The first question that will no doubt occur is that of motivation. Why would I, a fairly middle-class type of gent, care to read a book about women in poverty? The answer is really just one of simple curiosity and a desire to see the other side of the socio-economic fence, to have some insight into this part of society that is fairly well insulated from the larger parts of society. I’ve never been anywhere near the financial straits that these women find themselves in and I’ve never known anyone who has been so it’s a completely foreign life situation. Further, this group is one of the more maligned in our country and I can’t help but wonder where that comes from and whether it is at all justified. If you listen to conservative talk radio you will quickly get the impression that the Welfare system is responsible for wasting billions of dollars and that Welfare recipients are lazy, shiftless do-nothings who have babies just for the purposes of collecting bigger and bigger checks. Given this rather dark baseline for the discussion, what exactly is the truth of the matter?
Textual Note: This text is a bit on the dated side so the numbers quoted are also a bit on the dated side. I’ll make very small effort to modernize this data since the spirit of the book remains the same regardless of how old the numbers are.
Chapter 1 – What is Welfare?
Established in 1935 after the Great Depression, the Welfare system, or AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), was designed to help the “deserving poor,” mostly women who had been widowed, divorced or abandoned during the financial crisis. The intent was to provide a sort of minimum stopgap measure for women so they could stay at home and care for their children while they made plans for more long-term support. At the time, this long-term plan was usually in the form of finding a new husband. Since the program required that parents provide a “suitable home” for their children and working outside the home was typically frowned upon, it wasn’t particularly practical for a woman to work her way off of Welfare.
At its inception, the program was seen as a great public boon, helping those who really were in trouble through no fault of their own. The shift in public opinion seemed to begin most notably in the 1960s when laws about what constituted a “suitable home” were struck down by the courts. Before the civil rights movement, many southern state’s laws had exclusions that deemed unwed African American mothers as fundamentally unsuitable. In the twenty years after suitability laws were removed from the welfare system, the rolls increased from 2 million to 5 million while the demographics of the nation changed as well. In 1960 5% of children lived in female-led households among Caucasians and 15% among African Americans. By 1980 these numbers had tripled to 15% and 45% respectively. Today the percentage of African American children in a single parent household has reached a staggering 67%. In 1939 when the program was started, 80% of the recipients were white. By 1995 the numbers had shifted dramatically when 39% were black despite comprising only 12% of the total population
In addition to the shift in race, the target audience for Welfare also shifted dramatically in situation. The system originally set up to assist widows and abandoned women was now servicing mothers who had never been married or been divorced. By 1991 only 1.6% of the women on Welfare were actually in the original intended audience for the program. Of single mothers, 35% were never married at all while 37% were divorced. Given the numbers, it’s not hard to see that the difference in public opinion stems at least in part from the fact that as a society, we’re still working off a lot of bigotry against the people that the program helps. While we were all happy to help white widows, we seem to have a harder time coming to the aid of a woman of color who has children out of wedlock.
Over the years, the attempts to reform Welfare have been numerous. We’ve seen countless job-training programs but these have always been woefully underfunded. Even the best-funded programs in the 90s only saw 19% participation. Benefits have been progressively lowered and in 1995 a family of three in this country can expect to see a benefit of $400 per month, putting them well below the poverty line (~$15,000 a year). Public opinion also seems to have it that women on Welfare are sitting around having more children to raise their payments. In 1995 the average increase in benefit for having another child was $70 per month. This explains why 72% of women on welfare have only one or two children. Further, the benefits are so poor that half of recipients stay on the program for less than two years with only 17% receiving benefits for 8 years or more.
The grand summation of all these statistics seems to be that most of our common perceptions about Welfare and the people on it are all a bunch of bunk. Nobody’s getting rich off this system and the idea that they’re all just kicking back and relaxing rather than going to work is ludicrous. The average Welfare mom could make twice as much even working for minimum wage rather than sitting around collecting a check for doing nothing, assuming she could find affordable childcare during her working hours. Clearly, nobody wants to be on Welfare for various reasons from the psychological effect of feeling like a failure to the crushing poverty that it leaves in its wake. Anyway, that’s my impression so far. Chapter 2 later…