from the archives

Getting Rich Off Welfare

Photo: New York Magazine

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the January 18, 1971, issue of New York. We are republishing a selection of Gloria Steinem’s writing from our archive to celebrate her 90th birthday.

There weren’t enough decent-paying jobs in Virginia, and none at all for an ambitious young black man who could neither read nor write, so Alma and Bill Johnson left the South six years ago; left their friends and relatives to come to a strange but job-filled and “free” place called the Bronx, New York.

Bill found a few odd jobs: carrying cartons for a grocery store, mopping halls, painting apartments too small for the painters’ union to care about. But since he had no skills and no education, most regular jobs were out of his reach. He wasn’t wise enough in the ways of New York to find the few training programs that exist, nor did he have the time to take them. Within a few months, Alameda and their five children were depending on welfare checks for one hot meal a day and an unheated, pest-infested apartment, and Bill had been forced to “desert” his family to assure them even that.

It’s a story we all know — not one of the Hundred Neediest, but one of the more than a million needy, those 1.1 million welfare recipients in New York City, especially the three-quarters of them who weren’t born here but who came to escape small-town or rural hard times. (Which makes it even more clear that this and other cities are being penalized for the whole country’s problem. Even Nixon’s Family Assistant Plan, rich in intellectual rewards of precedent-setting but short on cash, would have helped urban areas very little, and New York City is now re-thinking its lobbying support for the plan in the next Congress.) But the Johnsons’ troubles cannot be dismissed as “typical.” They are very personal. They come from waking up every morning, four to a bed, to find drowned rats in the stopped-up bathtub, or taking a new baby to Roosevelt Hospital with a 105-degree fever from spider bites, or losing letters from home because the monumentally expensive welfare hotel doesn’t include mail delivery or telephone service (or sheets or blankets or a lock on the door, or protection from trash fires and marauding junkies). They’re the kind of troubles that come from six years of hiding in your own house.

“They say we don’t want to support our families,” says Bill Johnson (not his real name: he’s still living “illegally” with his wife and children, who now number eight), “but that’s not true. I’ve got diabetes now, and it’s harder to do a real tough, muscle job, but I still take whatever jobs I can. They tell me I should be able to get on welfare along with my family, because the insulin shots make my arms so sore I only take half as many shots as I should. Then if I don’t take in food with the shot, I get into a fit. But Welfare needs all these forms filled out, like where have I been for the past six years? What addresses did I have and what people knew me? If I tell the truth, my wife and kids lose their check.”

He pauses, sipping coffee loaded with sugar because he hasn’t eaten enough that day, and shakes his head in down-South wonder. “My wife and eight kids, they were living in two rooms you wouldn’t put dogs in, at the Hamilton [a welfare hotel on West 73rd Street, the first to be closed down by the Board of Health because of recent publicity and community pressure]. For five months, we had to go to the bathroom with raincoats on, the pipes leaked so bad. The ceiling fell in three times, and all the kids had some kind of bites or sickness. Welfare paid $300 rent every two weeks for that, and wouldn’t give my wife the check, like they’re supposed to. They gave it straight to the manager and sat there till my wife signed it over.”

“Sometimes the caseworker, he’d sit there till midnight till everybody’d countersigned the checks so the hotel could cash them,” his wife, Alma, chimed in. “And he wouldn’t even let us turn it over to see how much the check was for. One Spanish woman, she couldn’t speak English, but I got somebody to help me talk to her, and it turned out her checks were for twice as much as her rent was supposed to be. When the West Side Crisis people and the Alliance people [the Crisis Unit is a private group funded by Jewish Family Services; the West Side Community Alliance is a local citizens’ group] started trying to help all of us in the hotels round there, the Hamilton wouldn’t even let them in the door. They’d let in junkies and pushers, and even hire teenage junkies to run the elevators and work the desk, but they wouldn’t let anybody they didn’t want in. One day when I was with some Relocation and high-up welfare officials, they wouldn’t even let them in. The manager always told us he had a cousin in the 20th Precinct, so there was no use calling the police.

“When I started working with the Alliance people to get the families out of there, I was threatened by two big guys who got out of a car. But I’m not afraid of them — what can they do to me worse than already got done? The manager, he told people somebody was paying me to run all the hotels out of business. I tell you, it’s pitiful to see how grown folks and their children can scare off.”

The manager himself, Steve Silverberg, has other explanations: that the Department of Investigation told him he didn’t have to let in anybody except official inspectors, that the community groups were “just troublemakers” anyway, and that it was in the nature of welfare clients to wreck the hotel rooms and services. (“Sure I charged more for them than for other clients, but I found out too late I wasn’t charging enough. Other hotels are getting a lot more. I gave those kids baseball gloves in summertime.”)

Silverberg insists that the community workers, even though many of them are themselves black, forced the vacating of his hotel to get blacks out of the neighborhood. As for threatening or beating rebellious tenants, he counters that he and Max Schaub, another part-owner of the Hamilton, were themselves beaten or threatened. “The publicity on all this welfare hotel horror has been totally false.”

Whatever the truth is in any single case, the patterns for welfare recipients are always the same, and very clear.

The combination of a crisis-level housing shortage, the fossilized rules and archaic mentality still at work in the welfare system, the prospect of big money available to hotels servicing welfare clients (the lowest estimate of the Hamilton’s welfare take before it was vacated was $11,114 a week, and the city’s yearly budget for this kind of emergency housing is now over $8 million, not including restaurant allowances and the like), and a voiceless, politically unpopular, and powerless recipient group — all of this has produced a recent situation in which someone is profiting. And it’s rarely the man, woman, or child who’s on welfare.

The caseworkers for the Amsterdam Welfare Center, which handles 80 percent of the emergency housing cases, don’t know the answers. But their questions are interesting:

Why has their own Housing Division, supposed to list only apartments that have passed city housing inspections, forced welfare tenants into sub-standard apartments that landlords could otherwise not rent?

Why do rent and utilities bills get forced preferential payment — often direct payment, since, to pay hotels, Welfare issues a joint check and the tenant is all but forced to sing?

Why are welfare clients clumped into certain hotels, while little effort is made to force other places to take them, as the Public Accommodations Law theoretically provides? (“Maybe it’s just politically unpopular to press hotel managements,” said one caseworker, “and maybe some caseworkers are taking cuts of all that money they send to certain hotels, but something’s going on. Sometimes it’s bad in another way: the directors don’t want clients to get too comfortable in a decent hotel. Then they might not be able to get them to move out and into bad apartments.”)

Why is there a stringent limit on apartment rents, and none on hotel rents? (“Rather than go above $200 or so in rent, or spend a minimal amount on furniture, Welfare will put the family into a hotel where they pay over $1,000 a month in rent. The city says it’s state guidelines that are the problem, but there are procedures for changing or making exceptions.”)

Why does the Department of Social Services, by its own admission, allow a hotel to charge 300 to 600 percent more rent for welfare clients than a regular guest would pay?

Why is there so little effort to restrict landlord prejudice against welfare and/or minority tenants?

Why aren’t the overcrowding regulations enforced in hotels, as they are (or should be) in other dwellings? In hotels, what counts is how many beds there are in a room, not how many people there are in the beds.

Why are the pushers so often the only people allowed free access by the managements?

In other words, are the welfare recipients becoming — by accident and inefficiency — simple conduits that pass sums of money from government into private hands, conduits who handily take the political blame for rising taxes and have little political voice? No one supposes there is a grand conspiracy. Only a loophole that’s being taken advantage of. As in the case of federal poverty funds, an amazing percentage of which go to fat-cat consulting and evaluating firms, we seem to prefer any familiar corruption to putting money, responsibility and choice — and therefore power — directly into the hands of the unfamiliar, the poor.

But the Johnsons — now living in two rooms at the Concourse Plaza in the Bronx, rooms (no cooking facilities) for which the city must pay almost $1,200 a month — wonder over and over again why they aren’t given the check, why they don’t have control of their own lives.

“I could get training with that. By now, we could have bought a house and been off welfare. Why don’t they let us help ourselves?”

Why indeed?

Getting Rich Off Welfare