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Poverty and the politics of care

America abandoned the War on Poverty.
Now we’re waging a War on Welfare, and on the mothers who depend on it to support their families.

Reviews and commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

December 2004

Flat Broke With Children:
Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

By Sharon Hays, Oxford University Press, 2004

Also reviewed:

American Dream:
Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive To End Welfare
By Jason DeParle, Viking, 2004

The Betrayal of Work:
How Low Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families

By Beth Shulman, The New Press, 2003

The Working Poor: Invisible in America
By David K. Shipler, Knopf, 2004

When did the conversation about uplifting the poor lose political traction in the U.S.? It’s no longer considered good form -- even in progressive circles -- to mention the desperate plight of the growing number of Americans who are economically disadvantaged, systematically marginalized or chronically underprivileged. We’re now invited to turn our attention to the hardships faced by the “working poor” and “low-income families” -- as if some critical distinction exists between those who are merely impoverished and those who are absolutely destitute; as if they are not precisely the same people at different points in their life course and employment history.

I suspect this reframing of the poverty problem has occurred, in part, because it’s become culturally unfashionable to embrace the opinion that some Americans -- due to their race, or sex, or age, or maternal status, or circumstances of birth, or random and unfavorable conditions beyond their control -- do not have equal access to the same opportunities enjoyed by those born near the top of the social and economic heap. Even to suggest such a thing is dangerously liberal in a political moment when the term “liberal” is used as a pejorative.

Those who of us who lean to the left are advised by those on the right that the time has come to forget about all that crazy economic justice stuff and put our faith in job creation and the power of privatization-plus-personal-responsibility to resolve the nation’s most vexing socioeconomic problems. Beyond that, national discussions about poverty reduction tend to center on the U.S. commitment (such as it is) to relieving devastating economic inequality in the developing world, and not what should be done to alleviate the home-grown variety.

Which seems either simple-minded, or misguided, or both -- because poverty is a pressing problem in the United States, especially for women and children. Yes, the U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world. Yes, the U.S. does have the highest per capita income of all economically advanced countries. The U.S. also has the highest rate of overall poverty and the highest rate of child poverty of all affluent nations tracked by the OECD. And despite recent reports of an economic turnaround, the poverty situation is getting worse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s official poverty rate rose from 12.1 percent in 2002 to 12.5 percent in 2003. More than 35.7 million Americans live below the poverty line -- including 24.2 million young women and children -- and an additional 15.2 million women and children live in near-poverty. Over 10 million women and children in the U.S. live in deep poverty, measured as households with incomes less than 50 percent of the official poverty line. In 2003, 6.1 million households headed by single parent women with children under 18 -- 60 percent of all such households -- made do on less than $25,000 a year.

By comparison, just over 9 million Americans (that’s less than 5 percent of the adult population) have annual earnings of $100,000 or more. (Guess who is more likely to reap the benefits of the Bush administration’s recent tax cuts?) New studies on growing income inequality in the U.S. suggest the prospect of upward mobility is extremely limited. Even in the strongest economy, destitute families may be able to work themselves out of abject poverty but few are likely to achieve long-term financial security.

The official reaction to this unsightly blemish on America’s celebrated record of prosperity has been to re-examine the moral and social consequences of the distribution of aid to the poor. By the early 1970s, the War on Poverty was over, and the War on Welfare -- and the mothers who depend on it to support their families -- was underway. Welfare was recast as the cause of poverty and social decay rather than a flawed and incomplete response to it; tough-minded lawmakers concluded that the system’s principal shortcoming was providing cash benefits to poor women who gave birth to children out of wedlock -- children they feared were destined to repeat the cycle of poverty.

Rather than addressing the complex network of social, cultural and economic conditions that permit poverty to flourish in the shadow of astonishing wealth, attention shifted to the reproductive behavior of poor women and how public policy might be used to control it, although the stated rationale was reducing social spending and promoting self-sufficiency. This strategy moved to a new level in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan launched a highly successful campaign to convince taxpayers that the typical welfare recipient -- whom Reagan and his henchmen notoriously branded as “Welfare Queens” -- was flagrantly indolent, willfully ignorant, sexually promiscuous, recklessly fertile and living large on the public dime.

Despite pressure from conservative factions to cut spending on social programs, legislators resisted reducing or placing limits on welfare benefits until 1996, when Bill Clinton set in motion the deft political slight-of-hand that transformed “welfare as we knew it” into the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Thus was Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC -- a meager cash benefit for desperately poor mothers and their children -- scuttled in favor of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) -- a meager cash benefit with work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit.

Flat broke with children in America

Sociologist Sharon Hays -- whose 1996 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, stands as the definitive work on the ideological construction of “intensive” motherhood" -- undertook a three-year study of welfare reform and its impact on the women most likely to be affected by it: caseworkers and welfare recipients. Over the course of the project, Hays logged over 600 hours in the field and spent time with over 50 caseworkers and about 130 welfare mothers. The purpose of her research was not so much to determine whether welfare reform has been successful as a social program, but to sort out the “cultural norms, beliefs, and values” threaded through the laws and regulations governing the allocation of TANF.

As Hays states in the opening chapter of Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, “A nation’s laws reflect a nation’s values.” She found that the Personal Responsibility Act -- in its content, cultural context and implementation -- is an unusually rich site for exploring the conflicting values of work and family life in America. As Hays methodically unpacks her subject, she reveals that "welfare reform" is not an innovative and effective anti-poverty measure -- although much has been made of the fifty-percent reduction in welfare rolls since PRWORA was enacted, fewer people on welfare has not translated into fewer people in poverty -- but a “social experiment to legislate the work ethic and family values.” In describing the ideological tension embedded in welfare reform, Hays writes:

Depending upon one’s angle of vision, welfare reform can be seen as a valorization of independence, self-sufficiency, and the work ethic as well as the promotion of a certain form of gender equality. On the other hand, it can serve as a condemnation of single parenting, a codification of the appropriate preeminence of family ties and the commitment to others, and a reaffirmation that women’s place is in the home.

Further, it is certainly no accident that the primary guinea pigs in this national experiment in family values and the work ethic are a group of social subordinates -- overwhelmingly women, disproportionately non-white single parents, and of course, very poor.

As for the efficacy of welfare reform, Hays provides data throughout the book demonstrating that only about one-third of welfare recipients are able to find and keep jobs, and considerably fewer achieve financial stability and self-sufficiency. If the goal of welfare reform was to decrease poverty overall, she writes, “there is no indication that anything but the cycle of the economy has had an impact.”

Readers familiar with Hays’ earlier work will recognize the analytical framework she revisits here. Flat Broke With Children examines the fundamental contradictions between the ideals of individual autonomy and self-determination and the widespread belief that connection and commitment to others -- as expressed through community, care-giving and reciprocity -- is imperative for the continuation of moral and social life. The Personal Responsibility Act is widely recognized as a “welfare-to-work” mandate -- with few exceptions, recipients are only eligible for cash support and supplemental benefits (such as child care and transportation subsidies) if they are working, looking for work, or receiving job training. But as Hays points out, the letter of the law is more concerned with promoting an idealized family form than with helping impoverished women achieve economic independence. Indeed, the long preamble of Congressional findings spelling out the logic of the Personal Responsibility Act leads with the following statements: “(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society. (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children. (3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.”

Furthermore, the federal funding mechanism for TANF requires states to:

(1) provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives;

(2) end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage;(3) prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and

(4) encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

As Hays comments, “It should be noted that only one of these goals is directed at paid work. And even in this case it is set alongside marriage as one of the two proper paths leading away from welfare.” She concludes there are “two distinct (and contradictory) visions of work and family life” implanted in welfare reform: the Work Plan and the Family Plan.

In the Work Plan, work requirements are a way of rehabilitating mothers, transforming women who would otherwise ‘merely’ stay at home and care for their children into women who are self-sufficient, independent, productive members of society. The Family Plan, on the other hand, uses work requirements as a way of punishing mothers for their failure to get married and stay married. In the Work Plan we offer women lots of temporary subsidies …to make it possible for them to climb a career ladder that will allow them to support themselves and, presumably, their children. …According to the Family Plan, work requirements will teach women a lesson; they’ll come to know better than to get divorced or to have children out of wedlock. They will learn that their duty is to control their fertility, to get married, to stay married, and to dedicate themselves to the care of others.

…The two competing visions embedded in welfare reform are directly connected to a much broader set of cultural dichotomies that haunt us all in our attempts to construct a shared vision of the good society -- independence and dependence, paid work and caregiving, competitive self-interest and obligation to others, the value of the work ethic and financial success versus the value of personal connection, family bonding and community ties.

In Flat Broke With Children, Hays’ central project is to record how the women enmeshed in the welfare system -- the mothers who seek support and the caseworkers who administer it -- articulate and negotiate the conflicting cultural objectives of welfare reform. She notes that while the Family Plan dominates the language of welfare law, the Work Plan takes precedence at ground level. According to Hays, the welfare clients she interviewed were not routinely instructed in the larger message about the value of marriage, the importance of two-parent families or the priority of caring for children “in their own homes.” Nor do welfare offices offer couples counseling or dating services. According to Hays, the welfare mothers she studied “knew they were expected to find jobs, and they knew they were expected to obey the rules.”

As the foot soldiers in a rigid bureaucracy, the welfare caseworkers Hays observed understood that their primary directive was to communicate and enforce the countless rules and regulations governing their clients’ eligibility, specifically in regard to time limits and work requirements. Welfare recipients who violate work participation rules -- by failing to comply with reporting requirements, or for quitting a job without good cause -- face stiff sanctions; all or part of a mother’s welfare benefits may be suspended for a period of weeks or months for non-compliance, leaving her family without means of support. Hays explains that being unable to work due to one’s own illness, child care problems, or needing time off to care for a sick child are not considered “good causes” for leaving a job.

Given the nature of the employment most welfare mothers are likely to find -- low-wage or minimum-wage service jobs, with few or no benefits, little or no working time flexibility, little or no paid time off, and little or no possibility of advancement -- Hays questions whether welfare regulations emphasizing enforcement and compliance with harsh penalties for transgressions are designed to prepare poor women to grab their very own piece of the American Dream:

How can welfare caseworkers convince their clients that they recognize them as independent, assertive, self-seekers while simultaneously demanding their unquestioning deference to an impossible system of rules? How will clients understand their paid employment as a positive individual choice when it is presented as one of many absolute demands, backed up by multiple threats of punishment? …If we really want to include welfare mothers as active citizens, full-fledged participants in society, and social equals of both men and the middle class, it doesn't make sense to use bureaucratic mechanisms to mentor or inspire them. If, on the other hand, what we are actually preparing them for is to serve our fast food, clean our toilets, answer our phones, ring up our receipts, and change our bed pans, the bureaucratic operations of welfare could be construed as very effective.

Later in the same chapter, Hays’ tone becomes even more critical:

Recognizing the realities of low-wage work, one could argue that the underlying logic of the Personal Responsibility Act is either punitive or delusional. On the punitive side, the work rules of reform might be interpreted as implicitly aimed at creating a vast population of obedient and disciplined workers who are hungry enough (and worried about their children enough) to take any temporary, part time, minimum-wage job that comes their way, not matter what the costs to them or their family. More positively (or nearsightedly), one could interpret the Work Plan as following from the assumption that there is an unlimited number of career ladders available for every American to climb. The time-limited nature of welfare reform’s childcare, transportation and income supports, for instance, suggest a middle-class (and increasingly mythological) model of working one’s way to the top.

The trajectory of downward mobility

For all the brilliance of Hays' analysis, what makes Flat Broke With Children exceptional is her ability to bring to life the voices and experiences of welfare mothers, a population of women who -- beyond the demeaning stereotypes perpetuated by those convinced they hold the moral high ground -- are all but socially invisible. As a trained observer, Hays is guardedly sympathetic and respectfully unsentimental (a quality she also brought -- somewhat less effectively -- to The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood). She assiduously avoids portraying the mothers she encounters as cunning cheats, heroic survivors or hapless victims of fate. What we find instead are complicated and often moving stories of real women caught between a rock and a hard place. Hays writes that the welfare mothers profiled in her book agreed to share their painful stories as a testimony:

They had heard more than once the stereotypes labeling them as lazy, dependent, ignorant, promiscuous, and manipulative cheats. They told their stories …with the hope they would be recognized not simply as a composite of clichés, but as whole persons …it seemed to me they implicitly asked to be treated as citizens and social members. No special dispensation was requested. It was visibility and inclusion that mattered.

When reading the accounts of these mothers’ lives leading up to their entry into the welfare system, I was reminded of a comment made by my former psychotherapist when, after several years of intermittent depression and general inertia compounded by a series of failed relationships, I met and fell in love with the man who is now my husband and the father of my children. Her words, as I recall, were: “You seem to do pretty well when everything is going well.” And my first thought was: Well, can't that be said of everyone?

When a person has good health, when no family, personal or financial crises looms, when there is no threat of abandonment or violence, when we feel loved, when things are going smoothly on the job, when there is enough money to pay the bills and a bit left over to save or have fun with, when life offers the possibility of joy and success -- when all these conditions are in place, it’s easy to “do pretty well," even when there's old damage to be mended or grief and trouble in the past. And while I have the advantage of being white, middle-class and fairly well-educated, it’s my personal experience that when you start scratching items off that basic list -- good health, good job, stable family life, feeling cared for, economic security -- life can go to hell in a handbasket in no time flat.

Hays describes this as “the domino effect.” Typically, it’s not just one unfortunate event -- such as having a child out of wedlock -- that lands women on the welfare rolls; more often, it’s an accumulation of hard luck mixed up with bad timing and human fallibility that starts the downward spiral.

Sheila was engaged to marry her high school sweetheart, but when he was killed in a car crash shortly after their graduation, she lost her bearings and put her plans to go to college on hold. A year later, her father walked out on her mother, leaving behind the car that was not paid for and owing back rent. Sheila and her mom found jobs at the same dry cleaning establishment, and by working 15 hour days, six days a week, they managed to make ends meet. But when her mom developed a serious medical condition and was unable to work, Sheila’s earnings weren’t enough to cover their expenses. Caught up in the stress of financial insecurity and dealing with her mothers’ health crisis, Sheila lost her job. The pair became homeless, living with friends and scavenging for food.

While homeless, Sheila found a regular part-time job and met Sam, the man she believes fathered her only child. When she discovered he was married, she used her scant earnings to buy a bus ticket and sent him home to his wife. Three weeks later, she was raped -- “That’s a danger for women who live on the street,” Sheila explains -- and then discovered she was pregnant. Still working part time, Sheila entered the welfare system when she needed medical insurance to cover the birth of her daughter. At the time Hays interviewed her, Sheila had worked off and on but was concerned about her ability to care adequately for her then eight-year old child when long bus rides and a full-time job kept her away from home for as much as 12 hours a day.

Elena had worked steadily since she was 18. But her orderly middle-class life started to unravel when her husband developed a substance abuse problem and became physically abusive. Elena moved to another city with the youngest of her three teenage children, and by working two jobs as a skilled hospital technician was able to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Then one morning after dropping her son off at school, her minivan was hit by a truck and Elena was severely injured in the accident. She returned to work when her health insurance ran out after six weeks, but her neck and spinal injuries were so painful that her doctors advised her to stop working. She contacted an attorney about collecting damages from the trucking company, but he wanted money up front -- money Elena did not have. Since doctors expected her to recover almost fully after she completed the recommended course of treatment, Elena did not qualify for Social Security disability benefits; because she was technically “unavailable to work” she was also ineligible for unemployment benefits. She finally turned to welfare to get health care coverage for herself and her son; Elena’s family helped her with her house payments so she and her son would not end up homeless. When Hays interviewed her, Elena had been on welfare for six months.

At the time she was interviewed, Hays calculates that Diane had been suffering from depression and mental health disabilities for over 20 years. Diane’s parents were school teachers, and she was a good student; she also started working part-time at the age of 15 to help with the family’s finances. But when Diane was 17, her parents discovered she was using contraception and forced her to marry her boyfriend (although she was not pregnant at the time). For the duration of their 13-year marriage, Diane’s husband was physically abusive and openly unfaithful. When Diane was 24, she gave birth to a daughter and left her well-paid job as a manager of three discount stores, hoping that the change would improve her marriage. Diane’s husband earned a good wage and she devoted herself to caring for their immaculate home and young daughter. But the abuse continued: “He beat me really bad for a long time. Once he locked me in a closet for two days. I ended up in the hospital more than once.”

At the age of 31, Diane finally left, leaving her daughter in the custody of her ex-husband. Derailed by the divorce, Diane started drinking. She took a job as a topless dancer because it paid well, but Diane’s drinking problem escalated. In an effort to turn her life around, she quit dancing, stopped drinking, and applied for food stamps and subsidized housing while supporting herself with a series of low-paid house cleaning jobs. She eventually met and fell in love with the man who became the father of her second child, a son: “I thought we would get married. I thought I could build new life. But he left.” Diane considered abortion, but Medicaid would not pay for the procedure and she could not pay for it out of pocket. When her son was born, a hospital social worker suggested that Diane apply for welfare. Diane was bright and extremely positive about the job training programs available through the welfare Work Plan, but at the time Hays conducted her interview, Diane had been unable to find a good permanent placement that enabled her to coordinate child care and transportation.

When Hays first met her, Christine was 24 and had an 8-year old daughter. When Christine was a teenager, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As the family struggled to cope with her mothers’ rapid decline, Christine started taking risks, got pregnant and became a mother at age 16. Six weeks after giving birth, Christine suffered a severe stroke that left her hospitalized for six weeks. She continued to suffer from debilitating headaches and never fully recovered the use of one arm.

Christine first entered the welfare system to get assistance with her medical bills. She was able to finish high school, but had to be hospitalized more than 25 times -- once for three months -- for conditions related to her stroke. Christine had been on welfare for four years when Hays interviewed her; her disabilities made it difficult for her to work a full day, and doctors recommended that she not work at all. Christine was afraid that when she hit the five-year lifetime limit for welfare eligibility, she would be unable to hold down a job or afford private health insurance to cover her considerable medical expenses. Even though her physical disabilities are significant and long-term, Christine’s first application for federal disability benefits was turned down.

Hays found that mothers like Sheila, Elena, Diane, Christine and others -- with their significant histories of misfortune, emotional trauma, disability and domestic violence -- were more representative of the welfare clients she encountered in the course of her research than stereotypical welfare mothers who are incompetent, irresponsible or just looking for a handout. (To provide a balanced perspective, Hays does include a chapter on the mothers she studied who might be categorized as pathologically dependent or hopelessly entangled in the “cultures of poverty.”) She notes that studies on the physical and mental health of welfare mothers suggest that between 10 and 31 percent are afflicted with physical disabilities which limit their ability to work; that somewhere between 4 and 56 percent of welfare mothers suffer from mental health disabilities that prevent them from finding or keeping a steady job; and that at one time or another, over half of all welfare clients are impacted by domestic violence. Low-income mothers are also more likely than higher-income mothers to have children with disabilities or chronic medical conditions.

The personal narratives Hays presents in Flat Broke With Children are much more substantial and nuanced than these short synopses can convey. But one thing I find particularly compelling about these mothers’ stories -- especially when recorded in the women’s own words -- is how deeply these women care for their children, and how conflicted they feel about the values attributed to paid work compared to the value they place on caring for their children. The emotional and practical impasse faced by welfare mothers who dutifully comply with the requirements of the “Work Plan” is especially disheartening when it comes to finding decent child care, since in many cases the only child care they can afford -- even for the few who manage to get child care subsidies -- is substandard, and in some instances, unsafe. Hays questions -- as we all must -- the economic and moral logic of a system that is willing to pay child care providers more than it costs to provide cash supports to poor mothers who want to care for their children “in their own homes.”


Hays’ study strongly suggests that, contrary to popular beliefs about the maternal qualities of resourceless women, the hearts of welfare mothers are no different from the hearts of other mothers (a topic that historian Rickie Solinger also broaches in Beggars and Chooser: How the Politics of Choice Shape Abortion, Adoption and Welfare in the United States). It may be socially, politically, and economically expedient to typecast impoverished, minimally educated, unmarried women as uncaring mothers who are ill equipped to rear successful children -- as Hays perceptively acknowledges, someone’s got to change the bed pans -- but Hays’ research attests that many welfare mothers are just as devoted to their children, and just as anxious about providing them with stable and loving homes, as many affluent mothers. It appears that American mothers -- even the ones who depend on welfare -- use the same kind of language to express their sense of attachment to their children and describe the challenges of fulfilling their maternal roles. Grinding poverty and the health and psychological damage that flows from it may not be conducive to the style of intensive mothering favored by the American middle-class. But based on Hays’ work, there seems to be little or no evidence that welfare mothers, as a class, suffer from a lack of caring intent or a deficiency of maternal sensitivity.

Flat Broke With Children presents a convincing argument that the vast majority of welfare mothers do not need to be “reformed” according to the dual agenda embedded in the Personal Responsibility Act -- they already share the core values of mainstream culture. The mothers Hays studied believe in hard work and personal responsibility, and they place conscientious mothering high on their list of personal and social obligations. It’s more likely that what poor mothers need most -- what all mothers need most -- is a comprehensive social safety net which enables women and their children to lead safe, secure, healthy, productive and dignified lives, even in the worst of times.

“The primary point I want to drive home,” writes Hays,

…is that all the welfare mothers I have [described] are not the causes of the rise in single parenting or the rising number of women and children living in poverty. They are its consequences. If we want to change the number of people who are forced to go on welfare, if we want to change the rate of single parenting, if we want to change the color of welfare, if we want to undo the feminization of poverty, then we must squarely address those larger phenomenon. If we approach these social problems only by attempting to “fix” all the individual women currently using welfare, our efforts will fail. The social system that created their plight will simply spawn a whole new generation to take their place.

Behind the scenes of welfare reform

Jason DeParle, a senior writer for The New York Times, takes an entirely different approach to the issue of women, work and welfare. DeParle’s critically-acclaimed book -- American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and A Nation’s Drive To End Welfare (2004) -- is based on a character study of three mothers caught up in the welfare system before and after the age of reform. But while American Dream is thought-provoking and skillfully written, it suffers from the tinge of sensationalism (from the front flap: “Cutting between Washington, DC and the streets of Milwaukee, DeParle follows the story from the White House to the local crack house”). Furthermore, DeParle’s emphasis on the tawdry underside of poverty seems typical of mainstream media reporting on disadvantaged families. It doesn’t help that DeParle selects as his subjects a high-spirited trio of young African American women who, in one incident after another, manage to embody the worst-case stereotypes of self-defeating, underachieving, irresponsible women trapped in the culture of the underclass.

From 1996 and 2004, the author tracked the exploits of three cousins -- Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed and Opal Caples -- whose trials and tribulations with the welfare system in Milwaukee, Wisconsin provide the background for DeParle’s study of the political evolution of welfare reform. Yet when all is said and done, DeParle's potrayal of these women and their children seems weirdly one-dimensional. By the end of the book, I found it difficult to sort them all out; the flashes of humanity that infuse their separate lives and inform their personal trajectories seemed to blend into a kind of undifferentiated amalgam of small strides tempered by predictably crushing setbacks.

Perhaps because I finished Sharon Hays’ Flat Broke With Children before reading American Dream, I felt something crucial was missing from DeParle’s rendition of these mothers’ private lives and affections. We’re permitted to see Angie, Jewell and Opal screw up in countless ways -- we see them quarreling; we see them having babies and taking up with the wrong men or pining over lovers serving hard time in prison; we see them lying and scamming and drug addicted; we see them starting and quitting various low-wage dead-end jobs and in general doing whatever it takes to scrape by. But unlike the mothers in Flat Broke With Children, we rarely see them worrying about or caring for their children. I suppose it’s possible that these women were truly devoid of any noticeable maternal affect, or it’s possible that DeParle observed their maternal attachment and concern but, for some reason, decided not to report it. It’s also possible that there are limits to how much a poor black woman is willing to let a white, middle-class, male reporter know about the contents of her internal life.

DeParle’s writing seems more natural when he’s examining the actions and motivations of men, be they ambitious congressmen, nerdy policy wonks or beleaguered welfare caseworkers. His writes energetically about the strange moral logic, unfounded optimism, and protracted political maneuvering that eventually led to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. His chapters on for-profit contractors squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked to help the City of Milwaukee’s welfare poor are confident and richly detailed. And the story of Michael Steinborn, welfare caseworker XM128W, is one of the most memorable and compelling in the entire book. It’s worthwhile to pay attention to DeParle’s masculine slant, since, the individuals who determine how welfare funding is apportioned, regulated and distributed are overwhelmingly male -- and people who, as Sharon Hays dryly remarks, “have never spent time with welfare recipients in their entire lives.”

Apparently, DeParle has a partial solution for welfare poverty in mind; he repeatedly implies that wayward men -- not just wayward women -- are at the root of America’s poverty problem. In numerous comments and side notes, he suggests that the stabilizing influence and essential economic support provided by involved fathers is sorely missing from the lives of the troubled and troubling people he encounters in Angie, Jewell and Opal’s intimate circle:

The conservative critique [of pre-PRWORA welfare] that seems more on point concerns the absence of responsible fathers, a condition that had shaped the Caples family for at least three generations and that speaks more directly to the underclass dilemma. The lack of a father means the lack of income, affection and discipline that a father can provide. Kids can overcome it, and they do so all the time, but for someone growing up poor, having just one parent amounts to a double dose of disadvantage.


To drive this point home, DeParle portrays the lack of a benevolent father figure as the tragic core of the drama of his subjects’ lives:

The more time I spent at Angie’s, the more it felt like everything was about Greg [the father of three of Angie’s four children, convicted of murder and sentenced to 65 years in prison]. He had been gone for eight years, but his absence left a hole that nothing had been able to fill— not welfare, not work, and certainly not the parade of men filing through Angie’s life. …He hung over the house like a private gravity field.


The ideological agenda DeParle is pushing seems relatively mild but is not unproblematic. For example, American Dream could mention more about the need for effective social programs to addresses the acute economic, educational and vocational training needs of underprivileged men. However, DeParle’s assessment of the cultural anxiety and political machinations that brought an end to welfare as a simple entitlement for needy families is intelligent and illuminating, as is his informed skepticism about the capacity of the Personal Responsibility Act to propel destitute mothers and their kids into the security of the lower middle class:

On Welfare, Angie was a low-income single mother, raising her kids in a dangerous neighborhood in a household roiled by chaos. She couldn’t pay the bills. She drank lots of beer. And her children needed a father. Off welfare, she was a low-income single mother, raising her kids in a dangerous neighborhood in a household roiled by chaos. She couldn’t pay the bills. She drank lots of beer. And her children needed a father.


Technically, Angie Jobe is a welfare-to-work success story. She found stable employment and a degree of personal satisfaction working as a nursing aide. Her first job paid $6.50 an hour; after seven years of working for the same employer, she earned $8.99 and hour— an average increase of 36 cents a year. When DeParle concluded his research for American Dream, Angie still depended on food stamps and housing subsidies to make ends meet.

Why work is not enough

According to Beth Shulman, the failure to provide a living wage for mothers leaving the welfare rolls is just one aspect of the crisis of low-wage work in America. “Inadequate wages are only part of the problem,” she writes in The Betrayal of Work: How Low Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families (2003). Most low-wage workers, she reports, “lack basic benefits such as health care, sick pay, disability pay, paid vacation, and retirement. Their jobs leave little flexibility to care for a sick child or deal with an emergency at school -- let alone the normal appointments and needs of everyday life.” Shulman adds that low wages, non-standard work hours, forced overtime and having little control over one’s work schedule make reliable, good-quality childcare prohibitively expensive and nearly impossible to find. Moreover, she shows that the conditions of low-wage work are often dangerous and dehumanizing. But for many millions of U.S. workers, there are few other viable options for gainful employment outside of poorly paid, no benefits, dead-end jobs. And three out of every five workers in America’s low-wage workforce are female.

The awful truth about America’s impressive wealth, at least from a historical perspective, is that it is largely a product of the exploitation of vulnerable and marginalized populations -- women, children, minorities and immigrants. Shulman’s research for The Betrayal of Work suggests this pattern still holds true. Profit-making in the free market circa 2004 gives employers ample incentive to cultivate a class of highly expendable workers who have the “choice” of selling their labor for nothing or next to nothing or not working at all, and who place few or no additional financial burdens on the business. Cultural norms and federal labor standards prevent the outrageous abuses of the past -- such as slavery, unregulated working hours and conditions, child labor and other types of mistreatment commonly inflicted on American laborers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, we have the fast food industry, call centers and WalMart. “Whatever one thought of America’s welfare poor,” Shulman remarks, “few people were making money off them. The same cannot be said of our new working poor. …Low wage jobs translate into billions of dollars of profits, executive pay, high stock prices, and low consumer prices.”

Shulman identifies the problem of the working poor and growing income inequality in the United States as both a labor crisis and a crisis of values:

…If work does not work for millions of Americans it undermines our country’s most fundamental ideals. We are permitting a caste system to grow up around us, consigning millions of Americans to a social dead-end. The notion of equal opportunity becomes a farce in the face of these harsh class divisions. It is a sentence passed onto not only those toiling in the poverty wage economy, but onto many of their children who lack the support they need to succeed.

Through short case studies interspersed with more formal data, The Betrayal of Work opens up the world of the hard-working men and women who labor “in the heart of our economy and our lives” -- nursing assistants and home health aides, child care workers, janitors, poultry-processing workers, hotel maids, cashiers, and receptionists. While she note that most of these occupations are defined as “low skilled,” Shulman objects to this classification:

The “low skilled” label is a distancing device. It allows us to dismiss the workers as undeserving, somehow flawed. It allows us to justify how poorly their employers treat them. It makes it easier to blame them for their own plight. Undervaluing low-wage job skills, most of which involve working with people, is especially ironic in our consumer-driven, service economy. But this denigration is no accident. Most low wage jobs have historically been “women’s jobs.” These jobs involve nurturing, caring, and communicating with people, skills that have been historically trivialized.

Shulman argues passionately that it’s time for change. Given her own professional background in the labor sector, it comes as no surprise that she relates the larger problem of low-wage work to employers’ resistance to unionization. There is no question that low-wage workers -- and all workers --desperately need a more powerful voice in the workplace. However, as Thomas A. Kochan comments in Regaining Control of Our Destiny: A Working Families’ Agenda for America, labor unions may need to substantially reinvent themselves to serve the needs of the 21st century workforce, including the low-wage workforce. That said, Shulman’s insistence that revitalizing the labor movement is key to solving the problem of low-wage work in America -- as well as resolving the broader issue of excessive working time in the U.S. -- seems on the mark.

In addition to highlighting the impediments to collective bargaining for low-wage workers, Shulman writes that four myths have deadlocked the debate over low-wage work in America: the myth of upward mobility, the myth that education and skills enhancement is the primary solution to the problem of low-wage work, the myth that America’s entry into the global marketplace limits our ability to improve wages and working conditions for workers at home, and the myth that volunteerism is a substitute for social policy.

It doesn’t take much digging to undermine the first three fallacies on Shulamn’s list: study after study shows that occupational and economic mobility for low-wage workers is virtually non-existent in the U.S. (although Shulman notes that workers in the EU fare slightly better). Skills improvement may indeed help some low-wage workers get ahead, but training alone does not create a surplus of better-paying jobs which call for more advanced skills. Globalization has had a profound impact on workers in the manufacturing industry and occupations that are easily outsourced, but security guards, convenience store cashiers, parking lot attendants, child care workers and waiters and waitresses can’t do their jobs from India or China or Mexico. Their work -- like most work in the low-wage service sector -- is location dependent, so the global market theory only goes so far in rationalizing their marginalization.

It’s the last bit of political folklore Shulman identifies -- the myth that volunteerism is a substitute for social policy -- that seems so insidiously connected to America’s willingness to dismantle the war on poverty (and in this case, whether we are referring to the “welfare poor” or the “working poor” or the poor souls who fall completely through the cracks is irrelevant). There is something wonderfully heartwarming about the idea that caring individuals and communities will always step in to make sure no one is forgotten or left behind; the charitable impulse is a kind of grace and should not be underestimated. But in the long view, the corrective effects of volunteerism and charity are transitory. Volunteerism -- even at its best and brightest -- is a response, not a solution, to social problems, and it’s certainly no solution for a social problem as entrenched as poverty in America. In the scope of national politics, we presently rely on volunteerism to hold the social instability resulting from profound economic inequality in check. But what happens when charity and good intentions are no longer enough? With community food banks exhausted and homeless shelters overflowing, that day is surely approaching. As for the working poor, Shulman quite reasonably suggests, “Americans who work hard should not have to rely on hand outs for their basic necessities. They should not have to rely on the goodwill of individuals and organizations to make up for the deficits of their jobs.”

Shulman has some ideas about what it will take to turn this sorry situation around. She calls for a comprehensive "Compact with Working Americans" which includes part-time parity; assured affordable health care; increased workplace flexibility and stricter regulation of mandatory overtime; paid family and medical leave; paid sick leave and minimum paid vacation time for all workers; substantial child care subsides for low-income families and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year olds; continuing education and/or vocational training for all workers; safe, affordable workforce housing; expanded unemployment benefits for low-wage and non-standard workers; and better retirement benefits. This daunting (and undoubtedly expensive) list of supports may seem politically untenable, but these are precisely the kinds of policies that might have prevented many of the mothers profiled in Flat Broke With Children from descending into poverty in the first place and could help former welfare mothers like Angie Jobe become truly self-sufficient. It’s also worth mentioning that Shulman’s Compact mirrors the package of universal family supports offered in European countries where maternal and child poverty is exceptionally low.

As Shulman concludes:

Whether we will be a nation of opportunity and justice for all or one in which only the few prosper at the expense of millions of workers and their families is ultimately up to us. Many argue that these improvements will cost too much. But the cost of doing nothing is even greater. It denies workers the essentials of a decent life and subjects their children to such deprivation that they have little chance of success. It hurts our economy, it hurts our democracy, and it hurts our health as a nation if we ignore those who are working hard but getting shortchanged.

Inside the lives of the poor

Our national resistance to attacking poverty head-on is not grounded in a lack of compassion. Rather, America is paralyzed by the enduring conflict between the high value our culture places on rational individualism and the reality of human need. As far as resolving the dilemma of the working poor, Shulman’s idea that some configuration of more money, better policy and stronger labor regulations would do the trick makes sense. But what configuration? In a capitalist society -- in fact, in any society -- poverty is an ideological problem as much as a social and economic one. And in the U.S., there is no clear consensus in either popular or political thought about whether poor people are poor because of the way they act , or the things that happen to them.

If poor people are poor because of the way they act, laws and policies to promote the general welfare might include a system of incentives and deterrents to reform self-defeating behaviors and efforts to isolate those who appear disinterested in self-improvement so they won’t drag the rest of us down. On the other hand, if individuals are thrust into poverty by things that happen to them, we’d need to create laws and policies to prevent or remove conditions which exacerbate social and economic inequality. At different times during the 20th century, the United States has implemented policies based on one or the other of these approaches with mixed results.


After visiting the homes, neighborhoods and workplaces of the men, women and families who inhabit the unforgiving terrain of “forgotten America,” Pulitzer-prize winning author David K. Shipler found that neither the causes of poverty nor its potential remedies can be calculated with the “either/or” formula. In The Working Poor: Invisible In America (2004), Shipler documents the exhausting struggles of families living at the edge of the nation’s social and economic margins: “Their wages do not lift them far enough from poverty to improve their lives, and their lives, in turn, hold them back.” The Working Poor rigorously challenges the simplistic logic of the “American Myth” -- the supposition that “people who work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America” and its equally problematic counter-logic, the “Anti-American Myth,” which holds that “society is largely responsible for the individual’s poverty.”

Like Sharon Hays in Flat Broke With Children, Shipler discovers that poverty is caused by a predictable combination of factors that involve both how individuals act and the things that happen to them. Like the rest of us, people in poverty sometimes make poor choices and end up worse for the wear. But there are also pervasive social, cultural and economic factors which compound the effects of poverty; as Shipler observes, “The poor have less control than the affluent over their private decision… Their personal mistakes have larger consequences, and their personal achievements yield smaller returns.” In other words, poverty in and of itself is wounding -- when the poor take a fall, they fall harder.

Of the workers he portrays in The Working Poor -- including factory workers, agricultural workers, child care workers, welfare mothers, sewing machine operators, retail workers, and many others who drift from one low-wage occupation to another -- Shipler writes, “Each person’s life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and roads cut off by accident of birth or circumstance. It is difficult to find someone whose poverty is not related to his or her unwise behavior… And it is difficult to find behavior that is not somehow related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possibility can be seen.” And in the case of women, he might have added “poorly treated,” since women living in financially insecure families and neighborhoods are significantly more likely to experience domestic violence.

Shipler doesn’t downplay the dejection and internal instability experienced by the low-income families he spends time with -- like everyone else in the U.S., Shipler's subjects don't always spend their money wisely, don't always parent well, and are sometimes self-indulgent, disorganized, apathetic, abusive, slovenly and oppositional. Yet Shipler renders these weaknesses with extraordinary kindness and empathy; the reader is never permitted to picture the working poor as anything less than fully human.

Shipler is especially concerned about the lasting effects of inadequate or harmful parenting on both the adults and children he encounters, but he remains guarded in his assessment:

There is no more highly charged subject in the discussion of poverty, for impoverished families have long been stigmatized as dysfunctional. The father is a drunken or addicted ne’er-do-well, if he’s around at all, and the mother is an angry shrew or a submissive incompetent, The parents don’t read to their children, don’t value education, don’t teach or exhibit morality. That is the image, Absent from the picture are the devoted grandmothers and parents who love zealously, the sensible adults who make smart choices within limited means, the supportive web of relatives, all of whom could overcome with more help from society at large.

At the extremes of the debate, liberals don’t want to see the dysfunctional family, and conservatives want to see nothing else. Depending on the ideology, destructive parenting is either not a cause or the only cause of poverty. Neither stereotype is correct. In my research along the edges of poverty, I didn’t find any adults without troubled childhoods, and I came to see those histories as both cause and effect, intertwined with the myriad other difficulties of money, housing, schooling, health, jobs, and neighborhood that reinforce one another.

However, when Shipler asks a behavioral pediatrician who “treats children of all socio-economic levels” to describe the conditions that “prevent bad parenting,” his answer implies the possibility of good parenting is reserved for the middle-class: “It’s a lot easier to be a good parent if you’re well rested, you can afford baby-sitters, and you have someone to clean your house. People who have some of those psychological resources that allow them to be good parents quite often have the resources that allow them to be relatively secure financially.” Of course, the “psychological resources” the doctor itemizes are usually dependent on the economic resources that low-income parents sorely lack. One of the more disconcerting aspects of The Working Poor is the number of examples of helping professionals who fail to see beyond the lens of their own middle-class privilege when evaluating the behavior and problems of the poor.

The Working Poor connects the lives of low-income families to the wider circle of individuals and institutions that influence their well-being -- employers, social workers, teachers and school administrators, health care professionals and workforce training programs. Some of these agents have a better apprehension of the complex origins of individual poverty than others; some are overtly judgmental and unhelpful, but others are doing what they can to improve the lives of the poor. While Shipler cites some of these efforts as exemplary, he predicts that the proliferation of isolated interventions -- no matter how innovative or effective -- will never be enough to relieve, let alone reduce, the dire consequences of poverty in working America. As Shipler writes, “All of the problems have to be solved at once.”

As long as a society picks and chooses which problems to resolve in crisis— usually the one that has propelled the family to a particular agency for help— another crisis is likely to follow, and another. If we set out to find only the magic solution— a job, for example— we will miss the complexities and the job will not be enough.

The first question is whether we know exactly what to do. What problems do we have the skills to solve, and where do our skills reach their outer limits? …The second question is whether we have the will to exercise our skill. Would we spend the money, make sacrifices, restructure the hierarchy of wealth to alleviate the hardships down below?

We lack the skill to solve some problems and the will to solve others, but one piece of knowledge we now possess: We understand that holistic remedies are vital.

The overriding question is what, and how much, our government will do to design and implement such holistic remedies. This is where the American Myth and the American Anti-Myth vie for supremacy, and where politics-as-usual clash with the politics of care. According to Shipler, “If either the system’s exploitation or the victim’s irresponsibility were to blame, one or the other side of the debate would be satisfied.” The lesson of The Working Poor is that such simplistic morality -- and any social policies that might be derived from it -- will be insufficient to lift the downward pressures which fix low-income families in the grim world of forgotten America. “Opportunity and poverty in this country cannot be explained by either the American Myth that hard work is a panacea or by the Anti-Myth that the system imprisons the poor,” Shipler concludes. “Relief will come, if at all, in an amalgam that recognizes both the society’s obligation through government and business, and the individuals obligation through labor and family -- and the commitment of both the society and the individual through education.”

The nation’s working poor may be invisible and forgotten, but they are part of us -- our lives and economy depend on their labor. And until we rework our vision of the American Dream to fuse the ideals of freedom and self-determination with the complex realities of human need and human frailty, many more of us may be joining their ranks.

What works for mothers

Beyond the problems with welfare reform, beyond the problems of low-wage work and the working poor, poverty in America remains primarily a women’s problem -- or more precisely, a mothers’ problem. While the overall poverty rate for women aged 18 to 64 is 10.6 percent in the U.S. (compared to 8.1 percent for men in the same age group), 33 percent of single parent women with children under 18 live in households with incomes below the official poverty line. Lone mothers are nearly five times more likely to live in poverty than mothers in married couple families -- which is one of the rationales for pitching marriage promotion as an anti-poverty measure, although one might reasonably conjecture that the individual and social factors favoring or discouraging marriage are as varied and complicated as the causes of poverty itself -- and that the two are not unrelated.

Welfare is not, and has never been, a poverty reduction program. In its earliest inception, states provided stipends for widowed and abandoned mothers so they would not be forced to seek employment outside the home. In its present incarnation, welfare legislation dictates that mothers must earn their benefits through labor force participation and promotes marriage as the magic bullet that will wipe out women’s poverty once and for all. Never has the U.S. implemented a social program providing the kind of support that would allow poor mothers and their children to live with dignity in the mainstream of society -- or help them thrive rather than just survive.

Work, of course, has everything to do with women’s poverty -- not only due to low-wages, pay inequality, occupational segregation, inflexible workplace practices, stingy social policies and inadequate labor regulations, but also because some kinds of labor are classified as “work” while others are not. Caring for children is obviously “work:” it requires time, effort, organized thinking and is location dependent (it happens wherever young children are). And as Beth Shulman emphasizes in The Betrayal of Work, most low-wage occupations dominated by women are caring occupations -- nursing assistants, home health aides and child care workers -- and these jobs are poorly paid precisely because they involve caring work. There are also broader issues of care yet to be resolved: What does it mean to be a caring society? Do individuals have a right to be cared for? Do they have a right to care for others? What is the relationship between care and social power, and how can it be shifted so that care-givers have a real shot at full social and economic citizenship?

Or, as Hays writes in her conclusion to Flat Broke With Children:

A citizen should be able to simultaneously raise children, care for others, participate in determining the future of the nation, and be an independent, productive participant in the public world. The question is, what would it take to make this possible for all members of this society?

The public discussion about how caring work should be acknowledged and accommodated -- as well as how it should be shared within families and by society as a whole -- is building steam. There is little doubt that more generous public policies and stronger labor regulations are in order if we hope to free more working families from poverty. But as Sharon Hays reminds us, a nation’s laws reflect a nation’s values. Unless we are prepared to move backwards or stay in place, the emerging mothers’ movement must address both the “law” and the “values” ends of this equation at the same time. Any viable solution to the compound circumstances of women’s poverty -- as well as the middle-class work/life predicament -- will recognize that carework is work without resorting to legislation that codifies carework as the best work for women. My own dream is that someday soon, this solution will be within our reach.

mmo : december 2004

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online.

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