I recently read an excellent book about welfare reform in the 1990s: American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle. DeParle is a journalist who covered the welfare reform process, so he had a front row seat to the happenings. One thing that I really liked about this book, and that I find that I generally like about non-fiction by journalists, is that there was this really good mix of facts and hard evidence with the personal stories of three real women on welfare and their experience with reform.
As your average bleeding heart liberal, I am pro-welfare, but I hadn’t really ever read or even thought about it much. A social safety net is a good thing, but I don’t know that as a society we’ve figured out how best to achieve that. (That said, even an inefficient safety net is better than no net at all).
In any event, American Dream gave me lots to think about and these are a few of the points that have really stuck with me:
- Work isn’t necessarily a transcendent “good” thing.
This was my first “whoa” moment in the book. DeParle is setting out the history of the three women’s families and tracing them all the way back to slavery. DeParle points out that for these women, there was no automatic association of working as a way to get ahead. Their families had worked very hard during slavery, and then later as sharecroppers with no real positive gains to show for it. When life has taught you that hard work only leads to more hard work, it’s hard to see that as the solution to life’s woes.
- Welfare allows women to be “independent” of abusive men and exploitive employers.
This is pretty straightforward, but not something that I had really thought about before. Welfare opponents talk a lot about welfare recipients being dependent on the state, but there isn’t really much discussion of the ways in which welfare makes women independent. It enables women to have some financial support when they are leaving abusive relationships and ensures that they don’t have to stay in awful jobs with employers who are abusing or exploiting things. This independence is a very good thing and should really be looked at as one of the benefits of welfare.
- Health care is a big issue for poor women – and one instance where they were better off on welfare than working.
Both the individual women in DeParle’s book and, statistically, women moving from welfare to work in general, did better financially working than they did on welfare. However, they almost all lost their health insurance. They were covered by Medicaid while on welfare, and most went to jobs that didn’t provide health insurance. In the case of a medical emergency, these women were significantly worse off working than they had been on welfare. Another reason why health care reform is so important.
- You can’t solve the issue of poor families without taking a looking at the men in them.
The male partners of the women that DeParle profiled had all spent time in jail. This was the main cause of them operating as single parents – a partner who was imprisoned. All of the men in these women’s life either currently or previously had dealt drugs (One of the women is quoted as saying something like that this didn’t bother her, it was the job of every black man she knew). It’s easy to decry these folks as criminals, but there were definite negative effects for these families when one parent and the primary provider was suddenly thrown in jail. I think that rather than focusing on “marriage promotion” (only one of the three women was married to her significant other, but all lived and parented with them), perhaps that money would be better spent providing job training and opportunities for poor men. I will not begin to pretend that I know how best to make that work, but I think it’s a much better thing to try to find a solution to a clear need (for gainful, legal employment), than to punish people for turning to the only source of income they can find. (I still think drug dealing should be illegal and punishable by law, it just seems like we are expecting a problem to solve itself simply by saying that an action is wrong.)
- Working did not necessarily make life any better for these women’s children. In some cases, it made it worse.
When these women were on welfare, they were home with their children much more often. Reliable affordable child care is difficult to find and the result for many children was that they were left alone or in the care of questionable adults. DeParle hypothesized that while working did bring positive results to many of the women who worked (a sense of pride and accomplishment, a little more money to work with), that for their children it mainly brought more time alone in bad neighborhoods. I think this is counter to the intent of the law (and most folks hopes for the path from welfare to work) and is something else for legislators to look at – how to provide better, subsidized child care and after school programs for these children.
If you are interested in social policy at all, I really recommend this book