Women and Welfare: Revisiting Reform in the Wake of Economic Crisis

Susan Wefald

Coverage of the economic crisis focuses on the fate of the newly poor middle class. But stories about those who were already poor in the “best of times” have been few and far between.

This article was originally published by the Ms. Foundation for Women.

While there’s been plenty of talk throughout this global economic crisis about the fate of the newly jobless, newly poor, middle class, stories about how the tanking of the economy has affected those who were already poor in the “best of times” have been few and far between. In this week’s issue of The Nation, however, Katha Pollitt asks some long overdue questions about the current plight of Americans who entered this recession in poverty — particularly the women among them.

Framing her piece around “welfare mothers,” and the impact that the passage of 1996’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (or PRWORA) has had on their lives, Pollitt notes that despite the tendency of pundits and analysts to label these welfare reforms a “success,” in fact, even in the economically prosperous 1990s, the families most affected by said reforms remained solidly poor. PRWORA may have pushed poor women off the welfare rolls and forced them to find jobs (which conservatives cast as a return to the great American ethic of “hard work”) — but those jobs tended to pay them much less than it actually took to survive, usually earning them salaries well below the annual poverty line. (Hard to see the “success” in all that.)

So how are these women and families managing nearly 15 years after the passage of the PRWORA and in the worst economic climate in recent memory? The hidden truth may be that they aren’t managing at all; they’re simply subsisting. Homeless shelters have seen the impact: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, from July to November 2008 the number of families entering New York City homeless shelters increased 40 percent over the same period in 2007. And as Pollitt points out, while the use of food stamps nationwide has also risen 40% over the last 2 years, there’s been little jump in welfare rates over the same period — meaning, most likely, that the process for accessing the latter type of aid has become so complicated as to “weed out” those who most need it. It’s therefore safe to assume, according to one of Pollitt’s sources, that most of these women and families are now living in a state of “constant suffering and inequality,” vulnerable not just to poverty itself, but to all of its attendant, ugly bedfellows, including increased rates of domestic violence.

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There are, of course, solutions to be had to problems of this nature, and, among other things, they involve crafting and pushing for the adoption of policies that put the needs and experiences of women and families at their center — just as Ms. Foundation grantees the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative and the Georgia Citizen’s Coalition on Hunger do every day.

With TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families – a provision of PRWORA that replaced AFDC) up for recertification this year, Congress now has an opportunity to, in the words of grantee Legal Momentum, finally “make [welfare programs] responsive to the mothers and children [they are] intended to serve.” To do that, though, they’ll need to start listening to the women living on the front lines of extended poverty and including their perspectives in the decision-making process — an approach that’s clearly long overdue.

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