Welfare reform in the United States has been hailed as a great success, reducing the number of people on the welfare rolls from 4.4 million in 1996 to 2.1 million in 2001. But these figures hide the suffering of the multitude of American women who are living on or below the national poverty line. In this paper we will challenge the argument that the welfare reform initiative is 'working' and suggest instead that according to credible sources women are in fact penalized by the very system that has been put in place to 'help' them.
The United States Census bureau shows how the 'poverty threshold" is calculated each year. This figure is a dollar amount that the department has determined is what is required for a number of people living together. The two main characteristics of the threshold formula are the size of a family unit and the ages of the family members. These thresholds are used throughout the United States and have no provision for variation due to geographical location. The annual Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers provides the inflation adjustment figures in this equation.
According to the Census Bureau "although the thresholds in some sense reflect families needs, they are intended for use as a statistical yardstick, not as a complete description of what people and families need to live." (www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/povdef.html) The Department notes that other government aid programs and the Department of Health services use different measures of what could be considered a 'poverty threshold."
To illustrate this point the Census Bureau provide an example which shows that in 2002 where a family had five members and the poverty threshold was $22,007, and the total family income was $25,000 then the income/threshold = $25,000/$22,007 = 1.14. Therefore according to the Census Bureau this family would not be 'in poverty'. This hypothetical family apparently had an income surplus of $2,993 for that year.
The reason these figures do not help show the true picture of what poverty is like for American women is that they do not take into account the differences there are in the cost of living in different areas around the States. A person may find cheaper accommodation if they were living in a rural area for example, than they would if they were living in the heart of New York or Washington D.C. By assuming that the cost of living remains constant in all States, means that the Census Bureau figures cannot be taken at face value. A yearly income of $25,000 for a family of five may seem like comfortable living standards in some areas of the States, but easily be below the poverty line if they are paying more that $1,000 a month for accommodation, which is feasible in many urban areas in America.
Sharon Hays addresses the issue of an appropriate measure of success in welfare reform in her book "Flat Broke With Children" (2003). In her work she tries to tell the story of welfare reform from the perspective of those who live with it - the workers in the social welfare offices who spend their days trying to help people, mainly solo mothers, make ends meet while trying to raise children. At the beginning of her book Hays writes, "A nations law's reflect a nation's values." Her book explains that our values as a nation are deeply confused. Hay's believes that on one hand the government's commitment to 'family values' are in direct conflict with what is going on in society, and the welfare laws assume that poor people do not have a good work ethic. This assumption has given rise to a host of initiatives that have effectively pushed young solo mothers out of the home (and away from their children) into low paying work. Hay's in particular is harsh on her description of problems with a welfare system that will penalize a solo mother for 'loosing' her job, when she has taken time off, for example, to care for a child that has been molested by her caregiver.
In her work Hay's describes too competing ideas - the "Work Plan" and the "Family Plan." The work plan is where the work requirements of the State exist to 'rehabilitate mothers, transforming them from 'mere' stay-at-home moms into full-fledged members of the workforce." In the Family Plan the work requirements serve to punish mothers, teaching them a hard lesson about what happens to you when you fail to adhere to your traditional role by divorcing and/or having your children out of wedlock.
Hay's concludes that as a result of these and similar contradictions the nations welfare laws fail to offer any solution to the actual problems experienced by people living below the poverty threshold, in particular young, solo mothers. She suggests that the welfare reform laws offered a 'little something to people all across the ideological and political spectrum; in doing so however, they ultimately serve no one at all."
Hay's provides a valid argument against the welfare reform initiatives. The implication behind these reforms is that if a woman cannot "keep" her man, then she should not have any children. That means a woman who knows her husband is unfaithful to her, just has to put up with it because 'divorce' is frowned on. They are also suggesting that a woman should stay with her abusive husband, because that is better than being divorced, or marry a rapist because the woman happened to get pregnant to him; just because under the 'family law' that is better than being a solo mum. The laws have to be applicable to everyone and it is this writer's opinion that they were not written to cover all eventualities, especially those concerning violence and abuse, which is becoming commonplace for many disadvantaged women.
Michael Katz took a different approach to poverty in his book "The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (1989). He spoke mainly about the different approaches that various administrations attempted to implement at different times during history. He identified the unusual tactic of suggesting that 'community action against powerlessness' was the key aspect that local activists sought to address outside of urban political structures, in their fight against poverty. He describes in detail the billions of dollars spent on welfare reform through the 1960's and 70's with no apparent results, and suggests that the only reason it stopped when it did was during the Vietnam War. I agree with Katz that John F. Kennedy probably had the right idea in his time towards helping address all areas of poverty, but of course his untimely death does leave us all wondering if he would have been any more successful than later governments in totally turning the tide against the lack of participation in the workforce due to lack of training by black people; the increasing number of children borne into or being raised in women-lead households and the fact that by the 1980's about half of black children and their mothers lived in poverty.
Katz does suggest that, "it would be wrong to say that community action failed. For it was a national movement with important consequences. It reshaped national-local relations; redefined the nature of poverty as partly a consequence of powerlessness, and the prerequisites of reform as including local participation' energized and legitimized nascent, grass-roots social action; and launched a new kind of public servant." Unfortunately I do not see where all his talk of historical systems, failures and initiatives, gives any help at all to the woman who has to constantly decide whether to buy food for her children, or pay the rent on a weekly basis.
In the preface of their book entitled "For Crying out loud" Women's Poverty in the United States, (Dujon and Withorn, 1996), Ann Withorn and Diane Dujon explain why they wrote a book which was touted to "offer a corrective to the new attention to women's historic poverty that was occurring under the catch phrase, the feminization of poverty." Their book tried to explain that the poverty, that so many women live, with occurs for a hugely diverse number of reasons, and the book was an attempt to present a comprehensive analysis of the problem. They say
We were concerned that women who had come from poor families, especially women of color, whose men were also poor, would be disregarded because their problems were more structural, and because they had 'always been poor'. We tried to show the inadequacy of stressing all women's increasing vulnerability to poverty because, while true on one lever, such logic often denied the racial and class dynamics that made climbing out of poverty much more difficult for some women that for others. " (Dujon & Withorn, 1996)
Dujon and Withorn paint similar pictures to Sharon Hays in their book. They talk of solo mothers who are blamed for everything from urban crime to drug abuse to the general decline of 'personal responsibilities'. These women are…