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(STEVE ADAMS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(STEVE ADAMS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Laid off in 2010, I'm drowning in the welfare well Add to ...

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It’s happened again. Yesterday I started another new employment program, and today I’m depressed.

In 2010, my whole department was outsourced to India. Laid off at age 50, I exhausted employment insurance, earned a diploma with Second Career and applied for many jobs.

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My line of credit maxed out after seven months, so I applied for Employment and Social Services: welfare.

Since then I’ve built two business plans. I’ve been to churches filled with second-hand clothes and sat in job-centre waiting rooms watching the jitterers, hearing the weepers, watching the silent ones acting invisible, who nearly jump out of their skin if you point out their glove on the ground, then flick a grateful smile because you noticed them and were nice.

Now, I’m in a pilot job-search program. The online part has got it all, including an avatar to encourage us and keep us company. Maybe the number of opportunities overwhelms some people and they can’t keep track. More likely we are helping social services develop a tool to keep track of us. But there’s a chance it might work, so we go with faint hope.

People understand you better if you show up looking the same every day. I wear a grey denim skirt, T-shirt and sweatshirt, every piece found in perfect condition in the garbage. Shoes? I still have good shoes left over from before, the only visible sign of my former income.

I bring along food: a piece of toasted bread with nut butter, folded and tightly wrapped in wax paper; two tangerines. Because it’s the first day, I plan for a Tim’s stop along the way. It’s too expensive to buy anything away from home except on special occasions.

My income per month is $650 from a tenant and $650 from the government – $1,300, the perfect amount for paying my mortgage. I bet you didn’t know people with mortgages could be on welfare? Everything else – food, hydro, heat, pet food, the Internet I use to communicate with the program – comes from my line of credit.

At the program’s office, they offer coffee and institutional baked goods: an undercooked croissant, oily muffins that moisturize your hands. I wonder if they’ll have breakfast every week. I expect not.

The lead facilitator, Dylan, seems exciting and reasonable until he declares his own goals for the program: to become its manager.

His co-workers sit quietly off to the side. One is a trim white lady of a certain age in black slacks, a sheer blouse, drugstore jewellery and glasses on top of her head. She’s along for the ride, I think. If the program doesn’t work out, she’ll go back to the caseworker trenches. And there’s an Indian lady for demographics. Lacking the skill set this job requires, she gives Dylan easy problems to solve.

We sit in rows. Slowly, we reveal what got us into this ghastly state: laid off, let go, company moved, outsourced. Life stories with hopeful beginnings and unhappy presents. We are the crème de la crème of welfare recipients, selected based on predictions of our commitment and success. If Dylan can make this work, he’ll get to be director of the whole program!

According to the agenda, all three facilitators will speak for equal time. In real life, Dylan does the talking.

We break into stunned groups. My facilitator has to repeat her question, which we don’t understand. She wants suggestions for discussion speakers? We haven’t even talked to each other, and we’re going to choose someone to talk to us!

In a daze, the participants move toward each other, seeking a real human to connect with, a luxury we’ve had to do without during long days at home.

Later, we can’t believe it – we’re told we’ll get an additional $100 a month top-up for travel expenses. I’ll walk, I always walk.

I have a few rules to get me through the week: no reading books during “work hours;” it would be too easy to just read it all away. No drinking (actually it’s a plus: I can’t afford booze). Workouts three times a week, no less, no more (see my item about books).

I am often surprised when somebody greets me on the street. Isolated as I’ve become, it’ll be too late before I realize I could have made small talk. (All my life I hated small talk and now I’m going to create it?)

I still have some old friends telling me I’m doing great, that I’m resourceful. We have modest meals at home that end early. They send me links to job postings in their buildings. I apply and we never mention it again.

Some friends and family I have alienated; I overthought their personal situations, became adamant with unsought-for solutions, opined when solace was wanted. Will I ever come back and make friends, regain respect?

What does my kid think of all this? He is aware. My cheque stub, carelessly left beside the computer, turned upright after homework lets me know.

I’m a graphic designer. I designed a book for free recently because I would have invoiced about the same amount as my welfare cheque, and 100 per cent would have been clawed back. I sent the work to the printer last week, and should feel great and proud.

Actually, I feel like a hack. Trying to recover grace and dignity alone: busy but meaningless, careful but unseen. Curious, powerful, capable; pushed down, scolded, reduced.

Venetia Butler lives in Toronto.

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