Spring 1974. I had graduated college early, an idealist with a major in social welfare, hoping to change the world. I needed a job, but the economy was in recession. The only job I could find — and this was with connections — was in a welfare office in Brooklyn, New York.
New York City wasn’t hiring social workers at the time so I got the next “best” thing: a job as an income maintenance clerk. When I arrived at the office, no one was expecting me. Apparently, the person who arranged the job — and was “a somebody” in city government at the time — hadn’t bothered to tell anyone I was coming.
I remember a thick, blue, loose-leaf book filled with bureaucratic instructions about the rules of the welfare system, including what recipients were entitled to and what forms had to be filled out to get them what they needed.
Every morning I had to punch a timecard when I arrived and every evening I had to do the same when I left. And every day was like the day before. Clients arrived angry or sad or both, with kids dragging behind. They had traveled from the depths of Brooklyn to deal with a problem with their welfare check — it hadn’t arrived, or the amount was too small, or some other mistake. I listened, and then looked up the rules and forms I had to file to fix the problem.
Often I had to ask one of the other workers to help me figure out what to do. Sometimes before I was done with a case I had to leave for my required lunch period, so I’d ask another clerk to follow up while I was out. But when I returned nothing had been done, and the client would still be waiting.
That’s what happened with one client — a young Hispanic mother who had come to the welfare office, kids in tow, with multiple complaints about her case – her last check hadn’t arrived, the one before that didn’t include coverage for one of her kids and more. It was complicated.
There were lots of rules to research and forms to file, and now lunch was calling me. I told her my colleague would pick up where I left off, but that’s not what happened. No one had worked on her case, so when I returned from lunch, I sat down to pick up where I had left off. But as soon as I did, the woman started screaming at me, accusing me of failing to help her. I was startled, surprised. I couldn’t believe it. I cared what happened to her, and I was trying my best.
Another time, a middle-aged woman came to get funds for a new apartment because her current one was heavily damaged in a fire. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. I was told by other workers that she probably set her place on fire just so she could move and finally get the furniture she needed.
The rules were Kafkaesque — circular, illogical, designed to keep people in place rather than to help them move on. And now I was stuck, working in a place whose purpose ostensibly was to help those who needed a leg up but all I could do was support a stagnant status quo for the clients, their kids and the workers. We were all trapped in an endless cycle of government bureaucracy.
I stayed on, hoping things would change — and maybe, maybe even have the opportunity to be hired as a social worker. I even participated in a work stoppage by my immediate group of colleagues, but it failed to have any positive result other than my supervisor choosing to demote himself. I made one friend — a young woman who had also gone to college. I couldn’t believe she was content (she wasn’t), but it was clear she would be sticking with the job, at least for the near future.
I couldn’t. I never liked bureaucracies and never, ever wanted to become a bureaucrat. When I realized nothing would really change, I decided to quit. And when I told my colleagues about my decision, they were incredulous. No one, they told me, ever quit a city job.