Flat Broke with Children

In Flat Broke with Children (Oxford University Press, 2003), welfare reform advocate and University of Southern California gender studies and sociology professor Dr. Sharon Hays claims that the “demonizing [of] welfare mothers,” in the United States, “implicitly allows us [Americans] to wash our hands of this population.” Flat Broke with Children

Hays uses both empirical and anecdotal evidence to illustrate a “mainstream” America that considers welfare mothers – 90 percent of the adult welfare population – to have different values, beliefs, and practices than its own. She paints an unjust system and argues that these mothers (especially those with no responsible significant others) do, in fact, “share the core values of most Americans.”

“The trouble,” she explains, “is that welfare reform was founded on the assumption that welfare mothers [are] personally responsible for undermining our nation’s moral principles.” Like other welfare reform advocates, Hays points to a flawed objective: “The policies and procedures instituted… have thus been aimed at ‘fixing’ these women.”

Former policies, she says, “followed the logic of difference feminism,” which assumed that “mothers should stay at home, practicing a distinctively female ethic of nurturing care.”

But with Bill Clinton’s signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996 – which included the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program – America started subscribing to a more individualistic perspective of government help to the poor. According to Hays, the legislation, introduced by a Republican congressman (E. Clay Shaw, FL-22), represents the success of some feminist goals in constructing a more equal vision of family life.

“Women,” she says, “can and should join men in the public sphere of paid work, operating according to an ethic of ‘personal responsibility.’” Nevertheless, she argues, all mothers (single or not) are now required to work – even those with infants and toddlers.

From their first interaction with the welfare system, welfare mothers must be looking for employment, training for a job, or holding a position in which they receive monetary compensation. If welfare clients cannot find work on their own, or find a form of suitable training, they are assigned to work full-time for a state-appointed agency. Some Americans, especially those who consider themselves socially and fiscally conservative – those who endorse a residual view of welfare – attack recipients of assistance by blaming the state of poverty in the United States on  “welfare cheats” and those who “freeload off the hardworking tax-payer.”

And as Hays pointedly asserts, the TANF program includes provisions that are in some ways even harsher than former policies. “After five years,” she explains, “all welfare recipients are expected to be self sufficient – and no matter how destitute they might be, they will remain ineligible to receive welfare assistance for the rest of their lives.”

Should the “social safety-net,” which is already worn down by red tape and bureaucratic measures, disappear after 60 months? Fellow Perspective contributor Anya Saretzky says, “Perhaps, but I don’t think it should promote dependency… if people still need it after five years, then obviously the system is flawed.”

So what should be done?

Sharon Hays is right – we certainly do need major reform. The system must actively and persistently work to empower and enable clients to become self-sufficient. If the objective is to “fix” a person in need, instead of helping someone “fix” him- or herself, then the system will ultimately fail, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The very bureaucracies within the system – which Hays paints as “cold and impersonal,” and which, “operate like human assembly lines, apply uniform rules, follow regularized procedures, and ignore the particular circumstances of each case” – must be reformed immediately. “Bureaucracies,” Hays says, “serve as a “powerful form of social control.”

But how can a government deal with its constituents and clients based on individual situations while maintaining a fair and just system for all those who are eligible? Saretzky thinks the system must be localized. “In order to meet the needs of welfare recipients,” she says, “we must treat them as individuals, rather than as the ‘poor.’” And though localization may seem rational at first, more consideration is necessary. Saretzky may argue that local legislators are better able to address the needs of their constituents. And, in fact, state lawmakers do have the power to influence welfare policies within their jurisdiction. Unfortunately, some states pass ineffective, residual measures and legislation that perpetuates the poverty cycle – more so than federal legislation.

The United States must once again evaluate its welfare system and the “safety-net” it provides those in need. For us to label ourselves a “just” society, that net must exist. But as Hays argues, current policies prevent the net from becoming the springboard it should be. The cycle of poverty will remain intact until we create policies that empower the impoverished, instead of gluing the population to a limp net – a net that in this day and age, is set far too low.

N.B.: This piece was written for a poverty and welfare course taught by Nino Scarpati at The College of New Jersey.

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