from The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns (1997)
The Welfare (pp. 371-79)
They start showing up at the Rosemont field office at seven, seven-thirty, leaning against the black metal rails in the early morning light, or slumping against the front steps of a no-frills, hard-edged box of red and brown brick. They keep to themselves, waiting the wait, sometimes asking one of the security guards whether they'll make the cut. Do they take twenty? Or twenty-five? And what time do they start letting people inside?
At eight or so, one of the guards comes out with the paper slips, numbered one through twenty-five, to be handed out as if this were a delicatessen counter. Sometimes there's an argument or two to help pass the time. Number fourteen tells number thirteen that she got here first. Number thirteen says the hell you did; I saw you get out of that hack and walk up. But mostly, it stays quiet for the next half hour, until the workers come down for their morning smoke.
From that moment onward, every opening and closing of the door is marked by those waiting. Are they open yet? When they gonna open? The latecomers drift up to ask about their chances or count how many are already waiting with the paper slips. Those willing to chance it stick around; the rest trail off, vowing to come earlier next time.
At nine, the doors don't open and there's a bit of muttering from one or two near the end of the line, but no one leaves or presses any real argument on the guards. Ten minutes later the office is declared open and numbers one through twenty-five are ushered in. They move past the guards to the old elevator-- the one adorned with graffiti declaring "every one working here can fuck themself”-- which lurches them to the third floor in clumps of five and six.
At the end of the hall, another security guard waves a handheld metal detector over torsos and privates-- just enough of an effort to suggest an actual search and add to the growing sense of insult. From the security checkpoint, it's a short walk to the waiting area, where the group is offered a choice of mismatched, multicolored plastic, shaped-like-no-one's-ass chairs that exist only to decorate the lowest rungs of American government.
They sit. And for the next four, or five, or six hours, they hear without hearing and see without seeing. Their faces are frozen masks, fixed on the wall or the ceiling or the television set that force-feeds them video lessons on AIDS prevention, prenatal care, and drug addiction. They sit there amid people they once went to school with, or lived near, or knew as the friend of another friend, but now none of that is acknowledged with any thing more than rudiments.
"How you been?" "Same ol'."
They watch numbers one and two, three and four go up to the receptionist and make whatever plea brought them down here in the first place. They watch as those people are finally paired with
caseworkers and sent back into other rooms with pages and pages of forms. They wait for numbers five and six, seven and eight. When number nine is called, they sit stoically as he gets in a protracted debate with the woman at the desk, some bullshit about how he already filled out an application and just wants to see his caseworker and no, goddammit, he doesn't have an appointment. It takes twenty-five minutes to get to number ten.
Lunchtime comes. For forty-five minutes or so, not a single number is called. Then the minutes and the numbers begin creeping by again and at last it's mid-afternoon-- already a long day for those tired and hungry, a longer one for those wrestling with the snake.
"Number eighteen." Number eighteen left out. "Number nineteen."
Yes, Lord. It's finally Mr. Nineteen's turn. He has endured. And by enduring he has earned the privilege of taking an application form and following a caseworker down the hall and into a side office cluttered with empty file cabinets and ancient office furniture. If he's lucky, he landed a good one-- a public functionary pleasant enough and quick with the paperwork. The veterans know the roster: Get that woman with the dyed hair and she'll never, ever take your phone calls. Get the Nigerian and when it gets complicated, you won't understand a thing he says. But at this stage, none of that matters; on this first day, hope is still intact and the back-and-forth between Mr. Nineteen and his caseworker has all the gentility of a first dance. The forms are filled out, the rules explained. A request for additional documents is put in writing and the process seems for the most part rational and certain. He leaves feeling that he has stated the necessary case, that it's only a matter of getting the Independence Card and waiting for the money to show up in the bank machine computer.
But long before any check day arrives-- and even when some dollars begin to flow-- those who go down to Rosemont will acquire and nurture a fulminating hatred, a bitterness that will extend not only to a system that is indifferent and insufficient to their desperation, but to its minions, who, even at their best, are unable to erase the immense gap between themselves and their clientele. On one level, the Rosemont regulars understand that the caseworkers have far too many clients and too much redundant paperwork, and that they are limited in what they can do by regulations that demand endless documentation. But that reality doesn't matter when it comes down to survival, because this is real money here: food dollars and rent dollars, Nike dollars and Tommy Hilfiger dollars and blast dollars. And when they've done everything they've been asked and the money still doesn't flow as fast or as freely as expected, then to hell with understanding.
As for the caseworkers themselves, they have equal standing in the argument. They're working at the broken edges of the nation-- the frontier where those without means come to scream and beg and supplicate, to run any game or hustle or dope-fiend move for the possibility of a few dollars more. The social service department caseworkers are there every working day to greet the corner world, to negotiate the last tatters of a social compact between that world and the nominal government. They've been cussed and threatened, lied to and cried to by people for whom this process is not a means to a better end, but the end itself.
This is welfare. This is a transaction that has become as hurtful and as hateful as any business done on any drug corner in the city. The process itself leaves each side in utter contempt of the other-- givers and takers trapped in their respective roles, unable to create or accomplish anything that lasts much beyond the first of every month.
We know this, of course. We've known it for years now; all the arguments against the welfare state are fixed in our minds. Work has been depreciated; helplessness has become a way of life. Government handout has helped to make the underclass permanent and the middle-class permanently angry. And all of these truths serve to justify the rage, reluctance, and general disgust of anyone who calls himself a taxpayer.
For those willing to defend the status quo, there are the anecdotal references to lives salvaged by welfare-- case histories of young mothers who used the check money wisely, who saved, went to school, and, ultimately, were able to lift themselves up into the working world. These stories are true; they testify to the best intentions of the programs.
But down on Fayette Street, the alternate truth-- the predominant truth-- is the maelstrom of check day, with all that government money going to the touts and slingers in a three-- or four-- or five-day rush. Come the first of the month, much of what the government offers to feed and clothe and shelter its poor goes for vials and gel caps and glassine bags, so that the first week of every month is more than enough to carry a dealer. After the tenth, a slinger could close up shop for the rest of the month and still have more than enough to carry him to check day next. Come the fourth week of any month, there's little cash on the street; it's time for any sensible retailer to take his vacation. Because first of the next month, he'll be back on the street in sixteen-hour shifts.
Check day's effect on open-air markets like Mount and Fayette makes clear the economic role of the welfare dollar in the drug culture. To stand on a drug corner and watch mothers and fathers running their Independence Cards up to the bank machines, then racing the cash back to the corners until a third, or a half, or, in some cases, all of the monthly allotment is gone-- to see that is to despair of any program in which the government matches desperation with raw dollars. The cash money goes first-- the AFDC dollars, the SSI checks, the DALP money-- but at the end of the week, the food stamps are being traded for eighty or sixty or fifty cents on the dollar. Regardless of all the noble intent and charitable
purpose, the games will be run and the corners will be fed. Far beyond Fayette Street, others can debate welfare reform, or workfare, or job training, but on check day none of it means a thing to people who are scraping and hustling in an altogether different nation. The corners are no longer part of our economy, our culture; the welfare dollar might reasonably be considered as something akin to foreign aid. And be honest here: When we drop a few billion on our favorite Third World dictators, we pretty much expect most of it to be hoarded and stolen and squandered. In the dark corner of our hearts, we regard this as international bribe money, sensing that its purpose is merely to convince smaller countries to do a little more of our bidding. So why, for the sake of argument, should we expect any better result from the dollars sent down to Fayette Street?
Welfare is a bribe-- and a fairly good one at that. For more than two decades it's been a bribe and only a bribe, stripped of the higher ideals that once accompanied the payoff. Those ideals called for a process by which poor and damaged citizens could be rescued and made whole, but such a process has proven more costly and problematic than anyone initially imagined. So the nation has retreated from that commitment, using check day as a rear guard. The pretense of salvaging human beings has been gradually reduced to a string of elemental transactions: Take this. Shut up. Stay put until next month when there will be more of the same. The incredible thing is that such a small investment can purchase so much silence and apathy. On Fayette Street a mother and child will see $280 and another $120 in food stamps each month. A second child might bring $60 more. A Maryland state DALP loan once meant as little as $157 a month to a disabled adult; after the entire program was eliminated from the budget, it meant nothing. As for SSI-- that's the motherlode of $450 a month for those lucky enough to be declared totally disabled by the Social Security Administration. But getting onto the rolls isn't so easy anymore. In fact, they're denying almost everybody outright, limiting access to those willing to appeal and then appeal again.
It's reasonable to factor in the primary health care provided to women and children by Medicaid, or the food-and-formula vouchers given to poor mothers through the WIC program. There is also the financial aid provided to those willing and able to try their luck in some community college courses. But all told, what we're spending on the poor constitutes a thin share of what the government spends in total-- less than three percent of federal and state spending overall. In the grand scheme of government, all of it added up and compounded with interest is hardly worth complaining about, yet incredibly, we are forever complaining. Absurd as such an expectation is, the belief that all of our handouts will at some point produce viable citizens remains with us; when nothing of the sort comes to pass, we are furious.
But what we get for our money is not inconsequential. It's true that,for some, check day brings only the briefest respite from the twenty-four, seven struggle to stay aboard the chemical rollercoaster. Unbridled by constraints imposed by children, or a future, or the barest necessities, there are fiends who will snatch up the check and have it spent before the sun rises on the fourth day of any given month. Fortunately there are also many others who have learned to stretch and squeeze every penny, to somehow keep a rough-and-tumble balance between addiction and responsibility. For the best of them, the government money can last two, maybe three weeks.
In the aggregate, the best ideas and efforts of the welfare state AFDC, SSI, DALP, Medicaid-- buy us eight, or ten, or twelve days before the damned of the cities have to turn again to capers and hustles and crimes. For a third of the month, the predatory instinct is diverted by money that tumbles from bank machines and check-cashing places. There's less need to rip and run, less interest in pulling car stereos from dashboards or tearing copper piping from rowhouse basements. For that interval, in fact, the bribery accomplishes what all the police and prisons never can: The corners are fed, the corner regulars preoccupied with the money at hand. There's still crime, of course-- all that money can't go up to the corner without everyone trying to cheat everyone else-- so that on check day, the drug-related assaults and drug-related robberies reach their peak. But in general the government dole assures that most of the dirt stays where we want it to stay, and that a taxpayer's life in any neighborhood adjacent to Fayette Street is nearly manageable. Ten days are bought and paid for until the checks are spent and the money is siphoned out, and then it's every man for himself in the search for a blast. But on balance, we have no right to expect more. You get what you pay for in this world, and in the matter of buy-off dollars, we've made only the first installment.
Even so, we're getting our money's worth. If we spent any less, it would be throwaway money-- not enough for even the pretense of a plan. The money would be on the corners and gone in a few days, and the difference would be made up in the crime rate, with places like West Baltimore reaping a whirlwind of armed robberies and property crimes. But spend any more and you still wouldn't get more than ten or twelve days out of a monthly check. Among a population accustomed to being shortchanged, diminishing returns would likely take hold. After all, the players manage to get to the end of every month with even less money; a few more dollars would mean nothing but a few more vials.
On Fayette Street, this is what the government pays for-- this and nothing more. After the last thirty years' experience, it is frankly astonishing that we can still pretend that this response to poverty deserves anything other than cynicism and contempt. Yet to do anything more anything beyond the bribe itself-- remains unthinkable to the nation as a whole.
We've spent a respectable treasure in our cities-- billions in AFDC checks and food stamps, billions more in HUD vouchers and block development grants-- and almost all of it has gone no further than sustaining the urban poor in their nightmare. Apart from the buyoff money, we have rebuilt and restored the housing stock time and again-- not because gilding the ghetto solves anything, but because we understand bricks and mortar, and because even on Fayette Street, the grant money allows contractors and subcontractors to grab a little profit. But what might constitute an actual process-- the systematic reintegration of the inner city into the nation's economic fabric-- was either stillborn or never conceived. More than bricks and mortar and welfare checks, such an effort would imply a continuing commitment to making places like Fayette Street a legitimate part of the American landscape. It would demand prolonged energy and will and a connectedness between classes and races that no longer exists and may never have existed. It would require, too, the expenditure of billions more than we have ever dreamed of giving to our urban poor. If we want to toss $320 a month at Fran Boyd and her children, or $157 at Curt Davis, we can do it without too much pain. Similarly, we can pay a nonprofit housing corporation forty or fifty thousand dollars to rehab the Dew Drop Inn and be gratified by the tangible, if decidedly temporary, evidence of change.
But to take a Fran Boyd or a Curt Davis across the chasm, to restore them to the mainstream of the American experience-- this is Herculean. To create a process that begins to break down the corner dialectic, to offer a viable and practical argument against the drug economy, would mark a new national beginning. Never mind the years of man hours and piles of money that such an effort demands; the process would have to begin with a national consensus that no longer seems possible. It would require that pure, unbridled capitalism be regarded not as the equivalent of social policy, but as a powerful economic system in need of humane constraint.
Instead, the debate over welfare reform has been carefully circumscribed to a matter of dollars and cents. There are those willing to acknowledge that restoring the underclass to participation in the nation's social and economic framework would be an incredible undertaking. But these voices are no longer even a part of the political debate; now, the national discourse, as evidenced by recent welfare reform legislation and the wholesale reduction of the national welfare rolls is centered on the mere act of cutting the handout, or creating welfare-to-work requirements without any awareness of just how unemployable the men and women of Fayette Street have become. The safety net, or the lack of a safety net, for the underclass is now the only issue. Weighted as it is with thirty long years of frustration, the idea that government might have any role in restoring and rehabilitating its poorest citizens has been deconstructed. The poor themselves are now the problem, and, therefore, the argument about reforming the welfare state can be narrowly confined to issues of penalty. It boils down to this:
We gave you the money.
You didn't do shit with it.
We're taking the money away.