“You don’t have to do this,” I tell myself, as I get off the bus at 9th and Market. “You’re not in dire straits yet.” I walk down 9th to Mission and turn left. Peering ahead, I glimpse the crowd milling about the social services building. I cautiously approach.
I never imagined someone like me having to apply for welfare. Contemplating the excursion, my mind had filled with fears and judgments. As a thirty something, middle-class white woman with a college education, I pictured myself sticking out like a sore thumb in the rough group I expected to see. “Will I be targeted and harassed by some angry black man?” I questioned myself. “Will I be shot by a drugged felon?” “Besides,” I conjectured, “I don’t belong in a welfare line. I wasn’t raised this way; I’m not one of ‘those’ people.” Welfare is a lifestyle choice for lazy people who choose to live off the tax dollars of the upstanding citizens who get off their butts and earn a living. Welfare is for criminals and drug addicts, and just plain losers. Right?
Alert for danger, I find the end of the line and step in. Filthy men with pungent body odors and scraggly beards shuffle about. Rough looking men with red rimmed eyes talk loudly to each other. “Hey, bro wha’s up?” Undoubtedly stoned. I stand quietly in this group, trying to be invisible, my eyes flitting back and forth nervously.
Just weeks before, I had been a grad student at a ritzy private college, working on a master’s degree in counseling psychology. I was living on an inheritance from my grandmother and paying exorbitant fees for my classes. I was also ill with fibromyalgia, a syndrome which causes chronic pain, fatigue, and insomnia. Four weeks into my third quarter of classes, I suffered a flare-up of fibromyalgia affecting my jaw joint. In intense pain, I was unable to move my jaw enough to speak or chew, even a food as soft as Wonderbread. When added to my constant back pain and nightly insomnia, I had to face it--I was disabled. With no idea when my condition might improve, I sadly took a leave from grad school and quit my part-time job.
“What now?” I asked myself. I still had money to live on, but I knew I would run through it within months. My thoughts went to the worst case scenario--I run out of money, lose my apartment, and end up homeless on the street. I was scared. What was I going to do?
Resourceful always, I thought, “You have to see if you can get unemployment compensation.” A phone call later I found out that I hadn’t been working long enough to qualify. The overworked voice on the line told me that I might qualify for General Assistance (i.e., welfare), and food stamps. There was no other stopgap money for someone in my situation.
As a person with a strong work ethic, and a belief in the America where everyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps, I could hardly stomach the idea of welfare. Yet, faced with a choice between my pride and a perceived threat to my survival I chose to stand in the line.
The line inches its way toward the social services building. Once inside the drab, shabbily furnished room I sit down and await my turn. My fears subside within the protection of the security guarded space, and I take a better look at my fellow applicants. I feel surprised to see that “those” people don’t all look lazy, or like criminals or losers.
Middle-aged Chinese couples sit side by side looking tired and worn. Vacant eyed elderly white men slump in wheelchairs. Latino families huddle together, young children in tow. Heavyset black women grimly clutch their handbags in their laps. I sense a palpable pain within the collective energy in the room; a bewildered feeling of “how did it come to this?” These people mostly look like decent human beings who have been hit with hard times, some disaster or loss in their lives. I find myself curious about them. What are their stories? How did it come to this? I find myself not feeling so different. I am disabled, in spite of the fact that I look like a perfectly healthy young woman. Some of them probably wonder what I am doing in the line. Am I lazy, criminally fraudulent, a loser? They can’t tell by looking at my appearance.
And yes, there are those who match my image of welfare recipients--rough, loud, drugged, tattered and smelly. But my mind, once opened, churns out questions. If they are criminals, druggies, or freeloaders--why? Did something happen in their lives that affected them so profoundly that they can’t live the upstanding life promised in the American dream? What can I really know about someone from their appearance? From the fact that they are accepting a welfare check? Is it ever as simple as good people versus good for nothing people? Is it ever so black and white? My mind shifts a notch into the gray area.
The eligibility worker calls my name, interrupting my thoughts. I follow her down the orange carpeted corridor to her cubicle, where she pages through my application. A few minutes later I leave the building.
Back on the Muni bus, I reflect on my experience, and am surprised to note that standing in the welfare line didn’t strip me of my dignity as I feared, nor did it offer me much financial assistance (food stamps only). Instead, I was given something unexpected--an opening into compassion toward people who I had summarily categorized and judged as different from me. Less than me. “Those” people. Well, I was in the line too. I am “those” people. Given the right circumstances, we all are.
Alison Leavens is a freelance writer and jewelry designer, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her jewelry designs can be viewed at www.bejeweledbyalison.com. Alison draws inspiration from the grandeur of nature, and lives with her beloved cat, Minnie.