Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Love on the dole: 18 songs about being on government assistance

Illustration for article titled Love on the dole: 18 songs about being on government assistance


1. Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution” (1988)
Tracy Chapman’s folk anthem “Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution” didn’t catch fire upon its release in 1988, but its timelessness eventually caught up to it. Simple, direct, and indelible, it’s been adopted by any number of causes and movements, big and small, since then. The universality of its message is its strength: “While they’re standing in the welfare lines / Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation,” sings Chapman, “Wasting time in the unemployment lines / Sitting around waiting for a promotion.” Granted, not everyone around the world can relate to the first-world problem of, say, not getting a promotion. But the unvarnished chorus is what drives home Chapman’s zeal, and the song’s enduring appeal: “Poor people gonna rise up / And get their share / Poor people gonna rise up / And take what’s theirs.” (JH)

2. The Newtown Neurotics, “Living With Unemployment” (1983)
British punk band The Members released a rousing, catchy single on Stiff Records in 1978, “Solitary Confinement,” about the trials and tribulations of being a faceless office drone with a rundown apartment and no courage to ask out a girl. Five years later, left-leaning group The Newtown Neurotics recorded a version of the song, only frontman Steve Drewett imagined a worse scenario: having no job, no place to live, and standing in the dole queue like a living ghost. With a tweak of the lyrics and a name-change to “Living With Unemployment,” The Neurotics turned a cheeky song about middle-class angst into something far edgier. And hungrier. (JH)

3. Sham 69, “I Don’t Wanna” (1977)
Bearing the distinction of being the only Oi! record produced by, of all people, John Cale, Sham 69’s 1977 debut, “I Don’t Wanna,” taps into the raw, heavy sound of an earlier Cale production, The Stooges’ self-titled debut. Instead of being obsessed with psychedelics, though, “I Don’t Wanna” is obsessed with poverty. “I don’t wanna work in no factory / And I don’t want no strike / And I don’t want no dole queue,” grunts frontman Jimmy Pursey. No work, no union, no welfare: That doesn’t leave a lot of options open for a young man in the recession-stricken England of the ’70s. Except for playing in a punk band, maybe? (JH)

4. The Exploited, “Dole Q” (1981)
Stalwart, spike-headed punk band The Exploited has never been recognized for its socioeconomic theorizing. But maybe it should be. Ponder for a moment the poetic puissance of lines from the group’s song “Dole Q,” such as, “Life on the dole, haven’t got any money / Life on the dole is no fun.” If further elucidation on the existential malaise of collecting welfare is required, behold: “It’s Saturday night, and you’ve got no money / So you have to walk the streets / It’s Saturday night, and you can’t go to the pub  / ’Cause you can’t afford the rent.” If The Exploited is good at one thing, it’s sharing its pain. (JH)

5. War, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” (1975)
Politically engaged but rollicking multi-ethnic funk band War often took an irreverent approach to subjects that brought out the tragedian in other ’70s musicians: “Food stamps give us something to eat / And the welfare pays the rent,” goes the propulsive, oddly cheerful “Livin’ In The Red.” “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” may be the funniest plea for racial tolerance ever to hit the charts, because it’s not about sanctifying the plight of the unfortunate, but about urging prejudiced white people to get down off their high horse and see that they have more in common with the people they bitch about than they want to admit: “I bring my money to the welfare line,” the band chants. “I see you standing in it every time!” (PDN)

6. Guy Drake, “Welfare Cadillac” (1970)
In the early ’70s, socially conscious soul and R&B artists sang about poor families on welfare with a catch in their voices, but the prevailing attitude among country-music fans may have been summed up by the hero of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues,” who can proudly declare that he “ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be.” In his novelty song “Welfare Cadillac,” Guy Drake assumes the role of a no-good layabout “with 10 kids and a wife,” so he and his audience can tell those on public assistance what they think of them. Drake’s antihero lives in a rotting shack that he has plenty of reasons not to bother fixing, not the least of which is that, when it gets too cold, they can sleep in the Cadillac he bought with his government check. “These other folks are the fools,” he opines, the ones who are “working and paying taxes.” Hell, America under Richard Nixon has become such a socialist nightmare that others are even footing the bill for his kids’ “free books and all them there free lunches at school.” (PDN)

7. Billy Bragg, “The Clashing Of Ideologies” (2006)
An unrepentant friend to the poor and downtrodden, Billy Bragg sings frequently about the injustices visited regularly on the lower classes. In the spartan “The Clashing Of Ideologies,” he bemoans the ineffectiveness of the British government, whose members are more interested in their own careers than in actually doing good. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) Who’s affected, wonders Bragg, by this inaction? The poorest: “And another dose of welfare cuts is passed without a word / From those who claim to represent the center of this nation.” Bragg isn’t all seriousness, though: In one of his better-known songs, “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards,” he again mentions welfare, this time predicting his own demise with “It’s a mighty long way down rock ’n’ roll / From Top Of The Pops to drawing the dole.” (JM)

8. Morrissey, “The Slum Mums” (2004)
“The Slum Mums” is nowhere near the top of the Morrissey canon—it’s a none-too-great B-side from the mid-’00s—but it is perhaps his most direct song about the welfare state. (At least in song form—the video for “Interesting Drug” is practically a tour through the British system, and includes the line “on a government scheme designed to kill your dream.”) In it, he plays the role of a disgusted government calculated to keep the poor from signing on for assistance. It’s overly direct and pouty (“We make you feel as if you’re whining / When you claim what’s legally yours”), interesting more as an anthropological look at Britain circa now than as a song. (JM)

9. Day One, “Love On The Dole” (2000)
College-rock act Day One did okay for itself with its breakout album, 2000’s Ordinary Man, songs from which landed on soundtracks like Cruel Intentions and The Big Tease. One cut that didn’t really go anywhere, though, was “Love On The Dole,” a charming little ditty about falling in love while waiting in line for a welfare check. The two make a date, making sure to pick a day after the checks come because, “that way the queen can pay.” It goes well, and they make plans to meet again in line, but when the time comes, the male half of the duo doesn’t arrive. When the girl goes looking for him with one of his friends, she finds out he’s been booted from the system because it, “turns out he’s been doing building work.” Romantic hopes, dashed. (ME)


10. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, “1st  Of Tha Month” (1995)
Selling more than 500,000 copies and earning Bone Thugs-N-Harmony its first top 20 single on the Billboard charts, “1st of Tha Month” was the Cleveland rap group’s ode to the day welfare benefits are paid out. With its chorus of “Wake up, wake up, wake up it’s the first of the month / To get up, get up, get up, so cash your checks and get up,” the track details the Thugs’ day buying weed, selling weed, looking for weed, and, in Bizzy Bone’s case, making sure no one steals his sister’s welfare check while she’s off picking up her food stamps. (ME)

11. Billy Joel, “Allentown” (1982)
Kicking right off with a factory whistle, Billy Joel’s “Allentown” is an ode to the unemployed and once-bustling towns that find themselves empty. Joel might be from Long Island, but he sympathizes with the plight of woebegone Pennsylvania steel workers who, after “they’ve taken all the coal from the ground,” have found themselves “Killing time / Filling out forms / Standing in line.” While in the ’50s, “Every child had a pretty good shot / To get at least as far as their old man got,” when this song was released on 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, workers were finding themselves forgotten and forlorn as the companies they once worked for “threw an American flag in our face.” (ME)

12. Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Mr. Welfare Man” (1974)
Curtis Mayfield was the go-to composer of socially conscious soundtracks in the ’70s, so it’s no surprise that his work on the 1974 film Claudine—a poignant comedy in which a single mother in Harlem finds love with a garbage collector—follows suit. One of the soundtrack’s most piercing songs is “Mr. Welfare Man.” Sung by veteran soul outfit Gladys Knight & The Pips, the Mayfield-penned track is a sumptuous, moving epic that touches softly yet firmly on negative perceptions of inner-city black people as they struggle for upward mobility—or simply survival. Knight and The Pips deliver the narrative with punch and depth, and in classic Mayfield fashion, the lyrics plumb the inner reaches of the heart while probing a broader context of societal injustice. (JH)

13. Katrina And The Waves, “Going Down To Liverpool” (1983)
After former Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew joined forces with drummer Alex Cooper and vocalist Katrina Leskanich in 1981 to form Katrina And The Waves, one of the first songs Rew brought to table was an ode to the awesomeness of doing nothing. More familiar with the Bangles’ 1984 cover, Americans may have identified the track more as a paean to laziness. But when someone asks the narrator “Where you going with that UB40 in your hand?” it’s not a reference to the band that sang “Red Red Wine,” but the name of the document issued to U.K. residents requesting unemployment benefits from the Department of Health and Social Security. (WH)

14. The Highwaymen, “Welfare Line”
By the time Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson convened to record their first album as The Highwaymen in 1985, the possibility of any member of the foursome ever finding himself on welfare had long since dissipated. But thanks to the earnestness of their vocals and the lyrical expectations of country-music listeners, the quartet of millionaires was still able to sell a song featuring the chorus, “So pass around the bottle, boys / Let’s talk about old times / Night’s rollin’ in, it’s cold as sin / Here on the welfare line.” (WH)

15. Dead Prez, “Hell Yeah (Pimp The System)” (2004)
Black nationalist firebrands Dead Prez are all about empowerment by any means necessary. “Hell Yeah,” from the duo’s 2004 album, RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta, opens with the two rappers broke, hungry, and desperate, mapping out various ways to remedy their situation. The revolutionaries decide to pimp the system by scoring food stamps with an elaborate sob story about being homeless, jobless, and on the verge of losing hope. The song embodies a fascinating combination of idealism and pragmatism, political passion and cynical calculation as it preaches ways to pimp the system to the working poor’s advantage. The remix added über-capitalist Jay-Z to the mix, but it’s safe to say his days of trying to score government cheese are long over. (NR)

16. Coolio, “County Line” (1993)
Before “Fantastic Voyage” made him an unlikely hit-maker, Coolio gleefully played smartass neighborhood sociologist on “County Line,” a hilarious exploration of the indignity of having to line up alongside the rest of the downtrodden to beg for food stamps. Coolio paints a vivid portrait of the dregs of humanity lined up alongside him, from fiends trying to smoke crack without calling attention to themselves to a hygienically challenged gentleman asking Coolio for his autograph. “County Line” cheekily subverts hip-hop materialism by presenting the industry as such a losing game that even a rapper with a deal, a record, and a video finds himself desperately in need of government aid, and more than willing to bend the truth to get what he wants. (NR)

17. Sicko, “On The Dole” (1995)
Beloved Seattle pop-punk band Sicko specialized in short, punchy slice-of-life songs, so “On The Dole” isn’t a harrowing tale of living hand-to-mouth, but rather a portrait of twentysomething listlessness: “My work ethic’s been destroyed / And I’m glad I’m unemployed / I’m always broke so what’s been gained / Thank God for the government / Stuck to the couch like rubber cement.” Singer Denny Bartlett isn’t looking for work so much as trying to create the illusion that he is—“I’m on the dole, out of control / I wonder if they’re on to me”—all the while knowing he’s only delaying a comeuppance that’s inevitable. (KR)

18. Warren Zevon, “Carmelita” (1976)
Given that he’s singing about being “all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town,” it’s clear that Warren Zevon has quite a few problems to deal with in “Carmelita” (which Zevon wrote, but was first recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan in 1972). Although the lyrics never state outright that he’s jobless, his financial situation is so dire that he’s forced to admit, “I pawned my Smith Corona,” and the fact that he’s “sittin’ here playing solitaire with my pearl-handled deck” implies that his downward spiral is almost complete. Indeed, the love of the song’s title character might be the only thing keeping him afloat. Still, when he tells Carmelita that the county “cut off your welfare check,” it’s undoubtedly for the best: There’s little doubt that he’d just blow it on smack anyway. (WH)