Working the System

I guess I knew it — that some people work the system.

Back in the long ago days when I was a struggling single parent, I knew another single parent who didn’t struggle nearly as much. She actually had a pretty sweet deal. She collected welfare — it was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children back then — for her family of four, but didn’t actually use the monthly check to provide for her children. She had dumped the children with her mother, and lived in our college town as a single woman free of encumbrances.

And later, when I was working one of those low-paying state jobs that don’t have the cachet, salary or benefits professionals in the state system enjoy, I worked with another single parent, a women who had five children. She lived across the state line in Minnesota and commuted 80 miles a day — 40 each way — because South Dakota’s neighbor had such generous welfare benefits. I have to confess, I didn’t have much sympathy for the demands this placed on her because she was a staunch Republican, opposed to paying taxes, but not opposed to milking the system she denigrated.

Since I, too, had been a welfare mom while going to college — and to the best of my knowledge, did not abuse the system — I tended to think of these women as exceptions to the rule. I assumed that most welfare recipients were like me, using benefits as a stopgap measure while attempting to craft a better life for themselves and their children.

Working at the convenience store has made me wonder, though — but not just about those who receive welfare. A recently-hired co-worker makes me aware that there are other ways to work the system.

The individual in question dropped off an application when I was working. Since supervising employees is one of  my job responsibilities — though the manager does all the hiring — I took the liberty of a conducting a cursory interview. He was articulate and definitely overqualified for the position — but so am I. He indicated a desire to work a specific shift for family reasons — something I understand.

The manager spoke with him and decided to offer him the position. After being hired, the individual kept moving back his start date for one reason or another. Since starting, he has been late for work every single day (not an exaggeration for emphasis, the simple truth), has not learned the most basic tasks (such as stamping the back of checks), makes excuses for not doing the work assigned to his shift even though there’s ample time to do it (which I know from personal experience,  having worked it), wants to set his own schedule rather than working assigned days, and has managed to irritate everyone with whom he’s worked thus far.

I had the uncharitable thought that he wants to get fired, so he can collect unemployment. But, I’m not the only one who has had that thought. Several of the individuals with whom I work have the same impression.

I have to admit, that approach to employment completely baffles me. Yes, I left a job last fall when my employers gave me an ultimatum — I could take a job no one else wanted or I could leave their organization. Since I knew I was ill-suited for the position and knew the negative impact it would have on my mental and physical health, I respectfully declined the transfer. Yes, I attempted to collect unemployment.

But, I didn’t quit to collect unemployment. I quit because it was the only viable option for me at that point. I think the fact I now work at a convenience store testifies to my willingness to work.

That is not to say I don’t understand the allure of life without the demands of work. I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that unemployment gave me, the freedom to spend time with my grandchildren, the freedom to help people who were in need of companionship or other assistance, the freedom to spend hours in prayer  and to write. I could easily build a full and satisfying life if I didn’t have to work.

But, I simply cannot understand working the system in order to avoid work. In the simplest terms possible, that’s stealing. How is it possible to take pride in stealing? How can you live with yourself if your livelihood is the  result of a lie?

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers that what they use, grows in them. At least, that’s how I interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). It’s a simple and obvious lesson. A woodworker who takes pride in his craft and continues to perfect it, will do remarkable work. One who’s haphazard and does little to improve his skills will have mediocre results. If the two are in business, the hardworking craftsman will prosper and the other will not.

In the same way that skills grow in us, attitudes grow in us. If we have an attitude which justifies working the system — or stealing — we soon develop a sense of entitlement. When we feel entitled, we have little regard for others or the consequences of our actions so long as we get what we’re seeking.

In the long run, this is self-defeating. We fail to strengthen relationships, families or community ties by focusing on our needs rather than on the common good, and it’s only in healthy, loving, mutually-respectful relationships that we find what gives our life depth and meaning. Do those who work the system — whether by fraudulently collecting welfare, approaching employment as a path to unemployment benefits or avoiding taxes whenever and however possible — understand this?

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