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Monica Yant Kinney | Holiday request: The gift of civility

The end-of-the-year e-mail from Denise Chambers to her 1,835 employees began with season's greetings and thanks for "accomplishing two out of our three main goals."

The end-of-the-year e-mail from Denise Chambers to her 1,835 employees began with season's greetings and thanks for "accomplishing two out of our three main goals."

It ended with a frank reality check that also ought to be heard by airline employees, mall cashiers and corporate grinches - anywhere arrogance abounds more than it should in human nature.

"We are still viewed as nasty (that word is actually used continuously) and uncaring," wrote Chambers, executive director of Philadelphia's County Assistance Office - i.e., the welfare department.

"There are staff who view clients as people not our equals and therefore not worthy of our respect and courtesy."

The e-mail came my way from an old source in the welfare trenches whom I like and respect. My source was stung by Chambers' "unprofessional" tone and figured I'd be similarly outraged by the audacity.

To the contrary. It's rare to hear such straight talk about the vulnerable from the powerful. We live in harsh times, and here's Chambers calling for compassion.

There but for the grace of God

For a couple years in the late 1990s, I wrote nonstop about welfare reform.

I met no one getting rich off $400-a-month government checks, living lavishly in public housing, or eating filets on food stamps.

I met lots of women shamed by their dysfunction and dumb decisions. They wanted to set better examples for their kids. They knew the world was watching and judging.

Today, welfare caseloads have shrunk and many recipients are short-timers, Chambers tells me, sparing the part about how states face intense pressure from increasingly tough federal laws to reduce the ranks.

Philadelphia has 96,733 people receiving cash assistance - 68,863 children and 27,870 adults. Some adults may never been able to support themselves, but half of them are working.

Hundreds of former welfare recipients are now on Chambers' payroll, an irony not lost on the boss when she wrote her note.

"One in four of our employees were clients," Chambers, 55, reminded the masses in her e-mail. "Have you forgotten the struggles that you had/have?"

"How would you make it if your next check was delayed two weeks?" she asked, pointedly. "Because if the truth were told, many [of us] are just one paycheck away from disaster."

Voice of experience

Chambers speaks from experience, having received food stamps briefly in 1973 when she was a struggling college student in Washington with a baby to feed.

"When I applied," she remembers, "that person was rude to me."

Years later, the divorced mother of three worked for the State of Michigan by day and as a janitor by night.

"When I tell my staff that the only difference between us and our clients is opportunity, I mean it," she explains. "I know struggle."

And yet, that's often what welfare recipients - not to mention the rest of us - get the moment we encounter a sour stranger on the phone or behind the counter.

I tell Chambers my first call to her office netted a mini-screed from a worker saying, "I don't know why her secretary would forward you over here."

She winces. I'm unscathed, but imagine how the uneducated fare when simple questions about the complicated rules that govern their lives are met with scorn.

How can anyone build confidence while being beaten down? Can you be self-loathing and self-sufficient?

"Ninety-nine percent of this staff is great," Chambers insists. "But still, we have this reputation."

And she'd like to shed it in 2008.

"During this holiday season, one of giving," Chambers wrote, "can you open your hearts, search your behavior and start treating our clients, the reason we have a job, with dignity and respect?"

A simple request for grace and decency in a world where both can be in short supply.