Should marriage be promoted between low-income couples?
This was a hot topic of debate at an action/research conference, "Welfare Reform: Where Have We Been, Where are We Going?" which took place at Bryn Mawr February 28-March 1, 2002. The conference was cosponsored by the Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research.
President Bush's welfare reform plan encourages marriage between low-income couples and proposes $300 million be used for programs that promote marriage. Speakers at the conference spoke almost exclusively against the proposal. Among its supporters was Eloise Anderson, Director of the Program for the American Family at Claremont Institute. She was the former head of social services in California. Anderson said it is important for the welfare system to encourage two-parent families and discourage out-of-wedlock pregnancies. "In the history of humankind, it has always been important for women to depend on another, usually the child's father, to take care of her during pregnancy and also during the early years of the child's development. One of the things that we know about humans is that, in having children, the person who is care-taking needs someone to take care of them. ...
"Our current social policy says, If we give people enough material things, if we give them enough income, enough resources, then all the other social problems around them will be satisfied. ... We know that material things are not the only thing that is needed by a child. What we do know is that babies are born self-centered, impulsive, desiring and uncivilized, and it is the family's responsibility to socialize this wonderful thing that we have just created into a socially functioning adult. ...
"Aristotle and John Locke both stated that the most important institution is on which society builds itself is the family. ... Family for them centered around the formation of the child into society. ... We know that it is extremely important for certain kinds of inputs to happen to children-mostly human inputs, not material things. ... But we have a society that is busy running out the door and leaving our babies with strangers. ... What is the moral character that is being developed in your child if you're not raising it? How do we develop policy for the poor, based on the fact that those of us who pay for that policy are out in the workplace? How do we justify, knowing all these things we know about child development, having so many mothers in the workplace? ... It will be a failed policy if you have taxpayers financing a program to support a lifestyle that most taxpayers cannot enjoy themselves. ... If you ask taxpayers to pay to keep moms at home with their children when the majority of taxpaying moms go to work everyday, you are asking for trouble. It will not stand.
"If we want people to become mainstream, become a part of the nation's fabric, the community's fabric, the vehicles they need are social services-mental health programs, drug and alcohol programs and developmentally delayed programs-and work opportunities, not income.
"Work is therapy. ... Why is it that we continually say to poor families, 'I don't want you in the workplace'? Is it because in the long run we know that their children will compete with our children, and their children may win out over ours? ...
"Children are less likely to be in poverty ig there's two people supporting them: Mom and Dad. ... If this woman liked this man well enough to have a kid with him ... why is it that we don't want her to marry him? ... Most of them need marriage workers, pre-marital councilors. ... All the things that the middle class have access to, why are we unwilling to give to the poor? Think about what you say when you say, 'It is not OK for this baby's father to be married to its mama, but when I have babies, I'm going to be married.' "
In response Susan Gooden, Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech, spoke of the "inappropriateness" of promoting marriage as a primary focus of welfare policy. "Marriage is not the silver bullet for eradicating poverty. ... With over 50% of middle- and upper-income marriages ending in divorce, it is not just to expect marriage lower-income families to stay in a failed marriage. ... It is not the role of government to act as police for low-income families."
Gooden also pointed out the role of racial discrimination in the implementation of welfare services, as well as the role of labor market discrimination and its impacts on job opportunities. More whites leave welfare to go to work than minorities, she said, suggesting that there is a difference between the services whites and minorities receive. One study, for example, found that case workers frequently encouraged education and training among their white clients but not at all among their minority clients. Furthermore, she said, "the lack of accessibility to welfare clients who do not speak English is a major concern."
Instead of promoting marriage, Gooden said, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) should promote training and education: "For welfare recipients who are able-bodied, TANF policy should provide the opportunity for them to benefit from what equips most of us to stay out of poverty, and that is increased education, training and skills." She suggested an approach that enhances current work-study benefits, allowing low-income students to combine work with post-secondary education.
Randy Albelda, Acting Director of the Graduate Program in Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, also spoke against Bush's plan to promote marriage. "Claiming that agencies fail and that marriages work is not enough," she said. She criticized the assumption that women's dependency on men is natural and desirable.
When AFDC was established "there was a conscious decision to keep benefits low, very low, ... precisely to encourage marriage. ... As a result, then as now, women who receive meager public aide have always had to supplement their income, under the table, over the table, through the table. It has never been enough to support a family and actually stay home and do the work that we praise." She claimed that the notion of AFDC as "generous and for widows is a nice vision of history, but it's not history.
"We're not a child-centered society in many ways, not just because of the AFDC. Unlike most other industrialized countries, we don't have things like paid family medical leave, we don't have universal care for 3- to 5-year olds, we don't have after school programs, we don't have universal healthcare programs.
"Marriage doesn't necessarily alleviate poverty. There are plenty of two-parent families and two-adult families who are poor. ... Poverty is a socially-constructed phenomenon. ... Other countries have far lower rates of single-mother poverty and equally high rates of single motherhood. This notion that being a lone mother automatically dooms you to poverty may be true, but it doesn't have to be. ... Domestic violence, immaturity, infidelity, economic marginality and poverty itself make marriage not only difficult, but at times undesirable. Pushing a woman into marriage is not only unlikely to work, but it's pretty offensive and patronizing. ... To prioritize marriage counseling seems foolish if not patriarchal.
"We as a society have to stop trying to reform poor women and face the reality of how our extreme inequality has blinded us to the real opportunities of economic growth and assuring fair access to the plenty that is lucky enough to be all of ours."
Jacqueline Payne, policy attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that the marriage proposals reinforce the notion that "women's solution to poverty is not developing her own economic power but attaching her house to a man. … This will re-stigmatize single parents, divorced parents, and certainly lesbian or gay parents. It will reinforce the notion of a moral poverty, and the idea of those that do not marry and fall into poverty do so at their fault for failing to stick to the right path and who don't deserve our help, or if they deserve our help it is only to get them morally back into shape. It will reinforce this idea that marriage is essential to being successful in our society, without questioning why that is. ... When a society is set up to make it work for a certain population, I think you should not be shocked if other populations don't succeed."
Also addressing this topic was Gary Delgado, Executive Director of the Applied Research Center in Oakland CA, who has worked extensively in both the activist and the academic communities. He was one of the initial organizers of ACORN, a lead organizer with the National Welfare Rights Organization, and co-founder and director of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO). Of the women who apply for welfare, he said, 35 to 60 percent are subject to domestic violence. "If domestic violence is a problem, is marriage the solution?"
And Gwendolyn Mink, Professor of Women's Studies at Smith College, claimed that TANF interferes with recipients' reproductive and family lives, violating their fundamental rights. "TANF impairs marital and intimate decisional rights for example when it dictates the biological father of a poor woman's child must be recognized as that child's parent. Only under TANF must a mother accept a man's genetic connection to her child as proof of his social relationship to that child and parental rights as well. It is well-established constitutional law that an unmarried, biological father cannot simply walk into a family and declare himself to be a parent in any socially or legally meaningful sense, yet TANF declares that biological paternity establishes social paternity in poor families and in so doing provides biological fathers with the legal means to usurp poor mother's custody of her children. It does this to coerce financial fatherhood, which yields child support payments that the government gets to keep, and it does this to end mothers' independence. ...
"The family formation agenda ... is about engineering the structure of poor mothers' families. It's about Big Brother dictating what families should look like and punishing families that don't look right by privatizing their poverty. This threatens personal, cultural and associational freedoms, not to mention the economical being of families that deviate from the prescriptive norm. Just as important, it threatens all women's reproductive autonomy, which is grounded in the constitutional notion that women-not husbands, not boyfriends, not male sexual encounters, not sperm donors, but women-get to decide whether to bear a child."
'Wider, cultural campaign'
Keynote speaker Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, opened the conference by placing welfare reform in the context of a "wider, cultural campaign to enforce market discipline.
"Welfare reform, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), embodied in The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, was at least three decades in the making. It occurred in the aftermath of a campaign that continued for three decades and was undergirded by an argument, an argument that was made by right wing think tanks, by politicians, and by big name businesses and business organizations as well. That argument was about the perverse effects of the old welfare system, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which had distributed welfare benefits since the 1930s. The argument was that AFDC was too generous, that Americans were becoming too soft-hearted, that because they supported such a generous system, it had led people to drop out of work and the labor force, encourage young women to have babies out of wedlock and young men to walk away from those children they had sired. The result was that this generous system of aid had in fact increased underlying poverty and encouraged worklessless and sexual promiscuity.
"The solution, echoing 19th century Malthusianism and Social Spencerianism, was advanced by a public intellectual on the right, Charles Murray, who fought for the obliteration of welfare. He said we have to force these people who in a sense have become addicted to, dependent on aid, to confront the rigors and discipline of the marketplace.
"Murray's solution was a little too drastic for politicians; still the main thrust of the 1996 legislation, which requires work in exchange for time-limited assistance, is to move rapidly in that direction. It tries to make welfare hard to get and harder to keep. Less noticeable than the restrictions themselves is the wide latitude that the 1996 law gave to states and counties to administer welfare in whatever way they prefer. Under the new Work First regimes, states were free to sanction women and children, to cut their benefits or off the rolls altogether. The states were also free to rebuff or delay or deny or divert those who might otherwise have applied for welfare.
"To understand why all of this is happening, we have to look beyond welfare to other and related changes in domestic policy that occurred over the past three decades, all of which can be understood, I believe, as intensifying difficulties for workers, especially low-wage workers. For all of these, rhetoric is always about something else. One facet is the three-decades long effort to roll back unions. Another facet is new style, top down educational reform. It uses the rhetoric of excellence, but think about the emphasis on standards and testing, on phonics, teaching by tradition and by rote, the stress on discipline -- what is that but the dumbing down of the working class? The push to privatize Social Security, prisons, schools, welfare, is to use our tax money for profit making business. The rise of the 401K is something more. There has always been something pernicious, an underside, to employment-based benefits; they place the workers in a captive relationship to their firms.
"The remarkable resurgence at the end of the 20th century of the laisser-faire ideology of the late 19th century has been buttressed by the rise of international markets and trade as well as the movement of people and goods across borders. Globalization has made more powerful a fanatical argument that markets our natural law! Markets aren't created by nature, but by societies. The frameworks for markets are government law and regulation; international markets are also created by government laws and regulations, by military force, by international agencies that governments created. Coupled with this idea of God as market is that everybody can play in the market and everybody can win."
Responder R. Kent Weaver, Haverford '75, Senior Fellow in the Governmental Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and co-director of its "Welfare Reform and Beyond" initiative, was pessimistic about the realities of the political environment. He said that "the prospects for 'making trouble' are not good because American has been suburbanized and segregated, because welfare has become racialized, because mobilization tends to lead to backlash, and because the post-911 environment is not sympathetic to social disorder."
Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy
"This event is being co-sponsored-this is a first in the history of Bryn Mawr College-by the Graduate School of Social Work and by the Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy," noted Ruth Mayden, M.S.S. '70, Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research in opening the panel discussions of the second day of the conference.
"The Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy allows Bryn Mawr's humanities and social sciences faculty and students to explore issues of integration, the development of diverse communities throughout the United States, and critical social policy issues that affect us, such as welfare and educational reform, employment, housing, and so on," explained Mary Osirim, Associate Professor of Sociology. "The Center is also particularly interested in the emergence of new communities in the Philadelphia area; how the needs of these new communities should be addressed; how we understand the extent to which members of these new communities are contributing to the development and redevelopment of their neighborhoods; and how we understand the experiences of cultural solidarity, cultural conflict, and peacemaking that goes on in these communities as they interact not only with the larger society in Philadelphia and beyond but also with local and federal levels of government." Osirim announced that the Center has received a three-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation so that it may "explore in great detail the issue of ethnic identities and transformations and the experience of ethnicity in the 21st century." Visiting scholars will work on their projects under this broader rubric, contributing to the development of new knowledge and stimulating new areas of research among Bryn Mawr faculty.
A panel discussion identified the key principles elected officials should weigh as they tackle the welfare reform. Diana Pearce of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, Seattle, suggested modeling national policies after such as those being carried out in Montana, where mothers have the option of staying at home for up to two years to care for young children; and Maine, where secondary education fulfills work requirements.
Pearce also insisted on redefining success in welfare. "Right now the poverty line for a family of three in 2002 is just over $15,000 a year. That's about $7.50 an hour, working full time. By that definition, half of the recipients who are employed are now successful. Does anybody think there's any place where a parent with even just one child can live on $7.50 an hour? If half of the families are considered successful using the official poverty definition, it's going to be very hard to argue for the many things that we have been talking about today that are essential, like good childcare, education and training, those kinds of things that will raise people's wages or reduce their costs. We can't get to that discussion if the doors are already closed."
Heather Boushey of the Economic Policy Institute echoed this point. Her research on the cost of living during the economic boom of the late 1990s showed that one-parent, two-child families needed anywhere from $22,000 a year to nearly $50,000 a year, depending on location. "We found that among working families with one to two parents, and one to three kids under 12, one-third fell below these basic family budget levels in the late 1990s." She offered these findings as proof that the poverty line is inadequate for evaluating welfare reform, as well as for understanding how much people need to make ends meet. "The troubling gap between earnings and the costs of basic necessities persists regardless of whether we are at an economic peak or an economic drop. Even during the boom, having a job was simply not enough to ensure that families were able to avoid hardships."
Pearce has developed a "self-sufficiency standard," which measures what it costs, without any supports or subsidies, to meet the needs of welfare recipients specific to their geographic location, family size and the age of their children. She proposes that all states adopt the standard for determining welfare recipients' eligibility for services and for evaluating the success of their programs, giving bonuses to states who move more families closer to self-sufficiency. For more information on the self-sufficiency standard, see www.sixstrategies.org.
Both Boushey and Peter Edelman, Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, promoted using the conference not only as a chance to discuss TANF reauthorization but as a jumping-off point to broaden the discussion to fighting for economic and social justice more generally. Edelman had been a high-ranking official in the Clinton administration but resigned his post in the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services over welfare reform.
"We should be talking about what would end poverty in America," he said. "In all of our advocacy, in all of our thinking, we need to have at all times a vision, a frame, one of an adequate income for all Americans, which includes good jobs, and secondly, strengthening families, helping parents fulfill their responsibilities and investing in and protecting children. Welfare policy is really a small part of that vision."
Poverty, Edelman said, "is not a question of individual responsibility. ... We have a structural problem in our economy and in our labor market." People working in the service industry are raising our standard of living because they're "doing it for inadequate pay and inadequate wages, and that is wrong. ... The median job in this country in 1999 paid $11.87 an hour. If you had that job for 52 weeks a year, 40 hours a week (which far from everybody did), you got $24,690. Twenty years before that in 1979, the median wage was $11.89 an hour. If you looked at the growth of our nation's income over that period of time, in real terms our nation became twice as rich. All of that money stuck at the top. And half the jobs in this country still pay exactly what they did, and less, 20 years earlier."
He recommended raising the minimum wage, adding to the supply of affordable housing, paying attention to people coming out of prison and their re-entry into the labor market, recognizing the validity of care-giving, and restoring benefits for immigrants.
"We should judge all of this by what is good for children. ... There is only one fundamental way that we can make a difference, and that is to organize. To express ourselves, to come out and participate in the political process in these issues. ... We need to remember that there are issues of power and powerlessness, issues of exclusion and inclusion. This is not just about jobs and income. This is about how we as a society treat people who we regard as other. ... September 11 should teach us about our responsibility to help reduce poverty everywhere, all over the world. But if we want to be a good citizen of the world our responsibility begins at home."
Cheri Honkala, Director of Philadelphia's Kensington Welfare Rights Union, spoke about building the leadership of the poor. "We are not less than human, less articulate or less capable of organizing or changing things," she said. She described the work of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which teaches poor women how to take over abandoned houses, houses women who cannot get into battered women shelters in Philadelphia, distributes food, and acts as a human rights monitor: "If somebody is denied the basic neccessities of life, we are writing it down, we are taking it seriously.
"Getting off of welfare hasn't lifted families out of poverty, nor has it led to a better standard of living for any of us," Honkala said. "Nearly 37 million Americans now go without some basic necessity of life, such as food, shelter and medical care. Now we have two and a half million additional unemployed women running around trying to compete to find employment in a recession, hit hard by September 11 with thousands more to be laid off as a result of that tragic day. We as low-income people can no longer afford to talk about welfare reform separate from the larger economy because we live in the same world."
Honkala advocated a reauthorization that stops "the diverting of resources, both physical and material, of the poor, by tying them up solely in the process of lobbying and legislation instead of speaking and organizing, and meeting a welfare recipient and getting them involved in the fight for their own lives." She spoke of an underground movement in urban and rural areas that empowers the poor, allowing them to fight "for power, not pity," and encouraging them to break with the idea that they are "pathetic victims who need only to rely on salaried good deeds of militant do-gooders. ... We are no different than you. We love our children. We have work ethics. We live in the same kind of world. We've just been given a different shake of the dice."
Honkala also described Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign vs. the United States of America. This case, filed at the Inter-American Commission of Organization of American States, attempts to hold the United States accountable for economic human rights abuses being caused by downsizing, poverty and welfare reform in the U.S. today. Visit www.kwru.org for more information.
Don Jose Sobel, Executive Director of Community Services, Department of Philadelphia County Assistant's Office, focused on the racialization of welfare policy. "The TANF legislation," he said, "clearly exposed what had been understood all along. ... We have offices that either have a small number of people with language problems, and a majority of people who are not black or Latino, they were the fastest offices that reduced their reliance on assistance. ... Where the offices may have been black or Latino or a mixture, those offices that had a reduction level in their case load, the education level of the people and the language skills of the people were quite different." He recognized the need to improve "Limited English Proficiency initiatives": "We need staff that is culturally sensitive and can deal with those kinds of issues. ... In the future I see more of that will happen."
Sobel also emphasized the need for more comprehensive training for professional caseworkers from the federal government: "We need to put some investment into developing the staff out there that's responsible for working with people." He envisions "evolutionary" changes in basic services through the Internet: "I foresee in the future that basically we will have applications on line. There will be very little need for people to come into our offices either for cash, food stamps or Medicaid."
Audience members had a chance to divide into smaller discussion groups, each with a student convenor and a panel that included an alumnus, a responder, and others involved in the welfare reform process. Their recommendations for policymakers concerning welfare reform included: A complete overhaul of TANF; the recognition of care-giving as work; universal healthcare and childcare; auditing welfare programs for racial discrimination; encouraging U.S. corporations to be more self-sufficient and not receive as many tax breaks; federally mandated hearings in all districts, with standards set for the selection of welfare recipients who testify to prevent whitewashing; and more user-friendly welfare offices, with longer hours.
The proceedings of the entire conference will be published. For more information, please see www.brynmawr.edu/welfarereform.
Mothers need childcare and education|
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) on July 1, 1997; it expires on September 30, 2002.
U.S. Representative Patsy Mink, D-HI, who introduced a bill, H.R. 3113, that seeks to amend and reauthorize TANF, urged conference participants to write to members of Congress and newspapers. Opponents of the bill "don't want the grassroots to be organized in time to help muster votes," she said.
"The underlying promise of TANF was that the right to work meant greater self-sufficiency. There was a lot of talk about self respect and the dignity that comes from hard work and the lessons to be learned by the children having a parent who works. I believe very strongly that forcing mothers to go to work is only justified if the government fulfills its end of bargain, that it provides safe, quality childcare for every family whose parent is forced to work. HR-3113 restores the entitlement for childcare when a parent enters the job force. Without adequate childcare, I believe that the mother should be exempt from the work requirement.
"Secondly, TANF does not embody education as a fundamental element of the program as having anything to do with self-sufficiency and self-improvement. Make it possible for the welfare recipient to go to school, to go to college, and as long as they maintain good standing as students, the clock stops on time limits. I believe that this is the most meaningful step that can be taken to help mothers truly bring their families into a life of financial security, meaning productive, financially rewarding work."
Return to Summer 2002 highlightsMHK