by Lynn Phillips
From welfare to un-fare? That’s how it will go unless feminists rally behind better reforms.
SAY YOU HAVE THREE CHILDREN. YOU GET too sick to keep your $14,000-a-year job, so you lose your health insurance. Your Significant Other can’t find a job (or took a powder awhile back). Your parents are dead (or abusive, or too poor themselves), so you borrow from friends, but they’re soon tapped out. Tomorrow the heat and electricity get turned off. The kids are living on Trix. And you realize you’re too nice (and too unpracticed) to steal.
Turn to the welfare system and you’re treated like a thief anyway. Officials make you knit silk purses out of red tape to prove your eligibility. You may get no relief for months, and what you do get when you total up your food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and other benefits may not cover carfare to a job interview. Because you are at your most vulnerable and thin-skinned, the process makes you feel degraded, despised, and hopeless. Perhaps crudest of all is your realization that, as President Clinton prepares to “end welfare as we know it,” so few feminists seem to be carrying your banner. While some feminists leaders have lent support to economic issues, most of the ground troops—the college-educated, take-down-thatpinup-mister-or-else marchers, and letter-writers—have been church-mouse quiet.
The silence is puzzling. The majority of our nation’s welfarers are women. And AFDC is the only institution we have that admits, however begrudgingly, that mothering and homemaking has social and economic value outside of the patriarchal family. Humane welfare policies are strategically essential to feminism’s other goals. Without welfare’s “fuck-you-money,” poor working women and most middle class mothers can’t afford to stand up to an unfair or harassing employer, or to leave an abusive or feckless mate. No sane mother will rebel if it means her kids will starve; that’s the bottom line.
And that bottom line is under attack. The 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift was kidding when he suggested that the Irish, having too little food and too many children, could solve both problems if they would only eat their young. But equally gruesome fare graces today’s policy options, unsalted by so much as a titter of irony.
Welfare mothers, who can’t afford image consultants, tend to get defined not by the group’s norm but by the few who abuse the system. Since false assumptions about welfare mothers consequently abound, it surprises most people, whatever their political bias, to learn that only 1% of the U.S. federal budget is spent on AFDC, that only 50% of families qualified for AFDC bother to endure the indignities of applying for it, and that the majority of welfare recipients are white, don’t live in cities, and are under 18.
Media stories about welfare slackers with litters of neglected kids fail to mention that AFDC households usually have two children or less, that welfare mothers have a lower birthrate than the general population, that over 50% of welfare mothers work outside the home at least some of the time they’re on welfare, and that most of those who don’t, can’t. Nevertheless, there are problems with “welfare as we know it” that feminists who advocate for welfare mothers need to face. While approximately 80% of all welfare recipients are off the rolls in four years, for example, those who linger on for eight years or more are a real financial drain on the public purse. They account for over half of those on welfare at any given moment.
The U.S. rate of increase of unwed mothers, although climbing, has not been greater for any racial and ethnic group. But the average age of unwed mothers has plummeted disproportionately among African-Americans, few of whom have Murphy Brown’s resources. An awesome 80% of unmarried black teen mothers end up on welfare. This is framed as a female-created problem, with little publicity given to the U.S. Public Health Service report that 71% of “teenage” pregnancies were sired by males over the age of 20.
To strengthen your grip on the current welfare retorm debate, here’s an opinionated guide to the most commonly flogged proposals for its redesign, along with a seven-step program to de-feminize the poverty that forces us onto the dole to begin with.
Lynn Phillips was tlie editorial and opinion-page editor for Her New York and writes widely on women’s issues.