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WELFARE shows the nature and complexity of the welfare system in sequences illustrating the staggering diversity of problems that constitute welfare: housing, unemployment, divorce, medical... See full summary »


Frederick Wiseman
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WELFARE shows the nature and complexity of the welfare system in sequences illustrating the staggering diversity of problems that constitute welfare: housing, unemployment, divorce, medical and psychiatric problems, abandoned and abused children, and the elderly. These issues are presented in a context where welfare workers as well as clients struggle to cope with and interpret the laws and regulations that govern their work and life.

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English | Spanish

Release Date:

11 January 1982 (Denmark) See more »

Also Known As:

Verkligheten låter sig inte berättas med tidtagarur i hand See more »

Filming Locations:

New York City, New York, USA See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Zipporah Films See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
See full technical specs »

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User Reviews

Incredible documentary but with what intention?
11 May 2008 | by stevenfallonnycSee all my reviews

"Welfare" is an inside look at the New York City welfare system, circa 1974, when NYC was a huge mess. And by "inside look" I don't mean boring behind-the-scenes nonsense - the entire film (almost three hours) is made up of conversation between welfare 'clients' and the welfare workers helping them out.

Shot in black and white, this is a gritty in-the-trenches look at the people asking for help, and the system that is supposed to help them. However, I am wondering what the purpose of making this film was exactly.

If it was to show how the "system" is so bad and uncaring, and such a hassle for those asking for help, it fails. To me it does, anyway, because that's not what I saw. What I saw was a long line of people trying to swindle the system in some way, trying to get away with whatever they can, who all have a huge sense of entitlement in wanting their welfare checks immediately no matter what the rules are.

Not all the clients were like that of course - but most seen in the film fit that description.

There are so many, where to begin. A few come to mind - there's the woman who ran out of her food check money, but let it slip out that she bought "two sweaters." (Why not just one sweater?) On pregnant woman returned back angry after she walked out in the middle of her interview previously because she didn't like the questions. An obviously drugged-out couple were saying anything to get free money, and it's funny how the girl let it slip that her boyfriend was married, and they try to cover it up.

Another woman is complaining on the telephone to a friend about the system and that she has "no friends" to help her - then who is she talking to so personally and casually to on the phone? One woman and her mother are especially annoying, as the daughter constantly is yelling and demanding things despite what the rules are - so much that a security guard and a manager had to be called by their caseworker who refused to continue because she was being yelled at so much. The same caseworker even had to finally resort to scolding a young guy who refused to leave after his interview was over and who was constantly complaining about getting the "runaround." She sternly told him that welfare needs "proof" and that they "just don't hand out money." The guy then complains about that he has no money, and then he (and his girl) unbelievably complains that he's always being told to "get a job!" And others too, always complaining, and blaming others for their plight. Welfare, the city, the state, the country, God, it's always everyone else's fault and not their own.

As a matter of fact, almost all the people asking for assistance are very unsympathetic, caught in lies, spinning tall tales, trying anything to weasel their way to a hassle-free generous handout.

The camera eventually shows us a man who is sweeping up in the place - he is a little old, and slow, and it almost looks as if he is going to fall down as he swipes his broom across the floor. But seeing this gentleman shows an amazing contrast - here is this guy, actually working at his job, at the place where many younger and healthier people are coming for handouts.

There is one lengthy and incredible sequence, featuring a 51-year old white man talking to a 22-year old black security guard at the welfare office. The white man tells how he was mugged and beaten badly by three blacks at one point, and has no problem telling the security guard about his dislike of the black race, and the reasons why, as the black guard listens and gives his take. The exchange between these two people is fascinating to say the least.

Again, I don't know what the intention of this film was, but if it was to show how sorry we're supposed to feel for the people asking for help, it fails. If anything, I instead felt for all the welfare workers, who you can see are desperately trying to keep their patience in check and be as diplomatic as possible despite being treated so poorly by the clients, who refuse to understand that when you get something for free, sometimes it takes a little effort and you must do things right.

No matter how one sees it, this is indeed a remarkable film.

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