Mistaken Identity is a collection of stories by Sheila Gilhooly, about her experiences of being mistaken for a man. In this excerpt from “Welfare” she shows us how a welfare intake worker makes her pay a huge dignity cost.
On my way home on the subway I resolved that I had to find a real job. At the same time I was using my teeth to open a wrapper and my front tooth broke.
I was freaked and I looked like hell. I needed assistance. I phoned the welfare office and, though it took a half day to connect with “information,” a woman was actually helpful and told me that in the case of need or emergency like my tooth, and being new in town, I was eligible for a onetime assistance of $200 which I wouldn’t have to repay if I didn’t apply for welfare (the real welfare) for at least six months. I just needed to go to my nearest welfare office and explain my situation. Bring some identification.
So I dressed nice and polite and went to the welfare office. There was one woman who seemed to be running the desk and a bunch of people ahead of me. Finally it was my turn. I smiled, cleared my throat, and began to explain my situation.
“You can’t be here,” she pronounced.
“But…” I protested.
“You are single,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“You need to go to the welfare office on Jarvis Street for single men.”
“But I’m not a man,” I said, presenting my drivers licence.
She looked at it and said, “Where did you get this from? It’s illegal to use somebody else’s identification, even if they let you.
“Who did you steal this ID from?” she suddenly barks at me, doing good cop/ bad cop and completely freaking me out, but still I tried to argue with her, to explain, to make her help me.
I missed her special signal but all at once I was being pressed on either side by the two burly security guards posted at the door. They came up behind me with their billy clubs drawn.
The lady behind the counter told me I had to leave now and not make any more trouble, or they—she gestured to the burly ones—would have to detain me. If I really wanted help I should go where they could help me, with the other single men.
What is a dignity cost?
A dignity cost is the humiliation, shame or loss of dignity that a person from a disadvantaged group experiences in order to get something they are entitled to from a person or institution with more power than they have.
- The bullet proof glass that separates the applicant from the worker in a welfare office. (The applicant is reminded that s/he is considered deviant and potentially dangerous.)
- The bathroom for people with disabilities that is accessed by a special elevator which can only be operated by a staff person who must leave his/her regular duties to do so. (The person with a disability suffers a loss of privacy, and may be expected to show gratitude to the person taking time away from his/her other work to operate the elevator.)
- The requirement on nearly all forms everywhere requiring that a person disclose their gender, but offering only ‘M’ or ‘F’
- The extensive documentation that welfare requires for a person to “prove” that they are poor and need assistance: utility bills, bank records, etc., even though it is especially hard for someone who may be homeless or close to it to keep that kind of paper around
- The attitude of some benefits workers towards their clients: that their clients are all trying to rip off the system, rather than an attitude of facilitating the client to access what they are entitled to
Sometimes a payer, sometimes a payee!
Sometimes we are the ones who have the power to give or refuse things that other people want or need. Sometimes we are in the position of asking for something. Sometimes we have to pay a dignity cost; sometimes we are the ones imposing it. When we make it clear that we have the power to give or withhold what someone else needs or is entitled to, we are charging a dignity cost.
For example, a financial aid worker can grant or refuse social assistance. A clerk at the Driver’s Licence Office can provide a driver’s licence. A teacher offers grades and course credit.
Generally in this culture a person’s word is not accepted. It is not enough to say, “I don’t have any income,” when asking for welfare. It is not enough to say, “I am female,” when applying for a drivers licence. It is not enough to say, “I was sick,” when a student wants to make up for a missed final exam. Instead some third-party corroboration is required. People must prove who they are and that what they say is true. And almost always they must give written proof.
Whenever people are required to prove their case, some of their dignity is stripped from them. In that moment of having to prove their need, having to prove they are telling the truth, there is a loss of dignity. Shame may creep into such moments. That shame—that dignity cost—will often prevent people from making a request at all.
But we have to have proof!
Of course, a financial aid worker can’t order a check for anyone who walks in and says they need money. She would lose her job if she did, and in any case, there needs to be something in place to prevent someone from collecting welfare from several different offices.
Similarly, someone who wants a driver’s licence has to show some proof of identity so that, for example, people who have had their licence taken away for drunk driving can’t walk in and get a new one.
How can you give (or withhold) without a dignity cost?
You can’t, entirely, because you don’t have control over all the parts of the dignity cost. We don’t believe that if everyone was just a little bit nicer, the system would be fair and just.
However, neither are you powerless.
To the extent that it’s possible, get the two of you on the same side of the situation.
- Examine your own attitudes and beliefs about the people who need your help to access a benefit of some kind. If you find yourself thinking of them as “less-than” other people, figure out where that idea came from (it may be from your supervisor!) and change it. Imagine a situation in which you were in the place that your client currently is. Maybe you had a fire and no fire insurance and are suddenly in poverty. Maybe your child has developed an addiction to drugs. Maybe… Then imagine how you would want someone with power to respond to you in that situation.
- In the specific situation, share all the information you have so that the person asking does not have to feel one-down in relation to you. Explain the procedures, the length of time likely required, and so on. Be clear about what to expect. Give the information; don’t wait to be asked.
- Believe the person. Your rules may require you to get more information, or more paperwork, but do not assume that a person without paperwork is a person without integrity.
- Find a way to say clearly that you believe the person. Try something like, “I can see from what you have told me that you need to get on social assistance. As you probably know the government requires paperwork so that they can show that they are properly administering the welfare money. They want to be able to demonstrate that they confirmed who you were and confirmed that you met the criteria to get on welfare. I can help you figure out how to meet those criteria.”
- Offer what help you can: “If you like we can work on the form together. It is not always easy to figure out what they are getting at.” Or “I see that English is not your first language. Do you need a translator?”
- If the rule does not fit the situation, try to have it changed or suspended for this case. Remember: these requirements are not the fault of the person who wants or needs the service.
Do what you can, respectfully.
Dignity cost is part of the system of inequality
Often, when we work in a hierarchy, people above us can and do show little respect for us or for our work. We may be subject to our supervisors’ whims or demands to work harder or to do things in a particular, arbitrary way. Going to work costs us some part of our dignity every day.
The system rewards us for putting up with this loss of dignity by giving us the opportunity to treat those beneath us in the hierarchy with little respect. We are allowed, sometimes encouraged, to impose a dignity cost from others in return for paying it to those above us.
And so we are all kept in line, and keep each other in line.
When we refuse to charge a dignity tax we strike a blow against that system of inequality.
You can read more of Sheila’s experiences, or buy her e-book on her blog Stories from Life.