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Poverty and the politics of care

page three

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 and
why work is not enough

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