THE MICHIGAN DAILY
Poge Six THE MICHIGAN DAILY
A vicious circle
By JO MARCOTTY
In the basement of the County Building in Byatsville,
Maryland, a group of people sat silently on chipped
brown chairs in a narrow airless, L-shaped room. At
the end, beneath bright flourescent lights, a huge
wooden desk separated the office personnel from those
waiting in the dim light at the other end. They sat in
uneven rows toward the back, some leaning forward,
hanging their heads over folded hands, others leaning
back, watching the smoke drift near the ceiling in what
could only be the waiting room of a welfare office.
Most of the people in this, the Prince George County
Department of Social Services, were young women-a
few clung to small children. In the corner an old couple
bent toward each other and spoke in low, tremulous
tones, while on the other side, a solitary man gazed at
the beige wall, his crutches within easy reach. Though
they were all there for the same reason, no one looked
directly at anyone else, and no one spoke in audible
tones. They waited in silence for a social worker;
waited in solitude to apply for public assistance.
I SAT DOWN next to a young black woman who
muttered angrily to herself and shifted impatiently in
her seat. At first she looked at me with cautious
curiosity, but when I smiled at her, she met my glance
Finally, she burst out, "This place makes me sick!
I swear, they make us wait until we turn blue in the
face on purpose."
I asked her if she came to the office often.
"Well, too much for my taste. But if you got a need,
you got to come down here and get what's comin' to
"And what kind of need do you have?"
SHE LEANED toward me, slamming the arm of her
chair in emphasis. "Honey, I got four needs, four kids
with sickle cell anemia. I ain't got any other source
of income besides what this office decides I git, and
that ain't shit. I've been on welfare for four years
now, and it's been trouble and pain the whole time. My
welfare worker, she don't like me cause I make a
stink when I don't like the treatment I get. You know,
it took six months to get a medicaid card for my kids?
I had to take those kids down to Johns Hopkins General
every week, and didn't have no money. I kept comin'
here, but she wouldn't see me, and she wouldn't call
"But how have you managed with so little money?"
office and her social worker is common among public
assistance recipients. Most people on welfare despise
the system, though, like her, they couldn't do without
it. They hate the endless bureaucracy and the baring
of their personal lives to the heartless welfare machine.
It is an utterly dehumanizing experience. Only peo-
ple with certain qualifications are eligible for public
assistance and potential recipients must bend and
shape themselves to the welfare mold.
PROBABLY THE worst aspect of applying for wel-
fare is the innumerable forms. There are so many, that
social workers refer to them by number. "You must
sign a 704, complete a 47, here's a 602." The first time
an applicant enters the office, they are confronted with
the massive, 10 page pamphlet No.'39 requiring a com-
plete run-down of their personal and economic history-
race, sex, marital status of applicant, number, age,
sex of children, Cuban refugee number, means and
amount of income earned just for starters.
Some social workers recognize the bureaucratic
bind they and their clients are in, and are aware of the
antagonism it engenders. According to Kathy Kornegay,
a worker in income maintenance, that attitude is
a product of the system.
"We may seem cold-hearted to these people some-
times," she told me as we sat talking at her desk.
"But it can't be helped. If we don't follow the rules, fill
out the forms properly, and take each applicant in
their turn, they'll never get their checks. And if we
don't do it right the first time, it gets dropped right
back in our laps." Mrs. Kornegay identifies herself as
a working mother, and has had no college training in
social work. She enjoys her job, but it is still just a
job to her and not a cause.
"I LIKE working here, and helping these people in
this way, small though it is," she said. "But when I
leave this desk at 4:30 I leave all the problems and
forms on top of it and come back to it at 8:30 the next
morning. I don't take any of it home."
Mrs. Kornegay's first client, an older woman with a
tired face, approached the desk with apprehension.
Gingerly she sat down.
"MRS. SMITH, this is Miss Marcotty," said Mrs.
Kornegay. "She would like to sit in on our interview for
an article she is writing on welfare. Do you mind?"
She didn't mind.
"I don't want permanent assistance, only till I get
settled," was the first thing Mrs. Smith said: "My
"Oh yes as soon as I can."
Kathy Kornegay stared down at the white a
tion form lying on her desk, and lightly tapp
pen. After a moment she sighed, and looked
the older woman.
"I'M SORRY Mrs. Smith, you are not eligi
public assistance. You have a job, which you
back to. The government is already paying ft
grandson, and you are not disabled in any way.
Mrs. Smith relaxed in defeat, and slowly
Quickly, she filled out three forms and hands
to Mrs. Smith and sadly watched her walk out tl
"I think she knew she wasn't eligible," Mrs.
gay said to me. "She was so tense and reserve
you notice the first thing she said was that sh
want permanent assistance? So many of th
people say that. They don't like to take money
they come in here, they are always uncomforta
"BUT THE YOUNGER people, they just ts
granted; like they have it coming to them o
thing," she shrugged. "Must be part of the ge
Mrs. Kornegay left for a few minutes to ret
next client, and I was left alone in a confusion o
and people. Behind me a worker questioned a
girl in a stern authoritative tone.
"You must have some idea how much mo
mother gives you."
"No ma'am," the girl cried. "I don't know
I need it I just call her on the phone and say,
can you give me some money? I'm in trouble.'
remember how much she gives me. I don't ev
track of it."
"Would your mother know?"
"I COULDN'T tell you that. I can ask her
doubt it. Look, I'm tryin' to do this right, an' I
honest with you. But you don't like me-Why
bein' so mean to me?" The girl continued to s
"Honey," the welfare worker replied imp
"I don't have anything against you. But I n
this information. I'm sorry if I seem mean to y
but calm down now, that's right. Now t
The interviews are peculiar confrontatiO
clients pour out their lives in their own p
manners-in tears, in terse short sentences, in
coolness-and the welfare workers put it doken
blue and white forms. The clients tell things
social workers that they probably wouldn't tell
friends, and mosf workers stand staunchly beht
opaque wall of formality and bureaucracy.
facts filter through.
Een Kornegay's attitude, though app
warmth and friendliness, was deceptive.
"YOU CAN'T be too friendly with the clie
told me. "Because many times they ask thing
that you can't give them. You have to be ca
I think there is a happy medium where Yol
reserved and friendly at the same time,
what I try to be."
Mrs. Kornegay returned with her next
young, pregnant woman who gazed at me
picious hostility until Kornegay explained MY
This was her second visit to the welfare ofi
attempt to get subsistance for herself and h
child. She had returned to show her rent re
other income verification documents to Mrs.
"MA'AM, I couldn't get my birth certifi
said. "My mama, she don't know where it is."
"Well, we'll see what we can do about w
For a moment, the woman looked at me as if gaug-
ing how much she could trust me. "I do it different
ways I guess." She continued to gaze at me thought-
fully. "Friends and such," she added.
"WHAT ABOUT your kids' father?"
"Oh, he left a long time ago. But my boyfriend, he
helps me out a lot," she said finally. "But they don't
know that though," she said quickly nodding her head
toward the desk at the other end of the room. "If they
did, they'd cut my check down to the bone. I wouldn't
know what to do without-him though. But I couldn't
do without that welfare check either."
The young woman's attitude toward the welfare
grandson, he's mentally retarded and he's staying with
me now. The court has put him in my custody," she
Mrs. Kornegay read her application and asked, "But
you are applying for yourself, not your grandson?"
"That's right. The government pays me $142 a
month for him."
"Do you have a job?"
"WELL, NOT any more. You see, my grandson, he
gets home from the day care center at 2:30 and I have
to pick him up."
"Are you disabled in any way?"
"Me? No I'm fine."
"And you do plan to go back to work?"