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In defense of welfare of reform
By Cathy Young | August 28, 2006
WELFARE REFORM had long been a contentious issue in American politics.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, ending ``welfare as we know it" was
a staple of cheap political rhetoric for Republicans and Democrats
alike. It was also widely regarded as a nearly utopian goal. Then,
President Clinton made the drastic overhaul of the welfare system
a reality, in a bill signed into law on Aug. 22, 1996. Ten years
later, the welfare reform report card disproves much scaremongering
on the left and points to some important accomplishments, but it
also highlights how much there still is to accomplish, both in reducing
poverty and strengthening families.
When welfare reform passed, dire predictions abounded. The legislation,
designed to end welfare as a system of permanent dependency and get
recipients off the dole and into the workplace, was denounced as
a policy driven by greed, heartlessness, and even racism, a betrayal
of the weakest in our midst. Anna Quindlen, then a New York Times
columnist, referred to it as ``the politics of meanness." Marian
Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund cried ``national child
abandonment." Senator Edward M. Kennedy spoke of ``legislative child
Some feminists -- such as authors and commentators Katha Pollitt
and Barbara Ehrenreich -- were incensed by what they saw as welfare
reform's punitive attitude toward single mothers, the majority of
adult welfare recipients. Welfare mothers, they claimed, were being
demonized in misogynistic rhetoric, even though it's safe to say
that the harshest language ever used about women on welfare never
approached the vitriol toward ``deadbeat dads" (most of whom are
also poor and working in marginal jobs at best).
Paradoxically, antiwelfare-reform feminists, most of whom had assailed
the idea of full-time motherhood as a noble female vocation, found
themselves defending a system that paid women to stay home with children.
They mocked -- rightly, in some cases -- the hypocrisy of right-wingers
who attacked poor single mothers for not holding jobs, yet lamented
the rise in middle-class married mothers working outside the home.
But surely it was at least as inconsistent for those on the left
to hail the movement of married women into the workforce, and then
treat full-time motherhood as an entitlement for poor single women.
No, single women did not have babies to collect welfare checks; but
for those who were trapped in lifelong dependency, the welfare system
functioned as an enabler.
In fact, as writer Kay Hymowitz demonstrates in an article in the
spring issue of City Journal, the past 10 years' policies have been
highly successful in getting single mothers off welfare and into
the workforce. From 1994 to 2004, recipients of Aid to Families With
Dependent Children dropped from 5.1 million to 2 million. About 60
percent of the women who left welfare have moved into jobs; many
others have employed partners and are studying to acquire job skills.
The predicted surge in child poverty, and horrors such as child abandonment
and child prostitution, have not materialized. Indeed, poverty rates
for African-American children hit an all-time low in 2001 and rose
only slightly during the subsequent recession.
There remains, however, much to be done. Perhaps the biggest weakness
of welfare reform is that it has focused almost exclusively on women,
neglecting the all-important issue of their partners and the fathers
of their children. Many reports on the struggles of single mothers
trying to get themselves and their children out of poverty treat
the men in these women's and children's lives as an obstacle to success,
offering stories of hard-working women held back by lazy, feckless,
often violent boyfriends. In some cases the stereotype is true; but
many of those men, like many women, are trapped by a lack of resources
and skills and by a subculture that offers few models of successful
work and parenting. And some, as reporter and author Jason DeParle
and others have documented, are trying their best to stay connected
to their children.
Today, there is a need for more efforts, in the public and private
sector alike, to encourage employment and child-rearing among poor
fathers. One of the baneful effects of the old welfare system was
that it enshrined the idea of family and children as a female sphere
while turning men into outsiders. Reintegrating men into families
will not end poverty or solve all social problems, but it will be
a major step in the right direction.