous.

These 10 Ways to Fix Welfare – the REAL welfare reform are  just the tip of the iceberg. If policymakers see fit to address these things, then maybe people will get off the welfare rolls faster or even get help before they end up having to resort to welfare. After welfare is remodeled to address the *needs of the client*, then pundits can start to negotiate matters of efficiency and preventing fraud. However, these changes should result in such vast cost savings (as well as the bounty from adding people back into the productive workforce) that all levels of government will have the means to pay for all the efficiency and enforcement professionals the system needs.

Right now we have the worst of all worlds: welfare recipients are not getting the help they need; providers of fake help and do-nothing bureaucrats are getting fat on the backs of the poor; and politicians are making their careers on bashing the most marginalized people in society (and too busy making straw men to even look at the real people – their constituents – who have ended up on welfare). To make matters worse, very few welfare recipients have the writing skills, speaking opportunities, or social positions to raise awareness of their situation. Instead, the public’s knowledge of the welfare system comes from biased politicians and a press that only reports what their middle class readers or corporate sponsors want to read.

This blog post is not copyrighted or constrained in any way. If you want to help, simply help spread the word about what welfare is and how to fix it. If you have friends, relatives, or neighbors who have been caught up in the welfare system, encourage them to speak up and write about their experience. Let everyone know about the delays, the contradictions, the bureaucracy-for-bureaucracy’s sake, and the sheer lack of real help. Most of all, raise awareness of how the last line of defense against human catastrophes often just makes the catastrophe worse. Enough of the Helpiness, Helpism, Helpesque Faux Help.  Want to actually help someone? Hook them up with a job that enables them to maintain a roof over their head, do their laundry, and put food on the table. And if there is no job for them, face the truth of what it means to deny a person a living income. What do you expect them to do?