A few days ago I promised to tell you all about my experience as a welfare cheat. Julia, who is a lawyer, informs me there’s no statute of limitations on this, so I’ve invited a friend we’ll call Zoey to do a guest post about her experiences as a welfare cheat.
I was a single mom on welfare for about seven years. I spent most of that time in school, finishing high school and getting a university degree. (This was back in the 80s, before it was a crime to collect student loans and social assistance at the same time.)
I sometimes found myself tiptoeing around the edges of the rules. In fact, I didn’t even know for sure what the rules were, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by asking my welfare worker, who scared the bejeezus out of me. For example, I didn’t know if I was allowed to work, and if so, how much I could earn before they started deducting it from my welfare cheque.
I never had a job job while I was on welfare, but I did occasionally earn a little extra income. For a few months, I babysat a little boy on Wednesday afternoons. I typed essays for students. (Such an outdated concept now, typing. I got paid a buck or two a page.) I cleaned the common areas of my apartment building for a small reduction in rent.
Welfare fraud, all of it.
I knew someone who bought groceries for his daughter when she was on welfare with two small children. The daughter did not report the gift of the groceries to her welfare worker.
That, too, is welfare fraud.
I believe the welfare system compels people to cheat. It forces them to live on so little money and to endure such constant stress on account of it, that they must cheat in small ways just to survive. It’s like telling someone not to breathe more than three times a minute. They might try to comply, but eventually they’re going to start sneaking a few extra breaths because they need them.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can make a lot of life’s problems go away by throwing money at them, but when you’re on welfare, there’s no money to throw. Problems just keep piling up. You can’t afford to ever make a mistake or ever have bad luck. You can’t afford for anything to ever go wrong. And life, unfortunately, is just not like that. Especially when you’re poor.
So one day your neighbour stops you on the street and asks you if you would consider babysitting her toddler one afternoon a week while she takes her older child to his music lessons, and she’ll pay you $10 each time. That’s a lot of money to someone in your circumstances, and while it might not be legal, working seems like such a victimless crime in the grand scheme of things. (Work’s a weird thing when you’re on welfare. On the one hand, if you don’t work you have the stigma of the lazy welfare bum stereotype. But on the other hand, if you DO work, you have the stigma of the welfare cheat stereotype. You can’t win.)
You decide to take the babysitting job. You make your $10 a week, but live in perpetual fear of getting caught. (Nowadays they even have special snitch lines set up to catch welfare cheats like you.)
My theory is that impossibly low rates of social assistance (about $600/month for a single employable person in Ontario) serve as a way of controlling the poor. There’s a great deal of surveillance of welfare recipients. Many people on welfare live in fear of biting the hand that feeds them. They’re walking on eggshells. They are afraid of their welfare workers. They are afraid of standing up, en masse, and getting angry. They are especially afraid of all this if they are cheating. I suspect that extremely low welfare rates result in extremely high rates of low-level cheating, such as the type I was guilty of. This creates an environment where the most marginalized element of society – which is potentially an angry group with very little to lose – is effectively silenced and disempowered.