Scapegoating women on welfare


THE Clinton administration is making a grand show of touring the country and holding public hearings about "welfare reform."

Women should be on guard.

Johnnie Tillmon, leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s, used to call the welfare system "The Man" because, she said, it ruled women's lives.

Unfortunately, the term still fits. Men are the welfare "experts," and the system they have designed is increasingly abusive of poor women struggling to raise children.

For 20 years, a long line of male policy wonks have been complaining that welfare "dependency" is America's major problem.

By the wonks' reading, it's all right for people to receive money from Social Security or defense contracts or bank bail-outs. Only government largess to poor mothers ruins character, breaks up families, weakens the economy and bloats the budget.

To listen to the male critics, you would think the welfare rolls were mushrooming and spending was spiraling out of sight. In fact, the welfare rolls stabilized in the early 1970s at about 3.6 million families and began to grow only with the 1989 recession.

Even now, Aid to Families With Dependent Children accounts for only 1 percent of the federal budget, or about $22 billion a year. And rather than supporting families so generously as to encourage "dependency," the grants are painfully low, averaging a month in 1992.

No state brings families up to the poverty line, even when food stamps are included. But desperate poverty under government auspices not the critics' main problem. "Dependency" is, and their solution is to force women to go to work.

Not surprisingly, given high unemployment and plummeting wage levels for unskilled workers, the much-vaunted & 2/3 welfare-to-work reforms and experiments under way can claim only marginal gains. Workfare is just one way in which "The Man" is trying to make women shape up.

Wisconsin's "learnfare" reduces the checks of welfare mothers whose children are truant; Maryland's "healthfare" docks mothers when their children don't receive health checkups or immunizations; New Jersey's "wedfare" offers a bonus to women who marry, while its "family cap" lowers the grant to women who have an additional child while on the rolls.

And some politicians talk about making Norplant, the contraceptive implant, a condition for receiving AFDC money.

In other words, poor women are supposed to become adequate providers and better parents by dint of welfare sanctions.

But even if there were jobs for unskilled women that paid enough to support a family and cover child and health care besides, does it really make sense to force poor mothers into a labor market flooded with other desperate job seekers?

Is it sane policy to force women to leave their children for jobs flipping burgers or mopping floors? What will this really do to their ability to be good parents, especially in neighborhoods plagued by drugs, crime and poor schools?

If there were good job training, adequate child care and decent wages at the end of the road, many women would eagerly leave welfare. But such programs would cost upward of $50 billion, so that is not what government is doing.

Instead, the harassment of welfare mothers in the name of reform continues.

Welfare mothers make good scapegoats at a time when politicians and experts need scapegoats. Welfare is a code word for women and for blacks. It singles out the most vulnerable people in our society.

As the certainties about family and prosperity that once anchored life for most Americans crumble, our leaders, having little substantive to offer, point the finger of blame at poor women.

Frances F. Piven is co-author of the newly revised "Regulating the Poor." Mimi Abramovitz is professor of social policy at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York.

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