Shaming Welfare Recipients

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes on August 23, 2016

A mother nurses her baby while talking about welfare reform on local public radio, 2014, Selma, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Veit)

After returning from the South, I was determined to complete my interrupted studies, and I moved to California to work as a research assistant for Hortense Powdermaker, my undergraduate mentor at Queens College who had just retired and moved to Berkeley, while I applied to graduate school.

During the founding of Peoples Park in the spring of 1969 I became pregnant. The university clinic doctor who ordered my pregnancy test suggested that I, a single woman, put my child up for adoption. Her remarks were laced with racism: “A baby from a person like you — white and a university student — would be so adoptable. You could have your pick among professionals of all kinds. Think about it.”

I did and decided to keep my baby. The doctor shook her head and referred me to a psychiatrist at the university health services. When I told the psychiatrist, Dr. Wolf (the Wolfman as I saw him), that I had every intention of raising my child myself since I had met a great many competent single women in Selma, Alabama, the psychiatrist washed his hands, saying: “I can’t help a sinking ship.”

The worst part of living on the dole was the anxiety each month on the day the check was due to arrive. I can recall standing outside my first-floor flat with Jennifer curled up on asleep in my back carrier, while I pretended to be enjoying the sun. I would walk up and down the street hoping to catch sight of the postman from the corner of my eye. The $120-per-month allowance was barely enough to pay my share of the rented flat on Cedar Street in Berkeley that I shared with a working roommate. Liz never hassled me, but I fell to pieces whenever the check was late. I’d say in a whisper: “Our check isn’t here, Jenny. We’ll be ruined for sure.”  I needed the help, but I resented the vulnerability that it engendered in me.

So, like other welfare women I knew, I supplemented my scanty stipend with small earnings as a research assistant. I doubt that I revealed every cent of those earnings to my welfare caseworker. Once I made the error of sharing with my caseworker that my child’s stroller was purchased with a birthday gift sent by my parents. The caseworker immediately deducted $35 from my next month’s welfare check, making that month a disaster for my child and me.

On another occasion, during a house check by a welfare caseworker, she discovered a giant 20-pound sack of brown rice that Jennifer’s absent father had contributed to the household. The worker reduced my food stamp allotment accordingly. Since that time I have always hated brown rice. My daughter’s father twice sent me a crumpled $5 bill in an envelope from Delano, California, where he was working with César Chávez’s farmworkers’ struggle in the San Joaquin Valley. I lied to my caseworker about where he was living. These are hardly memories to be proud of.

After two years as a welfare mother, I met and married a child daycare activist. We were part of a movement afoot at the University if California to create a child day care cooperative for Berkeley students, especially for  single mothers (or as in one case a hapless single father who carried his infant baby son under his arm like a football). We occupied an all but abandoned beautiful Julia Morgan redwood building on the Berkeley campus, Girton Hall, where we set up a parent-child day care cooperative that later expanded into the current UC Berkeley child day care system.

After finishing my doctorate, we moved now with three young children to Dallas, Texas, where I took up my first teaching job at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in 1977.  Michael returned to school for a degree in clinical social work. My salary was low, while rent and childcare were high, and most of our meals were recipes from the Berkeley Co-Op Low Cost Cook Book. As SMU neither assisted nor required their faculty to purchase medical insurance, we did without it hoping against hope that no one in the family would have a serious accident or fall seriously ill. It was the only way we managed to get through each month. Later, I learned that my $13,000 salary was significantly lower than my male colleagues who were hired about the same time as I.

Once I began teaching I never gave another thought to having been a “welfare mother.”  Our lives were too busy. But my consciousness was raised during a lecture on urban poverty in a large introduction to cultural anthropology class. My lecture focused on Carol Stack’s classic book, All Our Kin, about the strategies used by poor African American women who created complicated exchanges of resources — food as well as children — circulated among large extended families during times of crisis. Because the households were flexible, and the census of single women with children varied month to month, the welfare people believed that their clients were lending their children to other women to cheat the welfare system. Stack was able to show to the contrary how flexible kinscripts and sharing allowed a struggling community of mostly single women to hold itself together.

The lecture was followed by a heated discussion among my privileged SMU students that devolved into a hate feast of negative stereotypes about welfare queens and their excess children. I was stunned, but let my students play out the ugly scenario to the finish. Then, I asked my students if they resented having a former welfare recipient as their professor. Their shock at my unexpected disclosure unbalanced me, and I shed a few stray tears while resuming the discussion, one of the best I had that semester.

I never chose to repeat the experience again until the day that President Clinton negotiated with Congress “to put an end to welfare as we know it” by replacing AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) as an entitlement managed by Social Security with the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” of 1996. The law made work obligatory for welfare recipients and welfare support was time-limited.

The law also targeted so called “deadbeat dads” who were pursued and forced to provide cash support for their birth children. Legal immigrants were not eligible for welfare under the new law. The wording of the bill was so harsh that those of us who had once benefited by welfare began to creep out of the closet, so to speak, to make our stories public (Scheper-Hughes 1996). Later we organized around a national campaign, “Welfare Made a Difference.”

Not all graduates of the welfare system become graduates of the university, or get elected to Congress (Rep. Gwen Moore, D-WI), but none of us escaped the scorn, ridicule and anxiety that accompanied being on the dole which was certainly no inducement to have more babies. The average time that single mothers lived on welfare was two years, not the two or three cyclical generations of “entrenched” welfare recipients that women and child-hostile advocates used to end the system. There were generational cycles of welfare in among those living in abandoned rural and urban communities, both white and black, that were “black holes” of joblessness and despair. For the lucky ones, welfare was a bridge that helped us through times of need.

That bridge was destroyed not by Richard Nixon, who actually proposed a  national welfare reform in 1969  that  would have established a national guaranteed minimum income across the board, and not even by Ronald Reagan. It was Bill Clinton who ended welfare for vulnerable  mothers and children that had emerged out of the New Deal, replacing it with a Rotten Deal based on racist and classist stereotypes of single parents as feckless and irresponsible. During the anti-welfare debates in 1996 about ending  “welfare as we knew it,” Jason Turner, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued in a position paper that “the political left believed in a hospital model of the poor: care-taking and compassion with low expectations” (The Economist, July 27, 2006).

Ten years into the reform and the cracks were obvious. While many single mothers were working, their schedules were such — two jobs, transportation problems, night shifts — that these former “welfare queens” were sometimes forced to leave their children alone at night or in the parking lot behind a Burger King while working a night shift. The children of coerced-to-work single mom’s were failing in school. Their mothers were too tired to help with homework. (DeParle 2005).

An estimated 15 percent of single mothers were neither working nor receiving welfare, according to surveys by the Urban Institute. Many of them had mental or physical disabilities and among them were a growing number of homeless mentally ill women with children dependent on shelters. “Deadbeat dads” who didn’t pay their required child support because they didn’t have it were sent to jails for long periods. This was a law without a shred of compassion. It was an indecent law.

How did we allow this to happen?

Virginia Woolf once suggested that poverty, ridicule and freedom from unreal loyalties were the three great teachers of women. While poverty can be a great teacher for adults (as it was to me), it is totally unfair to impose poverty on babies and young children like Charles, who was ashamed of his hunger. The welfare-to-workfare law was a war on our nation’s children and their mothers. Its repeal is long overdue.

Governor Brown is to be commended for recognizing the errors of the past and rectifying the harm done to single mothers, poor fathers and their children. Should Hillary Clinton be elected as our next president, I hope that she fights for a new social contract with U.S. families in need. Since the word welfare has been degraded, why not call it the Child and Family Defense Act?

This piece first appeared in the LA Progressive

Filed under: National Politics

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