Some Women are Dying Younger: Is Welfare Reform to Blame?
October 10, 2013
Oct 10, 2013
4 Min read time
Last month, the American Prospect published a profile of Crystal Wilson, an Arkansas resident who died of natural causes at the age of 38. In Monica Potts’s story, Wilson is a character in a large and profoundly discouraging drama: the life expectancy of uneducated white women has declined by five years since 1990, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study.
Potts’s is one of many recent stories that frame structural failings in personal terms. She attributes the decline in life expectancy (concentrated in the South) to something “less tangible,” something “beyond what science can measure.” She blames Wilson’s death on cultural and behavioral problems, repeatedly calling her a “dropout,” emphasizing her weight, and describing her childhood in a rural community and the vices of her family members. Likewise The Atlantic, analyzing the decline, points to the rise in obesity and drug use in the past twenty years and draws a comparison to alcoholism in post-Soviet Russia.
It’s not just the press that is looking first to behavior in order to understand the fall in life expectancy. The Washington Post quotes Jay Olshansky, the principal researcher behind the University of Illinois study:
I’m not sure the least educated members of the population are missing out on the advances in medical technology as much as they are adopting harmful behavioral habits that shorten their life. I’ve argued for quite some time that the only control we have over the duration of our lives is to shorten it, and we exercise that control often and with increased frequency (smoking, obesity, etc.).
None of these studies and stories, many of which look for policies that could mitigate the drop in longevity, makes the connection that is staring them in the face: that the economic burdens poor white women face are caused by legislative decisions that force those burdens on them. The Atlantic mentions the structure of low-wage jobs, which lack benefits and flexibility, as an obstacle for women joining the workforce, and another study suggests that “designing work-family policies” could help women maintain employment. The assumption is that having a job is fulfilling, that self-sufficiency is the ideal. Work-family policies, however, are only a band-aid for underlying, inadequate legislation.
Coinciding with the beginning of the decline in poor white women’s mortality is welfare reform. In 1996 President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Act effectively made welfare into welfare-to-work. In order to reduce dependence on welfare and encourage labor market participation, TANF imposed limits on assistance and sanctions aimed at reducing or eliminating benefits for those who do not meet the new work requirements.
The parallels between data on TANF and the studies on longevity are striking. Sanctions and benefit levels vary by state, with the toughest requirements and stingiest payments found in the South. Georgia requires that TANF recipients work 30 hours a week; Arkansas gives some families 20 percent of the poverty line. Data from TANF also indicate that whites are more likely to leave the program than blacks, but that, upon exit, whites have lower rates of employment than blacks and lower median earnings. Whites are more likely than blacks to report leaving TANF because of sanctions, and blacks are more likely to return to welfare in the year after exiting. These findings suggest that the families leaving welfare are not finding stability and that whites may be suffering disproportionately from this. There is no causal explanation here for why whites fare worse after leaving TANF, and some of this may have to do with the factors cited by Potts and others—unemployment, lack of education, community breakdown, and rural geography. But it could also be related to a growing reliance on local government and the lack of flexible work hours and affordable childcare.
In searching for explanations for a shocking drop in life expectancy, it is important to look for patterns and institutional problems before placing blame on individual behavior, which risks sexism and racism when generalized to the demographic. The TANF caseload has “plummeted” since 1996, which may point not only to the root cause, but also a productive solution. The reduced caseload is attributed both to families leaving TANF and a lower “take-up rate”—the number of families participating as a percentage of the number eligible for assistance. If a policy is not helping those for whom it was created, then it is failing. Especially as Obamacare goes into effect, we need to question the entire ecology of health and welfare policies, and their uneven implementation across states. Will people use state-funded health care less in the future if their incomes are supported now? How does the pressure to work in a low-wage, unstable job without benefits, childcare, or flexibility affect the health of a mother’s entire family? When does getting someone on her own two feet actually make her life harder?Image: flickr/MTSOfan
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October 10, 2013
4 Min read time