Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Monday, November 15, 2004
 
Women, Welfare, and the Working Poor
(Please click on Permalink/Full Post to read the whole thing.)

Check out this week's Slate Dialogue about welfare reform. The discussion is centered about the new book American Dream, by New York Times writer John DeParle, which follows the stories of three women who were welfare mothers in Wisconsin and then began to work. Most of this discussion seems to involve one woman in particular, Angie, who has four children, 12 years on the welfare roles, and a new career as a nurse's aide. Slate seems to have set up Jonah Edelman, the young founder of Stand for Children and the son of the famed policy titans Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman, as the liberal, and Ron Haskins, a Brookings Insistute Senior Fellow with policy credentials like 14 years as a Capitol Hill staffer and a stint as GWB's senior advisor for Welfare policy, as the conservative. In the "middle" is blogger and writer Mickey Kaus--conservatives might whine that he's nominally a Democrat, and while any cenrist or liberal who's remotely familiar with his blog might simply groan. (See Crooked Timber's recent spoof.) Nonetheless it's an important topic with an impressive, if notably all male, line up.

I haven't read the book, and I definitely want to check it out. But based on their descriptions, I have a few quibbles with the convesation so far:(Please click on Permalink/Full Post to read the whole thing.)

1) The extreme emphasis on marriage as a solution, especially as it's combined with the oddly cold and insubstantial way these three discuss domestic violence. Kaus even quotes at great length a disturbing scene involving Angie's boyfriend and a shotgun, and yet all three keep harping on how welfare mothers should marry their menfolk. Slate's own Dahlia Lithwick has written a very persuasive piece about the extent to which choosing a legal spouse is choosing someone to trust with your very life.

2) Edelman rather blythely mentions, as a sidenote to his accounting of the less than satisfactory economic outcome, that in one mother's case, "when you take into account her work expenses—which in her case didn't even include child care because she left her four children home alone—she either came out slightly ahead or it was a wash." He seems to be reducing child-care to an expense that, if not paid as a bill, doesn't matter. I'm hoping that the oldest of these four children is a teenager, because otherwise this is an illegal and unsafe situation. But if that is the case, that's still pretty sad--here's a teenager who can't take advantage of after-school programs or extracurricular activities because he or she has to watch his or her younger siblings. Watching children is work, and someone has to do it--if the state isn't going to pay the mother to do it, then the mother has to pay someone else to do it, or find someone who she can ask to (a grandmother) or, essentially, force to (an older child.)

3) Harping on the same quote, none of these men seem to be considering that these children are seeing a lot less of their their mother. Edelman notes the bizarre hours Angie has to work as a nurse's aide as an economic obstacle, but doesn't seem to consider their impact on a child's sleep schedule. The three men want Angie to marry another breadwinner, which wouldn't solve the lack of quality adult time her children get.

4) Haskins writes last, and provokes most of my ire. He says , "But because DeParle, joined by both of you, calls for more support for poor and low-income working families, I think it important to at least mention the level of support they already receive. We now supplement the earnings of low-income workers through several major programs," followed by three citations given in total cash from the system's pov ($32B in cash not taken in the form of taxes via the Earned Income Tax Credit*, $20 B spent on day-care and Head Start, and "many Billions" spent on food and nutrition assistance) and one citation of the Medicaid and CHIP health programs that make available health insurance to children in families who are at 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

He continues with an amazingly snotty tone, "I mention this extensive list of programs both because they demonstrate the nation's substantial commitment to helping poor and low-income families that work and because they provide essential context for considering the question of how much more taxpayers should be expected to spend on these families." [Emphasis mine.] By citing cash totals, and relying on the difficulty most people have with large numbers, he can ignore the fact that these numbers are puny when compared to the size of the problem. There are 30-odd million people living below the poverty level, so even if they all benefitted from EITC they'd only get around $1000 leg up. Headstart and day-care only help with very young children and during school hours--after-school care for the 6-12 set, let alone all the things that middle class stay-at-home moms can do for their children**, aren't covered. The dollar figures he cites are also meaningless without the context of our overall spending priorities.

Haskins also neglects to mention that many eligible children don't get the Medicaid and CHIP insurance because their parents don't know about it. Considering how eager this administration is to keep the traditionally Republican constituency of soldiers and veterans uninformed of the benefits due to them, I'm not really betting on their enthusiasm at recruiting traditionally Democratic children for healthcare. Even if the Admin did decide to enroll all the eligible children, Haskins still fails to acknowledge the fact that many uninsured children are in families that fall above 200% of the the federal poverty guidelines; this shouldn't be suprising to anyone who's read Slate's explanation of how the rather lame guidelines are pegged to food and not housing, nor to anyone who has a decently paying job but has to buy their own health insurance. It's really, really expensive. So, no Dr. Haskins, I don't see a strong commitment to the working poor.

Let's keep an eye on this conversation.



*I love how when poor people are getting a tax cut it's cast as government aid, but when rich people are getting a tax cut it's cast as the right and glorious thing to do.
**I love how the same conservative party of family values whose religious right base decries women in the workplace and votes for suburban values suddenly sees no need for poor children to benefit from stay-at-home moms.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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