Who gets state welfare benefits and why? This is a question that has troubled the community as well as the social workers that have to explain everything to just about everybody. Over time a negative stereotype of “welfare queens” has been allowed to germinate with largely ineffective counterarguments. Notice the use of the word “queens”. There are homophobic overtones to that very term that was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan. I will share my own experience of trying to claim income support after being one of the victims of the gay people welfare stigma.
The official forms were easy enough to complete, but I would not have expected anything less having armed myself with a good degree in business management. I will never forget the young girl at the counter. She looked me over with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. The unspoken question seemed to be: “What are you doing here”. I had this wild idea that she might scratch me with her long red nails if I did not answer her questions truthfully. My mind was wondering. I was trying to pinpoint her perfume brand; it was a tad excessive. To her credit, she was dressed immaculately (I always notice those things). She was someone I might have an intelligent conversation with, save for the talons.
I might have been sympathetic to her cause; it is not often that you see a young white male of 32 years coming to claim welfare benefits. When she spoke to me, it must have been abundantly clear to her that I had been well educated. The big BUT was that she should have known that everybody was in dire straits after the craziness of the last years of the Bush administration. Anger welled up inside me as I silently wondered what right she had to judge me. She knew nothing about me, my story, my journey, my downfall…who did she think she was? In revenge I gave her a mental name “Esther” since she had not even bothered to introduce herself. Almost as if she knew what was going on in my mind, the newly baptized Esther shoved the form back to me. This was the first of many petty sleights. Over the coming months, I was to learn that rudeness came with the job description for a welfare benefits assessor.
Naïve Liberal Gets a Crash Course in Benefit Claims
I will admit that my own image of a welfare recipient had been drummed into me after years of wasting my life watching manipulative television. It was the young single mum, with many kids from different mothers. She was supposed to be a bit dark or even black, depending on the area. I had not really thought about disability, so it did not come into the question. I was not supposed to fall under any of those criteria. Perhaps the only significant disadvantage that might place me at the mercy of the welfare people was that I was a gay man. Even then I had taken meticulous steps to ensure that I would never be poor. There had been the spotless swanky flat and a few flipped suburban semi-detached properties.
Where did it all go wrong? How could I have spent my way out of a $3 million fortune. I was not too extravagant, certainly not beyond my means. I had invested wisely in something that was supposed to be a great earner. It all went well for the first few years after university. Then suddenly people were taking a long time to buy my stock, the houses were empty, the bank was asking penetrating questions, the bills were not always on time, I was not sleeping well…these were the first signs and much, much worse was to come. I eventually had to sell 7 flip houses at losses which became bigger with each sale. When all was done, I was $300,000 in debt and thoroughly demoralized.
Some friends kept telling me that it was bound to be better…the housing market would rise again. That may be true but I needed money today. That is why Esther felt she could bark at me, interrogating me as to why I wanted money from the state. She asked about my marital status. When I said that I was not yet married but had a live-in boyfriend, you could see the knowing look. I could almost imagine her hissing: “Your lot are now claiming too…how times have changed?” At that point I could not work out whether it was my getting welfare or my sexuality that elicited so indignant a response. What was very clear to me was that she was not best pleased.
Trial by Fire in the Welfare Office
Over the next few weeks, I came to resent Esther with a passion that was equally matched by her unfriendliness. She was quite simply not cut out to deal with customers, let alone any human being. Esther had this amazing talent for making you feel unwelcome whilst simultaneously appearing to follow all the rules of her office. You were either too early or too late. Once or twice I had to redo a form because she intimated that I was giving unnecessary information (and by extension wasting her time). At other times she would read yet another personal detail about my life on my completed form and look up to scold me with a disapproving eye. I was in her hands and she abused that power to the maximum.
We (white males) are supposed to be very unsympathetic to welfare recipients because we have very limited experience of that system. I can say categorically that I was in the heart of the kitchen and did not like it one bit. My sympathies go to any person (particularly a single parent) who has to rely on the welfare system in America to get by. These people have mastered the art and science of making others feel worthless. I could not wait to get a job and be rid of this intrusion. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they started checking my internet accounts.
They were empty, but that is not the point. I remain of the view that Uncle Sam has absolutely no business going through my empty bank accounts even if I happen to be taking some public assistance. I have paid taxes since I was 16 and feel that there should be some sort of reward for that. If I was living in Sweden or Norway or some other civilized nation; I would not have to go through hell in order to get some support from my government. My thinking (it might be very faulty but what the hell???) is that they have taken so much from me that I am due some compensation.
Nobody Enjoys being on Welfare
Forget the myths and breathless storylines; being on welfare is no fun. If we could all get a well-paying job with decent working conditions, we would be off the welfare system in a flash. I was lucky enough to be able to start a stint at an estate agency. It was boring stuff when compared to the highs I had once enjoyed but at the very least I knew that I would not have to deal with Esther’s contempt on a daily basis. Many Americans are not so lucky. They wander from welfare package to welfare package. They are the brunt of political jokes. The one-legged black German lesbian does not exist in the real world of welfare (by the way why do they say Germans?).
Instead we have ordinary people like me who have met the hard times. To add salt to my injury, I knew that many of the problems that the industry was facing were not of my own doing. This was just collateral damage in a capitalist system in which ends always justify the means. I cannot even blame George Bush because the crises ended up being bigger than the man. Failure to earn is a global phenomenon that can hit at any time, no matter how secure you are in your job at the moment.
Would I claim Welfare Benefits Again?
You betcha!!! I am an American and fully entitled to these benefits. If I lose my job or income, I will be there to get my due. The Esthers of this world can go to hell. She has lucky enough to have a government job that is effectively for life. Those of us who have to work out whether we are going to be made redundant the next month, need this type of support. We should also stop condemning those who seek and get welfare. It is an entitlement that is open to all citizens.
At this point I am not even sure that I believe in welfare queens at all. They do not exist. Gay people are far too proud to become dependents of a system that despises them. We may use the service but we are not wedded to it. Frankly speaking, it is a bit of an insult to suggest that it is mainly gay people who want to sit on their bums doing nothing and claiming welfare. We just want what is our due and to be protected from the tyranny of rude public servants.