Special Report: A Welfare Diary

Welfare Diary 26 Years Later, Part 2: A Welfare Diary

This is the original text of A Welfare Diary, published on Saturday, June 15, 1991 in The Hamilton Spectator.

By Karl Andrus
Published July 31, 2017

A Welfare Diary: One woman's story of learning to live within 'the system' - Special to The Spectator - Saturday, June 15, 1991, by Emily Bell [Kate Andrus]

I read the paper the other day and it happened, again, in the Street Beat Column this time. There they were, the descriptions of cockroaches, filth and single women with children on welfare. The same old welfare cliches about taking a free ride on the taxpayers' money.

With one out of every four people in the region on some kind of social assistance, it's time the other side of the story came out. A year ago today I had a job, supporting three children on my own, a home, a mortgage and a car. I paid my taxes, bought clothes, groceries, saved a little money when I could. This is our story.

WEEK ONE

MY UIC claim has run out. I had been laid off from my middle management job. I searched long and hard for work. The house is gone, sold for the mortgage owing. The car is gone; I couldn't afford the insurance, the upkeep or even gasoline. I hunted and found a reasonably-priced apartment and with the help a friend with a truck, the kids and I said good-bye to their family home and moved. I've given up job hunting. I am going back to university and I'm applying for welfare.

I call the Regional Welfare Office on Tuesday. I am told that the worker will be out to see me within four working days. I must stay at home and wait for the worker. A trip to pick up the kids from school or buy milk could mean another four-day wait.

So I stay home and collect everything the receptionist told me I'll need: Identification for all of us, copies of my support agreement, documents from family court, copy of my lease, UIC claim, bank book, OHIP cards. They are going to go through every piece of my financial life.

There is little chance for fraud here. Our Health Cards have not yet arrived and some of our ID has gone missing since the move, but I assemble what I have and wait. I have $10 cash and enough groceries left for three hot meals. I hope the worker arrives soon.

Wednesday: The worker arrives with long and detailed forms. She is polite and nice. She notes the missing identification and health cards and without special emphasis tells me I'll have to get them to her. She tells me she can have a cheque for tomorrow, but I must come down to the office and sign papers from Support Services.

This branch of Welfare will sue my ex-husband for the support he is supposed to be paying me, while they help me. The worker asks how long I was married, when my ex and I last lived together. I know the questions are necessary, but I find myself resenting the invasion of privacy. It is not easy to talk about your private life with a complete stranger.

I ask about the amount of money I'll receive. The worker cannot tell me. She has to go back to the office and work the amount out. She can't tell me how much money is allotted for food in the budget, how much for clothing. She can tell me that the basic shelter allowance for a family of four is $489.

My heart sinks; rent for our three-bedroom apartment with utilities is $650 per month. I rented the cheapest apartment I could find. We finish the application. I sign, swearing I've been honest with my answers. I sign a form giving the region the right to examine my bank accounts. The worker leaves.

Friday: I walk downtown to the welfare office. I have no money for bus fare. I take my bundle buggy. It's a market day and I can grocery shop while I am downtown. The office is on the 13th floor of the Ellen Fairclough Building. I smile at the irony of the floor number. The waiting room is large and empty. I give my name to the receptionist behind glass and take a seat. She can't tell me how long I'll have to wait. I notice the room is grubby, no windows, and is separated from the offices by corridors and closed doors.

Occasionally one opens and I glimpse desks and people working. The doors are quickly closed tight. I read the pamphlets about job re-training and services offered by social services. The pamphlets are all bright and hopeful looking. As it nears 9:30a.m. more clients - the name given to people on welfare - file in. We sit far apart from each other and don't speak. We all look nervous, anxious. We are all waiting for cheques.

After about 20 minutes, my worker emerges from behind the barricades and leads me into a windowless cubical. I meet the Support Services Worker, who explains that I must give the region the right to all my support payments from this date on. After 10 minutes of conversation, I'm confused. I listen again carefully.

I have a court order requiring my ex-husband to pay support. Yes. He isn't paying the support now. Right. The region will give me welfare. They will then sue him the amount of money he is supposed to pay. When he does pay, the region will get its money back first. The support he already owes will come to me only after the region is paid. If he starts paying regularly, the amount will be deducted dollar for dollar from my assistance.

I feel somehow I'm still the one losing out, but I sign. I don't have a choice, my cheque depends on it. As long as I am on Social Assistance, my support payments must be registered with the Attorney General's Office for Support Enforcement. Only Social Services can withdraw me from the program now.

My worker hands me an envelope. I open it: $1,218, not quite a full month's benefits. I again ask about budgets, how this amount is determined. I'm told there is a basic shelter allowance and a basic needs allowance. The amounts per person or child that these are based on remain secret. I want to know what the region believes it costs to feed a child for a month. I know there are figures that welfare is based on somewhere. The secrecy upsets me. Why can't I know? Why can't everyone know?

I receive a drug benefit card for prescription medicine and an income statement form. I must file the form by the 15th of the month in order to get my next cheque. On my way out of the office, I remember that the Bank of Montreal in Jackson Square cashes welfare cheques with identification. Perfect, I think, I can get money and then go straight to the market to shop. I stand in line at the bank. When I reach the teller, she tells me to look at the back of the cheque. The region has moved its accounts to the branch at King and Holton streets, almost two miles away. The teller apologizes, I must go there or to my own bank. Embarrassed and angry, I leave. I will have to walk to my own bank to cash the cheque then come back downtown.

On the walk home, I start calculating. $1,218 seems like a lot of money until I subtract my rent of $650. There is only $568 for food and clothing and everything else for a month. That means $124 per week for food and clothing for three growing children and myself. My cupboards are literally bare. I am out of flour, sugar, salt, all staples. This is going to take some careful managing.

WEEK TWO

I decide to do bi-weekly shopping and put away the remaining half of the money. I need so much. The children all need shoes. The oldest has no summer clothes that fit her. I grocery shop for staples. We can afford to eat meat only twice a week. I assume the government is paying me to do the work, so I make granola, yogurt, my own fish cakes. I buy nothing pre-packaged or pre-made. I buy fruit and cheese from the market, but I still have to ration these out to the kids. They don't understand why they can't have a second glass of milk or more meat at supper.

They begin to argue about who gotr more milk or juice, whose glass is bigger. Bread, peanut butter and popcorn are the tummy fillers when supper isn't enough. I visit the Bi-Way for running shoes and leave with three pairs, $35 later. I can't afford the clothes there. Garage, rummage sales, second-hand stores are my only option. My oldest balks at wearing second-hand clothes. We fight about it. She can't understand why I can't buy her new clothes. We are walking everywhere, there is nothing in the budget for bus fare.

Thursday: Disaster. On the way home from the library, my glasses break. I am almost blind without them. I mend them with a garbage bag tie, but the lens keeps dropping out. I call my worker, she calls me back the next day. I learn I must be on welfare for two months before I can get new glasses. I keep fixing them and hope the next time the lens falls out, it won't smash.

The middle child, the quiet one, brings home a form for a pizza lunch at school. One slice of pizza and a drink for $2.50. I don't have the money to spare. I try to make it up by making pizza from scratch for supper. It doesn't help.

Weekend: Buses are running out to the Royal Botanical Gardens again. We splurge $5.70 return for the bus. We take our lunch, but only go as far as Valley Inn. We can't afford the RBG. At least, somethings are still free.

The kinds want to know why we can't go to Easterbrooks. A conversation about how things used to be follows. The kids remember the drives we took into the country, the occasional movies, dinner out at a restaurant. They all want to know why we can't do anything anymore. The oldest thinks it sucks to be poor. Thirteen is young to be so angry.

WEEK THREE

Despite my best efforts budgeting, there is only $85 in the kitty. The federal family allowance cheque adds $101, but the groceries are almost gone. I've used up 20 pounds of flour baking bread, pizza dough, cookies. As fast as I make it, it disappears. I've never been so conscious of food and money in my life. A spilt glass of milk is a serious problem. Stains and tears in clothing are a major concern if I am to keep the kids dressed decently. I don't like this. The oldest brings home a trip form from school, $6.50 for a field trip. It cleans out our milk fund for the week.

WEEK FOUR

Down to $15 cash, but at least there will be enough food, I hope. We are using powdered milk, eating pasta with cheese a lot. The youngest arrives home from the park limping. Desite ice packs, her ankle continues to swell. I have no choice, we take a taxi to the hospital, $12 for a return trip. Thank God there are no user fees for the emergency ward. Her ankle is badly bruised but not broken.

The mail arrived this morning, a letter from the provincial department of Community and Social Services. I'm being bumped over to Mother's Allowance next month. The province, not the region pays for longer-term help to single mothers. It tells me the worker will be out a week Tuesday and to have ready my ID, my rent receipts, my bank book, my support agreement and all other documents. I get out what I now call my welfare file. I'm learning.

Friday: One meal left in the house, no milk, no bread, a little cereal. Today is month's end. I wait anxiously for the postman, but he goes straight by. Numb and shocked I call my worker. An hour later, she returns my call. My cheque isn't late, it hasn't been issued. She won't issue it until I provide the rest of the missing identification. She did not make this clear to me in any of our conversations.

I realize that anger will not get me anywhere. This woman determines whether I get assistance, and although I have received our health cards, I only have two of the four pieces of identification I need. She says I must bring them in on Monday, she's not in the office, there's nothing she can do for me today. When I arrive on Monday, I must insist that she is there, because the because the receptionist will insist she is not in. Monday is paperwork day and the receptionists are instructed to lie to clients who come in or call.

I swallow my comments on this practice, agree to it, hang up the phone and begin to cry.

Emily Bell is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist living in Hamilton. The money paid for this article is reported to regional welfare, and deducted from her social assistance payments.


This is the second article in a series:

Karl Andrus recently returned to his hometown of Hamilton after attending Brock University majoring in History. He is a proud son of journalist and local activist the late Kate Andrus. He lives in Stinson, loves the vibrant and growing city, is Co-Chair of the Stinson Community Association and is active in many local groups and initiatives.

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