The “Bitch” at the Welfare Office — Or Why Responsibility Without Authority Makes Us Sick

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A few days ago I listened while Francesca, a woman I’ve come to know during a decade of working with criminalized women, ranted about “the bitch” over at the welfare office who refused to give her food stamps. According to Francesca, “the bitch” didn’t believe that Francesca had not received the letter telling her that she needed to re-certify her eligibility. This, I thought, is a systematic problem: Access to vital services typically is tied to having a permanent address. As a consequence, the ability to receive services is linked to a level of financial stability that the people who most need these services are unlikely to have. Since Francesca had not had a secure place to live for over a decade, it’s no surprise that the letter didn’t reach her. But for Francesca, at least at that moment, the systemic problem was not on her mind. Rather, she focused her attention on “the bitch” who, so it seemed to her, wanted Francesca and her children to starve. Never one to hold back, Francesca had “let the bitch know what I thought about her” before she stormed out of the office.

Francesca is a fabulous raconteur and as I listened to her retelling of the food stamp office story I shared her outrage, and probably would have joined her had she proposed a return trip to yell at “the bitch”. But when I had the luxury of some time to think over what she’d told me I realized of course, that the welfare worker had no authority in this matter: However much she liked or disliked, sympathized with or looked down on women like Francesca, she was not authorized to give food stamps to someone who had not re-certified her eligibility.

Over the years Francesca has confronted two other “bitches” in my presence. One was a hospital nurse who “refused to let me see the doctor.” The other was a parole officer who told her that if she didn’t keep up restitution payments on an old crime committed by her ex-husband she would be sent to jail. Both times Francesca barraged the “bitches” with pleading, tears and finally curses. I don’t know if they felt fear, anger or shame (probably a combination of all three), but I do know that they are placed in untenable situations like this on a daily basis.

As the public face of social services, they face the despair and rage of people trying to maintain a sense of dignity – albeit sometimes in ways that backfire — in a culture that treats food and housing and freedom as commodities rather than as human rights. Perceived (mistakenly) as the gatekeepers to food, medicine and freedom, the “bitches” Francesca confronts are targets for the anger of hungry, sick, homeless, battered and poor clients who cannot access the help that they need, especially in this era of cutbacks in social services.

In popular culture, “Type A” men drop dead from heart attacks brought on by the stress of their powerful positions. Yet a weighty body of literature shows that the most severe job strain is not characterized by high levels of authority but rather by low levels of authority coupled with high levels of responsibility. Workers tasked with keeping people alive while lacking power over the necessary resources and policies to do so are especially likely to suffer poor health, chronic physical and mental distress, and greater risk of death.

The hundreds of thousands of women who predominate in the lower and middle rungs of the health and social service professions live with the heavy responsibility of granting or denying access to potentially life-saving goods and services to desperate women like Francesca. Deflecting the anger that should be directed at the (usually male, certainly higher paid) policy makers, administrators and supervisors, they are stuck enforcing rules that they have no power to shape or change.

The “bitches” at whom Francesca vents her (righteous) anger are butts of nasty comments about government bureaucrat “fat cats” though they often earn salaries that are barely above minimum wage. As women they most likely carry the double load of paid employment and house / wife / mother work – the impossible task of trying to raise healthy, well-adjusted children in a world of violence, air pollution, aggressive consumerism and 24/7 headsets. It’s likely that they themselves have applied for – and perhaps been denied – food stamps; that they have children or siblings struggling to pay court fees in order to stay out of jail; and that they too can’t get the kind of medical attention that they need.

I’m not sure how I’ll react the next time Francesca blows up at a clerk or a caseworker. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to persuade everyone concerned that the real enemy is not the woman on the other side of the desk but rather the powerbrokers who keep them there. But in truth, I’ll probably be so wracked with feeling both responsible for keeping Francesca in line and powerless to ameliorate her situation that I’ll come down with a migraine.


13 thoughts on “The “Bitch” at the Welfare Office — Or Why Responsibility Without Authority Makes Us Sick

  1. hear, hear! Enlarging the well of compassion and further naming the essence of the problems. Pictures are great addition.
    From the privileged seat of warmth, safety, and security,

  2. Great posting. Made me wonder how far up the ladder one had to go before finding someone who felt that he (or perhaps she) did have any true authority. My guess is that even the person who created the need for recertification didn’t feel like a free agent, but felt obliged to create a bureaucratic mechanism to protect the agency from accusations of waste and cheating that would have hurt worse. At the center of the labyrinth is there really a “powerbroker” or is there no center at all, just a machine-like social apparatus that grinds on incapable of dealing with individuals as individuals.
    Keep posting!

    1. Mmh. The classic Whitehall study found that it’s really only at the very top that people feel they have authority commensurate with their responsibility. For example, the person in charge of building a bridge has an enormous amount of responsibility (to build a bridge that won’t collapse) but typically doesn’t decide where the bridge will go or what the building budget will be. But your question is whether there really is a powerbroker or whether the net spins itself. I think that part of the meaning of bureaucracy is that it is self-sustaining, but I do think that there are small numbers of people who hold enormous amounts of political and economic power who really do set the wheels in motion.

  3. Thanks for bringing to light the layers of complexity’s so simple on the one hand, to see all the powerlessness on every side and the way these “sides” fuel each other’s pain. And it’s so difficult to address given the bureaucracy that rules, for lack of a better system to deliver such vital services. This needs to be heard in the governor’s office. I hope this can be taken in and addressed, despite how long it’s been going on.

  4. What do we know of the internal world even of the “powerbrokers” Susan identifies as “the enemy?” It’s likely that their internal world is revealed to us through the emotions their actions and the system they seem to rule calls up in the direct victims, such as Francesca.
    An example of this mechanism of transmission of illness throughout a system is in the story of the dictator who was said to rule the land. “The people fear the soldiers, the soldiers fear the generals, the generals fear me, I fear my wife, and my wife fears a mouse. So who rules?”
    The answer is that fear rules, not a who, but a what.
    This is to agree with Susan’s presentation in all other respects.
    I write this in a break in my job of today, as crisis/trauma specialist serving at a workplace which lost a young worker to an as yet unexplained gunshot death a few days ago. A different kind of helplessness without responsibility than the brand described by Susan and lived by Francesca and the “bitch” alike, yet it poses a similar outline of our task. How indeed do we live with our own mix of helplessness and competence while holding to a minimum the counterproductive but natural outbursts like Francesca’s and the migraine Susan believes may be coming?
    One answer is mutual interchange and support — Susan’s and Francesca’s with each other, and among this community of readers assembled around Susan’s work.

    1. Hi Joseph,
      Thank you for your comment. I agree with most of what you wrote, but I do think that in the analysis of the welfare system there really is a “who” – the top-level politicians, zillionaires, king-makers, owners of enormous “news” networks, etc.
      I appreciate your final thoughts about how to manage all of this: mutual interchange and support. I’m working on writing a kind of “how to” piece along those lines, and one of the central ideas I’m thinking about is the power of witnessing. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts as a crisis/trauma specialist.
      But most of all, I am so sorry for your loss.

      1. Hi Susan,

        Looking back on your email today (March 27, 2015) gives your comment on “witnessing” extra meaning, which I’ll explain further down.

        I do indeed believe that witnessing/being witnessed is extremely important. The survivor is seeking guidance (not particularly verbal, much more physiological) guidance about how to handle the load of different emotions and intensities.

        I just had a phone conversation with a survivor of a recent fire (among other things, I’m a Disaster Mental Health volunteer for the Amer. Red Cross). As we spoke, I listed the various challenges she was handling and read the list back to her (on the phone my body language was tone of voice and pacing of speech): loss of residence, loss of much clothing, temporary scattering of family due to needing emergency housing with friends — hence loss of residential contact with her natural support system, appetite/sleep disturbance (which is a result of the traumatic experience and stress load, but also makes it more difficult to deal with that load).

        As I’ve found many times during this work, putting the list “on the table” in a serious and calm spirit tends to help the people realize that these problems all can be named. That isn’t a solution to everything, of course, but it seems to help them get the idea that our minds can contain it.

        Here’s the extra meaning, perhaps extra for you too, being in the Boston area.
        Just before looking back at your email I heard a news item about the Tsarnaev trial. The newsperson asked a community person, perhaps it was an attorney or social worker, I don’t recall, whether the trial was bringing some sort of “closure” (a very wiggly term and concept in my opinion, by the way) to the community. The respondent said it seemed to be the oppositive, having to reexperience the story of the event. Then it was mentioned that had the prosecution not gone for the death penalty there might have been no need for a trial.
        Then there was the strange comment that the only way to go through the details and tell the full story was in a trial.
        I realize that’s a common belief. But there are other formats, such as the “truth and reconciliation” forums held in S. Africa and other places, and many indigenous cultures have restorative justice practices.

        So now we’ve come back to “witnessing.” A court case, with it’s emphasis on punishment — including in this case possibly MORE death — its adversarial system, with the parties contending over details and how important they are and what they should mean is a very poor way to let everyone’s story, including the perpetrator’s, be told and appreciated. If the social order were more interested in prevention, really thorough victim services, harm reduction, we’d have a much different and much healthier and safer situation.

        There’s more to go into about what helps victims most. I have posted a link to “Raising Victims’ Voices” by Lizzie Buchen, a report on a survey of victims and what they say they need and want, on the resources page of my site, More victims than is generally thought want SOMETHING to be done about and with the perpetrator, but not necessarily punishment.

        A parent in one of the few families of murdered children which I have served told me on my second visit with him that he would like, if the family of the youth who killed his child were willing, to meet them and hear what was the story of the youth who killed his child; he repeated with emphasis, IF they were willing. This was fifteen years ago. it “knocked me out” to hear that said, beautifully said.

        Thank you for expressing interest in this in your work and in your email to me. Witnessing, being heard, being helped by feeling not alone in the major task of dealing with the overwhelming, finding someone who takes it all seriously yet is not thrown off physiological balance by it (in other words, very good listening),

        Joe M.

  5. A sad and only too true story. And I think it extends to a lot of other ‘service’ jobs, like teaching. The teachers in public schools can be overwhelmed by having too many students, or too many students who need a lot of help, etc. Effectively, they can’t actually do a good job, as the needs are so great. I know one person who left public school teaching after making it a 2nd career so she could give back, for this reason. And not just public schools, and not just K – 12. For example, if you have the misfortune of having a department chair who only cares that the students are happy with their grades, and you really want to teach, you may find that you can’t — as some of the students will not put in much effort and you will be expected to give them good grades anyway. If there are enough such students, you can’t keep the class moving forward well. Ironically, the students may not see the teacher as a ‘bitch’ if they get a good grade… but their lack of knowledge might limit them for the rest of their lives, all while feeding a sense of incompetence they don’t deserve, if they get into jobs where they are expected to actually know course material they weren’t actually taught. They may blame themselves when actually they were never taught.

    In such a case, one can really point to a single person with power, e.g., the chair, who only cares for student grade satisfaction. But in general, any politician, any where, who pretends that everyone is getting an equal chance in our country, that anybody could pull themselves up by their bootstraps, all while ignoring the hungry and/or homeless children who are way too young to help themselves — and therefore can’t just be blamed and labeled lazy, etc. – every single one of them is guilty of propagating myths and policies that hurt people who COULD have been helped.

  6. I am following your analysis, but I can’t relate to your conclusions. Having spent many years on either side of that desk; there’s something about the… knowing sort of hopelessness that you express that I find unaffordabley counter-productive. It is certainly the job of the “welfare worker” to understand the inherent stress of the situation for a client, and thus to have the capacity to de-escalate, empathize and re-direct… especially when on the receiving end of verbal abuse. And, barring a SNAP fraud complaint, in Massachusetts – the applicant should have been able to apply on the spot for emergency food stamps. If she didn’t know how to ask for this, the worker should have been able to educate her – even while being screamed at. Plenty of us get that done for plenty of people.

    Not every worker can do the above, and there are offices that develop a culture of disrespect for applicants. Workers aren’t victims of this culture, they aren’t powerless, they create the culture. There are other offices that lean more in the direction of interacting with applicants in a way that conveys respect and empathy, even when the rules unfair. Applicants have to get past unfair rules.

    As a mother who has to deal with some lethally neglectful systems in order to raise a family – one need not approve of that system to learn how to work it. Yup, every parent might find that some moment of effectively working a system is too much to bear – but every parent who blows their cool with teachers, workers, etc. most of the time is not doing what he/she needs to do to get what she needs to get done, done.

    My attitude, and for what little it is worth, my counsel for frustrated and disrespected applicants is to remember who is important in the interaction – oneself and one’s own family – as opposed to showing some worker who’s-who. many, many, many poor women get this work done. I am in no way disputing your assertion that the way in which the benefits are distributed is purposefully discouraging. I’m saying that as I read you, you’re concluding that we’re all just a bunch of tools, and as such you gloss of the enormous capacity that we have respond creatively and productively to the positions we find ourselves in.

  7. This is one of the areas of life we all seem to encounter, either in search of public assistance, trying to arrange for a loan from a bank or just trying to register a car or pay a utility bill. The humiliation and degradation by social systems that demand compliance to often unachievable standards for the obscured need for control impact everyone at some point regardless of social standing, but most definitely those that lack resources. The front line workers that process these encounters are in the most compromised position since they are abused by their superiors as well as the victims of the bureaucratic process.

    Our popular culture rarely acknowledges the reality of these issues. Instead we see high-level role models that promote and glamorize lifestyles that don’t have to deal with the process in any meaningful way and generally if they do it is part of a comedy. Have you ever seen James Bond stand in line or suffer from being denied access to basic services?

    Thanks for shining some light on how this affects us. I tried to deal with it myself in my novel. Would you allow me to send you a copy?

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