I recall when I started working in the field of Social Services being welcomed onboard and placed on a team of Caseworkers administering what was then referred to as General Welfare Assistance. In laymen’s terms, we issued funds to welfare recipients.
Now this would be back in the late 1980’s, but the words of a teammate still stick with me to this day. While I didn’t have a single person assigned to me as a Mentor or Trainer, this person took me aside on my second day and said, “Look, the first thing you have to know and remember is that everyone is scamming.” I have obviously been struck by that remark to the extent that I recall it now in 2019.
One thing I’m proud of myself looking back is that I didn’t believe it then anymore than I believe it today. However, the thing is, I could have believed it – after all this was someone working in the job I was just learning, so the assumption is that they know what they are talking about. Had I believed that person, I may have started my career in that organization with a very different mindset; one that set me up to mistrust all the people that I’d encounter; one that would have me looking for lies, disbelieving all the expressed needs that I’d hear. Had I taken that piece of advice, I might have become an embittered worker, perhaps denying all kinds of benefits to people in dire need.
My instincts back then were to actually come at things exactly the other way around. It made much more sense to me to start with the attitude that all the people I was meeting were to be believed and using the funds provided to them for the purposes issued. In the event that I became aware someone was ‘scamming’ as she referred to it, then of course our relationship would change. Many years later and in another social services organization, I did encounter a man with an undeclared bank account with $30,000.00 in it. I discovered it and he was prosecuted, found guilty and fined. There’s a process in place you see to deal with those who knowingly defraud.
Thankfully, that trial which I attended and was called to be a witness in still didn’t negatively affect my core belief in the people I had the privilege to assist as their Caseworker. And let’s make no mistake; it is a privilege. Those who are the most vulnerable in our society need good people with empathy, compassion, care and well-developed skills, experience; knowledgeable of the resources to which people can be connected. Should I find myself on the other side of the table, I sure hope to find a compassionate, understanding individual sitting across from me who believes my story and extends to me the resources I may not have the awareness of to ask for.
Now if you’ve never had any reason to avail yourself of social services, (welfare), or if your experience is limited to one or more people you know who brag about fooling the system and scamming, you might be inclined to think as this person did. Let me tell you the reality though; most people in receipt of social assistance are legitimately poor and deal with multiple barriers to financial independence. Many have underdeveloped decision-making skills primarily because they’ve had poor role models. Some have grown up in families on social assistance themselves, what we refer to a generational poverty.
Breaking away from poverty is incredibly difficult when you start off in a family that doesn’t highly value education; that may see any attempt to better yourself as a slap in the face to the rest of them. The high cost of food, housing, transportation, childcare – pretty much the core basic needs we all strive for, keep people from focusing on what many of us who have these basic needs fulfilled do, our potential. Because we go home at night to places that are safe, private, comfortable; because we put good food on the table, because we sleep in clean beds, shower at will and put on clean clothes each day, we can focus on other needs. Remove these things and suddenly our own priorities would change – and in a heartbeat.
No, I won’t ever believe or advise some new employee to look at everyone who comes to them for help as a scammer. Do some people do whatever they can, or say what they believe needs to be said in order to get some additional funds to buy better food or pay the rent they couldn’t afford otherwise? I’m know that happens.
It’s vitally important that as a society, we keep those out of power those who enact legislation and bring about changes to punitively punish the poor. On the front line, we have to trust those above us and those above them, hoping they always work and act with the best interests of our end-users in mind. That’s not always easy to see.
You know what one of the most important things you can do whenever you meet with someone who shares their story? Tell them you believe them. Build some trust. Get at the deep stuff. Then use your powers of knowledge and resources to help them help themselves. Don’t become embittered, burnt out and cold.
We’re just people helping people in the end.