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Poverty and the politics of care

page four

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 and what works for mothers

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