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Welfare fraud: A first-hand account

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.

Zoey’s Story

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 (Such an outdated concept now, typing.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.

22 comments to Welfare fraud: A first-hand account

  • I read your preamble and launched into your blog, prepared to write a fiery comment about how everyone thinks that the laws don’t apply to *them* and how cheaters hurt everybody.

    Somewhere around the fourth paragraph I had the wind knocked out of my sails. I had no idea the system was so archaic and seemingly unfair.

    I will also add that for every legitimate recipient, there’s at least one scammer… and no real way to tell the difference without serious investigation. It’s not, and never will be, a perfect system; though we could certainly do better.

  • reb

    Currently 50% of every ‘earned’ dollar is clawed back. CPP, EI, and child support are clawed back doller for doller (apparently non of them are obtained by earning them)

    On the other hand on ODSP one can receive $6000 in gifts a year and have it exempt.

    There for earn anything or get income from a dignifying source and they want a cut. Receive handouts up to a certain amounts and no problem.

    PS I am sure Zoey was just getting gifts from those people as thank you for her kindnesses therefore it was NOT welfare fraud

  • Once again you fail to understand.
    1 you should not have been a single mother trying to get an education. You should have been married to a loving husband who would provide you with everything you and your children need.
    2 If you are on welfare you are supposed to tug your forelock and say yes maam or yes sir to anyone who works for a living.
    3 If you didn’t insist on things like food, clothing, housing and medical care the $600 a month would be plenty of money.
    4 You should be happy we don’t still have debtors prisons to take care of the needy cause that was sure a good way to handle these problems.
    5 If you insist on ignoring all these things then you should have the good sense to run a major corporation so when you screw up and lose everything the government will give you millions instead of $600, and then you and your friends can all take big bonuses and not have to worry about cheating welfare.

  • The welfare rate in BC, in 2006 when I was applying for my disability (in BC, you have to qualify for welfare before you can qualify for disability – it’s absurd) was $515/mo. with a housing allowance of $325/mo. Um, that $325 came out of the $515, just to be clear. That left recipients with $190 to buy food, clothing, incidentals, transportation, and pay bills. The reality is, you will not find any housing in this province that isn’t a roach haven for $325. So, you are really living on way, way less than $190.

    I truly believe that welfare keeps people poor, and that it creates enormous extra stress on resources like food banks, health care, and mental health facilities. There needs to be a HUMANE rate for welfare so that people can take care of themselves properly and not be forced into bad situations or forced to cheat, as Zoey was.

    Thank you for your story, Zoey! I appreciate the courage it took to share this!

  • Susan said: “I will also add that for every legitimate recipient, there’s at least one scammer… and no real way to tell the difference without serious investigation.”

    And you know this … how? Urban legend? Hearsay? Barbara Bush?

    I would estimate that the percentage of people who defraud welfare is probably the same as those upstanding citizens who cheat when they file their tax returns.

  • Ah, maybe my friend, Mary, should tell her story too. Give Zoey a hug for me would you please Zoom.

  • I work two part-time jobs and bring in what is considered a good living and there are months when I have trouble supporting myself. No admittedly, a fair bit of that is debt for whom I have no one to blame but myself – but even if I didn’t have it there would still be bad months. Months when the car blew up, or the dryer broke down… or I was off sick for a week (part-time means no sick days… lucky me)
    I can’t imagine trying to live off $600 a month.

  • Arden

    The idea that half the people on welfare would rather be “scamming” they system and living on a meagre $600 a month, than out there earning a livable wage is absurd. Noone denies that there will be a few, but they are in the extreme minority. Try living off $600 a month (with nothing to start with, no car, no house, etc) for a few months.

    Thank Zoey for me for sharing her experience. I know a professor who went through a similar thing (also a single mother) when she fell ill and her insurance company tried to deny her coverage for a full year. Luckily for her, the insurance company eventually agreed she really was ill and things cleared up, mostly, but it was a horrible experience that has left her family marked forever.

  • DW

    Myself and 2 brothers were raised by a mother in that same situation from 1988 to 1993. It took a couple of years but she got off the role, if gradually at first. At the time I didn’t think she was cheating, as we were helped immensely by family, but I don’t believe she reported that, so she too was a cheat. However, when she did start to work part-time, she did report her income, and as someone else mentioned it wasn’t clawed back dollar for dollar, but maybe 50%, so it did allow a recipient to “earn” something.

    The sad thing was, when she got a minimum wage job (6.85/hour at the time), and I was old enough to responsibly watch my siblings to nullify child-care expenses, she started working 40-44 hour weeks. The take home was only about equivalent to welfare (at least the amount for someone with 3 kids which was ~$1100 or so at the time on something called mother’s allowance) but if she went off welfare she lost the drug benefits and limited dental checkups that being on welfare provided, a good thing for 3 kids. Not many minimum wage jobs provide benefits. She stayed on welfare while she worked, dutifily reported her extra income and by doing so not always getting a cheque (or a cheque for a small amount) until Harris abolished the ability to do that. A dumb thing to do for someone who wanted a “thrifty working class” to quote Dickens. Allowing that would be too much like a minimum income and socialism which is a scary word to the right-wing neocons.

    Of course that route was fraught with the arcane “overpayment” calculations, which she had to pay back on occasion, which is why she got off for good. One time they calculated that she owed like $500 for a month, when she only got a cheque for $50 in that month!

  • Susan, I’m glad to see you started changing your mind as you read the piece. But I am curious about this “one scammer for every legitimate recipient” statistic that you’re putting out there. You’re saying that half of all welfare recipients are scammers? Where do you get that from?

    Reb, thanks for that. So people on welfare, when they pick up some minimum wage work, are actually working for half the minimum wage?

    Bandobras, that’s a good point about corporate welfare.

    Wandering Coyote, thank you for sharing your story too.

    deBeauxOs, thank you for that. I’m inclined to agree. There’s just more stigma against poor people, particularly with respect to laziness and ethics. I’m not aware of any evidence that bears it out.

    Woodsy, let’s you, me, Mary and Zoey go for lunch one day next week.

    Valerie, you’re right, sometimes things get stretched a little tight even when you work and make decent money. When you’re on welfare, there’s always “too much month left at the end of money.”

    Arden, thank you. I’m glad things worked out for your friend in the end.

    DW, thank you very much for sharing your family’s story. I found it very touching, and I recognized parts of it from my own experience.

    I once calculated how many hours a week I’d have to work at a minimum wage job to bring myself and my son up to the poverty line – it was over 80 hours a week. (And of course then I’d have to pay almost all of it back out for child care, which would plunge us back into poverty again.)

    I was in a similar situation to your mother’s, but a few years earlier, when the system was more humane (ie before Mike Harris’s Conservatives came into power in Ontario). When I started working a real job, the social assistance system was quite supportive because there was a program called S.T.E.P (I think it stood for Steps Towards Employment Program). Among other things, I continued to receive health and dental benefits while I made the transition to independence. No welfare cheque, but the health and dental made a huge difference, psychologically. I got out before Mike Harris got in, but it sounds like your mother wasn’t all the way out yet. (How’s she doing now?)

  • DW

    Quite well for not having more than a highschool education.

    After she got off assistance for good, we were definitely a part of the working poor, but through hard work and some luche’she now runs the kitchen of a luxury retirement home. It’s actually a large chain that owns about 3000 retirement homes worldwide so they provide benefits and a decent wage, though not spectacular.

    On the other hand she’s raised 3 boys, 2 who have graduated university and are gainfully employed in IT and Finance and another who is an apprenticed tradesmen also gainfully employed so considering the circumstances it could have been much worse.

    I hate the negative stereotyping of recipients more than anything else but I do agree there is a dual responsibility between the gov’t and the recipient to try and get out of the situation. It would have been easy for my Mom to give up but she never did and never complained too loudly. Of course the gov’t has also dropped the ball on it’s half of it’s responsibility. It also seems the system as it is now, is designed for failure. It’s very hard for someone to try and claw out compared to 16 years ago. At least the minimum wage has been steadily increasing to a more liveable wage under Dalton but the government could and should do more to stop the cycle of poverty. Even if they only restored programs to what they were pre-Harris it would be a good start.

    It’s funny the EI programs (a federal mandate) are quite good for someone to retrain, etc.

  • There’s a lack of hard stats on this due to the very nature of the transgression, but one site I dug up (from the Australian gov’t… I doubt the trends are remarkably different from country to country) investigated 4.4 million cases, and had findings against the welfare recipients in 700,000 of them. That makes it roughly one in six claimants that were using the system unjustly. (http://www.centrelink.gov.au/internet/internet.nsf/about_us/fraud_stats.htm)
    Granted, this is a far cry from the stats I pulled out of my ass in my initial comment, but it still points to a very large issue.

  • One in six? Just imagine what it cost the government to investigate those 4.4 million cases. Money that might have been better spent ensuring that programs such as S.T.E.P. that help people get off welfare and secure employment, and yet conserve the safety net many need.

    As for tax fraud, it turns out that the percentage is much higher than I expected, at least in the US.

    “An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of taxpayers cheat on their returns.”

    From here: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_US_citizens_cheat_on_their_taxes

  • I’d say most Canadians are like Susan; I learned a lot from your post.

  • But Susan you realize the “transgressions” are EXACTLY what Zoom is talking about here – things like being given groceries.

    Did you know it is WELFARE FRAUD to TRADE babysitting with someone? You know – “I’ll watch your kids while you go to a job interview if you’ll do the same for me tomorrow” THAT IS WELFARE FRAUD and once snitch lines are in place this is the majority of calls they get, little stuff like this and it can get you banned from social assistance for the rest of your life!

    It’s also welfare fraud to SAVE MONEY. Lets say you manage to put in a garden and not spend any money on food for the summer. You don’t buy any clothes for the kids, you manage to walk everywhere, you’re lucky enough that your housing doesn’t exceed your housing stipend. If you save more than I think it’s 500.00, might be 700, it is considered evidence of fraud, there doesn’t have to ANY fraud, that you were able to save money is considered the evidence.

    This is what makes up the vast majority of those anti poor government statistics from Australia and from Harris’s and Dalton’s snitch line figures.

  • DW, that’s exactly how I feel about it too – that governments, through their punitive approach to welfare recipients, are making it even harder to get off welfare. (My hat goes off to your mom, by the way.)

    Susan, I agree with Mudmama here. This was the point I was trying to make with this post – that what passes as welfare fraud is just stuff most of us would do under the same circumstances. Stuff that’s not intrinsically wrong, but is against one of the hundreds of rules that govern welfare recipients. I would guess that the vast majority of your one-in-six would fall into that category.

    Saskboy, thank you for that. My master plan is to change the world, one mind at a time. ;)

    Mudmama, they’ve also found that the snitch lines result in a lot of petty personal vengeance calls. For example, ex-boyfriends or feuding neighbours. There are also examples of the snitch lines being used by abusive boyfriends to further control women – ie threatening to report her for some real or imagined welfare transgression if she breaks up with him. Or, in some cases, the guy moves in with a woman on welfare (gradually, so it’s never really a decision…he just starts spending more and more time there), and doesn’t contribute financially. But if she tells him to leave, he says he’ll call the snitch line and tell them she’s got a live-in boyfriend. The fear of being cut off welfare and charged with fraud may be enough to keep her trapped in that situation.

  • Zhu

    I don’t know how welfare works in Canada but it does seem quite… strict. I think people are supposed to bend the rules once in a while but again, I’m French, and French do that for a living :lol:

    I bended the rules many many times with the French administration, about for the same reasons as you.

    I simply can’t understand why some people think people on welfare = lazy bastards who can’t get a job. Seriously, who enjoy living on such little money???!

  • peachez

    my new husband was married on the early 92’s in 1992 his wife decided to get on welfare and not let her husband know about it. Her would have the mail and all of her checks going to her mothers house. it was not until 96 four years latter when he found out. Now they want him to pay over 60 thousand dollars to his ex wife.

  • […] dollars Posted by zoom! on January 12, 2010, at 11:27 am | Awhile back I posted something about welfare cheating, which led to an interesting discussion in the comments about how extensive it might or might not […]

  • Deanna

    right now welfare fraud is rampant . There are alot of couple who apply as single parent while he works and very few charges are ever laid
    its common to find handyman collecting welfare and working under the table some earn three hundred a day doing plumbing drywall
    in fact its hard to get anyone to give receipts as they are commonly collecting checks and working under the table

    the amount of money lost is millions lost to tax payers . money that could provide health care to honest working people . i have only know a few people to collect a check and not cheat on welfare and how dishonest is it to not work too many hours because it might cut back from a check
    if someone is able to work and have work they should work not be worried that its interfering with a free ride
    welfare is meant to be a hand out for a short term not a cradle to grave entitlement

  • Deanna

    the money is stable and every month check
    and if you work under the table well its good money
    most of those \i know on welfare and disability can work and do work
    after Harris left they got rid of the investigators
    I personally know of seven couples who collect welfare under the table and they often pull in a few thousand not taxed under the table and rarely are they charged . its not politically correct to go after welfare fraud

    I knew of one couple he worked 20 bucks a hours and she and her mother collected a check , that two incomes with no taxes. They got caught but no criminal charges
    and one couple they both worked under the table and collected , he claimed to live with his mother
    another she claimed for fifteen years while her husband worked for the city
    its not who you think it is committing welfare fraud its the married women who are collecting the single mothers are the only ones being honest

  • MissB

    I find it funny that whenever someone talks about a single mom on welfare they just say, she should have gotten married first or not been a single mom. Where are the dad’s of these kids? Were they helping? I think you find in the majority of these situations, the “system” is very nice to the deadbeat dads when they start working under the table. Sure they garnish the wages from the job they report to child support, but I knew many dad’s who made large incomes but paid child support based on a minimum wage or lower wage income. The system helps the deadbeat dads continue to cheat the system.

    I was one of those moms. I didn’t plan to become a single mom. I was married to someone who died in a car accident when I was 6 months pregnant, with twins. I lived okay for 3 years, but you are never taken care of the same when the person is no longer alive. I had to go back to work, pay for childcare, and pay for bills I never had to pay for before. Before he died I was in school and planned on continuing to graduate school but that all changed when I was the only one available for childcare and all those people who said they would help when your husband died suddenly become too busy when you actually need them.

    I think people need to keep their judgements to themselves about welfare! Yes, there are people who abuse it. There are people who abuse alcohol too, should we stop selling alcohol? There are people who get married and abuse their partners, should we stop letting people fall in love and be together? But there are other people who do it for the right reasons, and they should not be criticized or called criminals when they work under the table. No one is pointing the finger at the big corporations where stealing and cheating is how you make a living. But when you’re poor and are in a bad place, it seems like everyone feels like it’s okay to point the fnger and make judgements. Until you’ve walked in those shoes, you have no right opening your mouth!