As Anne Alstott notes at the end of her essay, the “No Exit” obligation weighs especially heavily for poor parents. The devaluation of poor mothers’ public role reached its pinnacle with the passage of the 1996 welfare-reform law. The very point of the federal overhaul was to place extra limits on poor single mothers’ “capacity to choose their way of life.”
The primary goal of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) is to move mothers from welfare to the paid work force. Welfare reform eliminated the federal guarantee of a basic income support for all families and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a state-run program combining work requirements and sanctions for nonconforming behavior. The central message of welfare reform is that recipient mothers are deviant for staying home and would better serve their children by finding jobs. PRWORA does not give mothers a choice: the law mandates that recipients find paid employment or risk losing benefits; it imposes a 24-month limit and a five-year lifetime maximum on welfare receipt. The problem for poor mothers is not that they are compelled to give continuity of care to their children; it is that the state discredits their own caregiving decisions.
The issue of welfare’s proper purpose fits squarely in Alstott’s discussion of public support for child-rearing. The original aim of welfare in the early 20th century, to support mothers who could not depend on a husband’s income, was thoroughly rejected by century’s end. As benefits went to growing numbers of black mothers, once excluded from public aid, welfare became burdened with the stigma of dependency, reduced effective benefit levels, and work requirements. The image of the welfare mother transformed from the worthy white widow to the immoral black welfare queen.
The question of whether welfare should aid mothers’ caregiving or encourage mothers to transition to paid employment is also part of a larger debate within feminist thinking about women’s economic welfare. Is the path to gender equality to be found in supporting women’s work at home or work in the market?
The dominant feminist approach has advocated women’s economic liberation by escaping confinement in the domestic sphere and participating in the paid labor market on equal terms with men. But this model has neglected the importance of women’s care work both to women and to the broader society. The market-centered approach has also relied on exploiting race and class hierarchies among women. Privileged women have resolved the tension between raising children and paid employment without changing the sexual status quo by counting on the low-paid domestic work of less privileged women, especially women of color.
A growing feminist discourse advocates greater recognition and support for women’s care work at home. An earlier feminist account of care characterized it as a manifestation of women’s sex-specific nature. The more recent theorizing does not see care emanating from women’s biology but as a socially constructed and political practice that provides tremendous social value and whose lack of social support seriously disadvantages women.
Both welfare policies and feminist theorizing have tended to pit mothers’ role as unpaid caregivers against their role as paid workers. One way of avoiding this dichotomous thinking is to enable low-income mothers to make their own decisions about whether and when to work inside and outside the home. In other words, feminists and policymakers should be concerned with increasing low-income women’s economic freedom. To me, economic freedom encompasses both paid and unpaid labor that has economic value and that helps to characterize one’s way of life. The goal of economic freedom corresponds with the aims of the welfare rights movement, comprising mainly poor black mothers, that fought to expand access to welfare in the 1960s and 1970s. These mothers advocated a right to public assistance both as compensation for their labor in the home and as a means to allow them to make the same choices about caregiving and paid employment that middle-class women made.
In some ways, the 1996 welfare reform law increased the resources poor mothers needed to enter the workforce. Some scholars criticized the prior system for making it financially foolhardy for poor mothers to leave the welfare rolls because they lost needed services for their children that they could not afford on low-wage jobs. Welfare reform attempts to reverse the incentive structure to make it more economically feasible for poor mothers to go to work. States have implemented programs that allow families to keep varying amounts of their earned income without reducing their TANF grant, making their wages more valuable. The PRWORA also provides for training programs, job counseling, and other services to improve welfare recipients’ employment skills.
But the reduction in work disincentives does not translate into freedom to move between home and market. Indeed, the philosophy and key features of welfare-to-work programs intensify conflicts between caregiving and paid employment, making it impossible for many poor single mothers to transition successfully from full-time child-rearing to a job. First, welfare reform fails to offer a realistic opportunity to earn a livable income because it does too little to improve single mothers’ earning capacity. Research shows that the type of work many welfare recipients qualify for cannot raise their families above the poverty line. Although most of the women who voluntarily leave welfare find employment, these jobs tend to be at the bottom of the wage scale. Involuntary welfare “leavers”-those who reach time-limits or are sanctioned-are even more likely to face financial disaster. Only about half of the women forced to exit welfare find a job. Current welfare policy prefers marriage to making single mothers economically independent. In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced an initiative to reinforce welfare reform’s marriage promotion by spending $1.5 billion on training programs to strengthen marriages among low-income parents.
Second, welfare reform doesn’t provide adequate supports for working mothers. The work-family conflict that low-wage workers experience is more acute than the commonly reported tradeoffs that professional women make in juggling the demands of their busy careers with raising children. The jobs available to low-skilled women, with few benefits, irregular hours, and little time off, are the least compatible with mothering. They give workers no power to negotiate time away from the workplace to attend important family events or deal with family emergencies. Low-income mothers, therefore, need extra help in managing the demands of children and work.
Instead, low-income families lose eligibility for key public benefits such as child care subsidies, food stamps, and Medicaid as their incomes grow, often before they earn enough to pay for these services. The loss of crucial benefits depletes the family’s income that must now stretch to cover these services and makes it more difficult for mothers to care for their children while keeping a job.
In addition, despite an increase in federally funded child-care subsidies, welfare reform contributed to a shortfall in child care by requiring thousands of stay-at-home mothers to enter the workforce. The number of families in need of subsidized care far exceeds the supply provided by federal reimbursement programs. Inadequate child care means that many recipients must forgo job opportunities or find it infeasible to keep a job for very long. When mothers cannot afford reliable child care, they must often choose between the evils of leaving children unsupervised or in hazardous care and losing their jobs.
Finally, welfare reform’s economic incentives are one-sided. While encouraging work in the low-wage market, the PRWORA penalizes care work at home. Underlying TANF’s work requirements and time limits is the assumption that welfare receipt in and of itself is a harmful force on family functioning and child development. Welfare benefits are set below the amount earned at a minimum wage job, both to avoid disturbing low-wage markets and to give recipients a financial incentive to leave the welfare rolls for paid employment-on any terms. Forcing low-skilled mothers into the workforce regardless of the type or conditions of employment available to them assumes that any job is more beneficial to their families than the care they provide at home. Welfare-to-work programs stress that parental responsibilities were secondary to paid work and that mothers should not let their children interfere with their efforts to find and keep a job. This emphasis on paid employment as the be-all and end-all of parenting contradicts the importance recipients typically place on caring for their children.
Welfare reform’s philosophy-that paid employment is the test for good parenting and should take precedence over nurturing children-accords no economic recognition for the work of raising children and generates policies that foreclose recipients’ decision to care for their children at home. It is part of a broader culture that stigmatizes the household labor of poor, single, and minority women in particular. In short, welfare reform denies poor single mothers the financial support they need either to raise their children as full-time caregivers or as wage laborers.
The caretaker resource accounts proposed by Anne Alstott would go a long way to giving low-income women greater economic freedom. But they do not go far enough. The limited-purpose funds would not raise the incomes of many single mothers sufficiently to give them a meaningful capacity to choose their way of life. Increasing their economic freedom would require reversing the key features of welfare reform-reinstating the entitlement to public assistance, increasing cash and other benefits to guarantee a family-sustaining income, and abolishing time limits on welfare receipt.