Getting to Work

What Keeps Low-Income Families Trapped?

The problems which beset professional women--in all of their zeitgeist-framing import--often make for good copy. And while their concerns are certainly legitimate, their problems recede into insignificance when compared and contrasted with those faced by women who occupy lower socioeconomic strata. Women on welfare and women who head lowincome families face what seem to be insurmountable barriers to successful integration into the nation's economic life.

The current political climate--hostile to any measure of dependence on the government--serves to reinforce feelings of hostility to those who rely on the public weal. As a result, we've seen the reinvocation of the specter of poor houses and orphanges as the natural, even logical, destination for those who are unable to provide fully or partially for themselves.

The increasing number of women in the workplace, a development fueled in part by the necessity of a two-pay check household, make it difficult, if not impossible, to justify the argument that welfare mothers should be offered the option of staying home to look after their young children.

Politicians, responding to the overwhelming resentment and public unhappiness bred by this sentiment and the growing antipathy towards the poor (never a very important constituency) are racing to harness and codify this anger. This results in harsh, almost draconian, short-sighted proposals, which will inevitably turn out to be counterproductive.

Too often, the laws have a distinctly punitive aspect, which seems aimed at punishing sexuality and certainly fecundity among the poor. The result is the establishment of hierarchies of reproduction and the subsequent undervaluing of children from these socioeconomic backgrounds. The demagoguery also obscures the fact that no realistic, humane solutions have been proffered.

The effects of this disinclination to offer substantive solutions for dealing with the problems of the working poor can be seen clearly in basic quality of life indices--poor schooling, with all of its terrible implications, deteriorating standards of health due to poor nutrition and the lack of access to comprehensive health care. What little health care is available, is often provided on an ad hoc, emergency basis, limited in scope and economically inefficient in the long run.

The House Ways and Means Committee will soon be presenting for consideration in Congress legislation aimed at overhauling welfare programs that provide cash assistance to more than 15 million people. One goal is to abolish the program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which provides aid in a variety of forms to those who meet eligibility criteria. This means of assistance will be replaced by the dispersal of lump sums, "block grants" to states to use in assisting as they see fit those people who meet certain eligibility criteria.

Under this system, states would receive a lump sum of cash which they could then use in any way they wish in order to assist low income people. The New York Times reports that "the block grant would be set at $15.3 billion per year, equal to the amount spent by the federal government in 1994, with no allowance for changes in population or in the economy."

Opposition to these proposed changes is coming from unexpected quarters, including New York's John Cardinal O'Connor. He rightly argues that the paring back of benefits is "immoral in its virtually inevitable consequences." Indeed, the new legislative thrust is ludicrously incompatible with a pro-family stance. However, the ongoing discussion provides an important opportunity to reformulate the terms of the debate and to devise new strategies to help the poor. Clearly any solution must provide for a degree of self-sufficiency if it is to be politically palatable. The system as it currently exists is structurally flawed and perpetuates poverty.

We must therefore develop a coherent and viable political strategy if a humane means of devising and implementing new responses to the problems of poverty is to become a reality. The new focus must be on helping people who are demonstrably interested in helping themselves.

This approach reflects a new shift in thinking, a more pragmatic approach, one which differs from the hard-core liberal notion of obligatory largess to the disempowered. This approach is also more politically acceptable, which is often a prerequisite to gaining popular support for a legislative measure.

Sociologist Christopher Jencks argues correctly that "American liberals have a habit of trying to help the neediest. Because AFDC benefits have always been low, welfare mothers look like the neediest of the needy. As a result, liberals have fought hard to help welfare recipients, while largely ignoring single mothers with low wage jobs. Welfare recipients have always gotten Medicaid for example while equally impoverished working mothers seldom have."

The absence of access to affordable, safe child care serves to keep welfare recipients in a state of dependence. Since there is no broad template for the provision of child care in this country, people must make do with makeshift arrangements that are often of dubious curricular soundness and sometimes simply dangerous. We need safe environments, affordability, year-round-access and trained staff able to provide quality care.

Impediments to achieving full economic self-sufficiency and the persistent difficulties of re-integrating into society produce a certain weariness of spirit. By refusing to address the root cause of the continuation and proliferation of inegalitarian outcomes, we allow the most vulnerable among us to languish in a fate which most of us would find intolerable.