there may be no money for Christmas this year, but whatever it takes, I'm not going back on welfare. My last "certification verification process," that tortuous annual review the government puts welfare recipients through, convinced me to cut my ties completely, even if it means going hungry or being colder than I care to be.
An officious-looking worker is poring over a plethora of documents I've been required to bring in: birth certificate, children's birth certificates, letters of attendance from their schools, rent verification, court order for child support from Deadbeat Dad, hydro bills, bank statements. It's the latter that he goes over with a fine-toothed comb. He finds a few nits -- missing pages from April's statement. I make a note.
I sit there clutching my papers and two red roses, a gift from my youngest son's school as a thank-you for volunteering in his JK class twice a week.
The worker stops suddenly and sniffs. He's discovered something in the paperwork -- a recent deposit to my bank account. He flashes me an insinuating look. I stare back uncomprehendingly.
"It's a child support payment," he says.
A child support payment! This is the miracle I've been praying for. If my child support is coming through I can get off welfare. Then, any work I do won't be workfare but work for which I can actually bank the money I earn. I might even be able to build up a tiny nest egg! This news is bliss.
I feel like crying.
But the worker is frowning. "You didn't report it." I assure him that Family Responsibility, the agency that's the middleman for these payments, never sent notice or paperwork.
"You realize there's been an overpayment," he says. Glory be, so there has! I'm just about jumping out of my seat now. I want to leave that stinky little room. I want to yell, "I don't need you people any more!"
But the worker is resolute. He's a trainee, so I feel I should let him do his routine even though I want to tell him to get the hell out of my face in the creepy little cubicle we're sitting in.
"Perhaps I can go off the system now," I suggest. His forehead wrinkles. He's not so sure. He says this support may not continue, considering the payer's track record, the payer being, of course, Deadbeat Dad.
I tell him I'm willing to gamble. "Then there's the drug plan," he continues. "And the money you get for winter clothing." The suggestion is that I'd do well to stay on welfare. But I'd rather go cold.
Finally, the session is over. I give him one of the roses and he manages a little smile.
I float home, planning my freedom. The next day I make the call. "Close my file," I tell the welfare office. "Just cut me loose, set me free."
Then the bad news. I'm transferred to another worker, who tells me the child support is being considered an overpayment and that I owe welfare money. The fact that I was earning my welfare through workfare doesn't seem to count. I'm too tired to argue.
The next month the child support payment gets deposited once again, and I'm joyous.
But the month after that, only half the previous amount is deposited. I make calls, get nowhere and end up talking to the office of my local MPP, who finds out from a Deep Throat at the welfare office that welfare's taken the other half.
Apparently, they're entitled to pay themselves back for the year and a half I was on assistance.
I feel like crying.
I try calling to get clarification and again get nowhere.
I paid a lawyer thousands of dollars just to get a court order for my child support. When Mr. Deadbeat Dad wasn't paying, welfare did little to track him down even after I'd supplied all the particulars to the courts. Now this.
I'm getting into a rant. "Don't you understand that we need that money to survive? And what about the workfare I did? Wasn't I earning my assistance cheque then?"
She advises me to go back on assistance. "You'll get the extra money, and there's the drug plan."
Instead, I work at odd jobs. I'm happy. My children are happy.
There won't be gifts under the tree this year. But someday I hope they'll understand that freedom is the best gift of all.