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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

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

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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

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