I Was a Welfare Case(worker)

Here’s an interesting story that I don’t believe I’ve told before. It’s from the days before blogging. At this time twenty years ago, I was collecting welfare.

I’d spent the 1992-1993 academic year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending a teacher training program at Calvin College. I’d applied to all the Ontario teachers’ colleges but hadn’t been accepted, despite strong grades. At the time, teaching was one of the hottest careers going and everything about the profession was very competitive. I enjoyed a very good year in Michigan and learned a lot, personally and professionally, but when I returned to Ontario in the summer of 1993, I had absolutely no contacts here. I was living with my dad, on a bed behind the sofa, and having gone into debt to attend teachers’ college, had no money at all to support myself while searching for a teaching job. My dad had recently exhausted his severance after taking early retirement from IBM at the age of 49, so he was suffering financially as well. Wanting to devote myself fulltime to finding a teaching position, and thinking it would only be for a month or two, I applied for welfare. My monthly cheque was for the princely sum of $663, $400 of which went to my dad for room and board. In those pre-Internet days, I had to send out resumés by mail and search for information at the library. The library was really the only place I could get out of the apartment without spending any money.

Although I had a few interviews, they were only for private school positions or to be added to the public school supply lists. As I mentioned, things were very competitive, and I had no local teaching experience. I taught a day or two as a substitute at a local Christian school, and volunteered at the junior high school next to my dad’s place, but nothing better came along. After spending so much time and money preparing for this career, I didn’t want to give up too easily, but really, $663 a month meant I’d never get out of my dad’s apartment.

In the spring of 1994, during a meeting with my caseworker, she looked at my qualifications and mentioned that the municipality were actually hiring caseworkers and that I should apply. Coincidentally, one of the other Torontonians who I’d met at Calvin had been hired as a caseworker several months before. With her encouragement and guidance, I aced the preliminary exam and in May, 1994, I was hired. I’d gone from one side of the desk to the other.

It was a demanding job, but one which, for a while, made me feel like I was helping people. Then in 1995, Ontarians elected Mike Harris, a Conservative whose “Common Sense Revolution” promised to lower taxes and punish those on social assistance. Welfare rates were slashed (single people saw their assistance cut from $663/month to $520/month, and those rates remained in place for many many years) and “workfare” programs were drawn up. My job became much much harder. For instance, people on social assistance were required to report any and all income they received, and it was to be deducted from their monthly cheques. If you lived in the city of Toronto, $520 wouldn’t even cover rent, never mind food, so unless you were living with family or several roommates, it was very tempting not to report income. And how could I blame my clients?

I saw scores of new Canadians, families who’d immigrated after being promised that their professional qualifications would lead to good jobs in Canada. They were disillusioned and sometimes angry. I had ex-convicts who couldn’t get jobs or who talked about doing odd jobs for cash. My most trying period was when I had a caseload of more than 150 single mothers. Caught between finding child care and pursuing child support, it was difficult for these women to think about finding meaningful work, even if they had enough education to find good jobs. There were also a lot of bad boyfriends whom we often suspected of living with our clients, sometimes contributing financially and sometimes sponging off the already meagre income of the households.

Over time, the work became more and more stressful as I realized that as a front-line employee, I had no power to change the legislation I was enforcing. I grew frustrated not being able to really make much of a difference in the lives of people who wanted help. Even more frustrating was seeing how many people had given up completely, simply content to take whatever small amount they could get. I saw some of my co-workers who’d been there a long time treating people rudely and without compassion. Things must have been bad enough that when an opportunity to sell computers in a retail store came up in 1998, I saw that as my ticket out.

I could have had a long career with the Department of Social Services. The friend who helped me get the job just received her 20 year pin from the City of Toronto. She probably has a very nice pension plan by now. I’ve thought about re-applying for my old job. That would certainly be interesting. And should I find myself back on the other side of the desk, well the rates have gone up in the past 15 years. A single person can now collect up to $626/month. Yes, that’s right. It’s less than you’d have received 20 years ago. Good thing rents in Toronto haven’t increased, right?

Social Media, Unrequited

I spent a very¬†educational evening tonight at the Talk Is Cheap “unconference” on Social Media, held at Centennial College‘s slightly inaccessible Carlaw campus, the Centre for Creative Communications. It was a free event that brought together around 200 people, mostly public relations and corporate communications practitioners. As such, it wasn’t directly related to my job, but for someone who’s desperately trying to advocate “social media” and “Web 2.0” stuff at PricewaterhouseCoopers, it was food for my soul. Not so much in terms of content, though, as I’d have to say I probably know more about these issues than most of the people in attendance. My problem is that I’ve never held a career position that allowed me to actually apply all this knowledge. And so my passion for blogs and the like has largely gone unrequited throughout the course of my professional career(s).

This became apparent as I listened to several very good speakers, like Joe Thornley and Michael O’Connor Clarke, both of Thornley Fallis (whose employees actually communicate with me regularly in their capacity as PR agents for ThinkFilm, whose films I review for Toronto Screen Shots. Small world sometimes.) Thornley Fallis is a small Canadian public relations firm who have made great use of social media and established a reputation as leaders in helping their clients apply that knowledge. I found myself envious of working in an environment like that, and thought, perhaps foolishly, that maybe I should be working in public relations instead. But I can clearly see that my apparent zigs and zags, career-wise, are attempts to find that ideal environment where I can apply my skills and passions to the fullest while still making a decent amount of money. While I’m not going to be hasty, maybe I should examine whether my skills and experience as a web-savvy writer might be better applied in a field that is embracing social media.

While I can foresee that PwC might call upon my experience in a limited way, it’s a large firm. So large that even after several months, I still feel like I’m learning what they do. It also feels very decentralized and finding the right person to talk to takes a fair amount of work. I haven’t been there long enough to have a truly informed opinion, but my initial impression is that they’re using cumbersome and limiting technology to publish their web site. As well, they’ve separated my job function from the actual coding of web pages, so that I’m working only in Microsoft Word, writing content that someone else will mark up. So it may be too soon to tell if PwC will be a long-term home for me, or if I just have a perennially roving eye. I’m trying to get some insight into myself, anyway, and tonight was useful.

Out of Body Autoreply

Wow. For the past two days, I’ve been keenly aware of a feeling of disconnection between my mind and my body. It’s been quite a long time since I felt it this strongly, but I know that there are a number of factors that are causing me to feel this way. I began a new job just over two months ago. From working in a small and casual office environment, I’ve moved to a large and rather impersonal corporate office. New clothes, new space, new people (and lots of them). Sometimes I feel like I’m just carried along on the tide of people during the morning and evening rushes, or at lunch in the cavernous “food court”¬Ě. As well, I just returned from a week’s holiday in Cuba, a place where it would be very difficult indeed to separate your mind and body, for a variety of reasons. Coming home with a flu bug has only increased this feeling of my mind floating above my body like a balloon in a hazy sky. And I think the cold weather and early darkness also make it easier to forget about having a physical presence in the world.

I’m going to check out the local YMCA in the next few weeks and will probably join. It has a running track and is closer to my new job than the University of Toronto Athletic Centre where I usually run in winter. I’m realizing that I need this physical activity for more than just physical health. I think that running will help me to reverse this feeling of unraveling. I hope so, because it’s really beginning to creep me out.

On The Move

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. Brooke and I moved on July 31st into a two-bedroom apartment just three blocks west of our old place. We have a great south-west view from the 27th floor and can see Lake Ontario! But the move was really stressful, as all moves are, and we’re still unpacking and getting used to the new space. I think this weekend might be the first time in a month where I wasn’t either painting, packing, shopping, or assembling crappy IKEA furniture (though there are still a few pieces waiting in their boxes for me).

On top of all that, I was in the midst of several job interviews. I had second interviews with two places right around the time we were moving. In fact, I had my final two and a half hour long interview on the morning we were moving. The movers were scheduled to arrive at our place at 1:30, and I got home at 1:20. It was a crazy day. The good thing is that later that day, after we’d finally moved all of our stuff into the new place, there was a message on our phone. I got the job.

So, I’m happy to report that on Monday August 27th, I’ll start my new position as Web Producer/Writer with PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the biggest accounting and business consulting firms in the world. It will be a big culture change from the small office setting I’m used to (and, ulp, I’ll have to use a Windows PC again), but it will also be really nice to spend my working day doing what I love, and as part of a team of other people.

I will really miss the people I worked with for the past four years at Lifford Wine Agency, and I’ll especially miss all the great wine events I was able to attend, but I’ve promised to keep volunteering at their big annual portfolio tasting, an event that I wouldn’t miss for the world.

My New Year’s Resolution

I hate the idea of New Year’s resolutions. And yet, I think I have to make one.

I rarely (if ever) talk about work on this blog. And that’s by design. But I want to talk about what I do rather than just where I work. For years, I’ve hidden behind the adage that I’m a “generalist” as far as working the web goes. In fact, I’m pretty much a generalist at everything. I’m curious about everything and very easily distracted. I have a million hobbies and interests, and my spare time is very easily filled up.

But this year, I want to focus a bit more on my work as a web designer. I’m not a designer, or a programmer. I often just call myself a “web guy” and that’s true. But the truth is that most web guys know much more about the web than I do. I recently read Jeff Croft’s entry on being a professional web designer and it really struck home. I’m one of those guys who learned HTML in the 90s. I’ve kept up, barely, with most new developments as far as markup (ie. not programming) and the general “zeitgeist” of the web. I know the right buzzwords, and am genuinely interested in where the web is headed. But my technical skills and knowledge have lagged.

My current job started in 2003 when I had to build a site from the ground up for a wine-importing agency. It’s gone through a few cosmetic changes since then, but nothing serious, and it is crying out for a proper database back end and a CMS. These are at present beyond the scope of my abililities. I’ve bought the right books, and bookmarked the right sites. But my current responsibilities have gradually expanded to the point where I can’t immerse myself enough to learn how to do these things.

Each year I come back from SXSW inspired and motivated to make the necessary changes, and each year, I fail to make them. I’m frustrated. Part of the problem is the fact that I do much more than just maintain the web site now. And part of it is just inertia. No one complains about the site, but I know what’s wrong with it. As the only web guy in a small company, I’m also very isolated from the web design community. Though I know several people and get together pretty regularly for drinks with them, I’ve assumed they’re too busy to help with my questions. I’ve wanted to get more involved in the local web design community, but have lost the confidence that I’ll be able to contribute anything of worth to the discussion. Same goes for SXSW, where I hang out with bloggers and journalists and other “content” types instead of trying to learn from people whose work I admire online.

It may be true that in the long run, I’ll always be more comfortable as a content guy. My real passion is for writing and for using the web in innovative ways. But that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of learning a few new tricks. In 2007, I’m going to try very hard to make space for that to happen.