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Welfare's End.

This brief but highly informative book shows how the welfare "reform" act of 1996 harms women and children. Gwendolyn Mink is a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, co-chair of the Women's Committee of One Hundred (which fought to derail the punitive legislation), and daughter of Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink, Democrat of Hawaii, another opponent of the welfare law. With this background, Mink is in a good position "to illuminate the unique inequalities endured by poor single mothers in welfare law, and to suggest what welfare justice could be like if we made poor single mothers' equality as citizens and as women our priority"--the goals she sets out for herself in this book.

Mink takes on some of the knottiest welfare problems. Throughout, she identifies welfare as a women's issue, and she adds an important rights-based argument to the debate.

She effectively argues that the new law violates the basic rights of poor single mothers. She shows how the welfare law denies them the same protections granted to other citizens, undermines their constitutional and human rights to make their own decisions about marriage, family life, and procreation, and limits their full membership in society by keeping them poor. Indeed, Mink stresses that without a fundamental right to economic security provided by some kind of income guarantee, women cannot achieve equality in the family, the labor market, or the state.

At first glance, it seemed that the 1996 welfare debate dwelled mostly on the need for welfare mothers to work. Conservatives insisted that mothers on welfare get and hold down a job. Liberals tried to soften the blow by pushing for job training, transitional child care, and Medicaid benefits.

Mink argues that all the attention on work obscured the other stated goals of the welfare law: to promote marriage and the two-parent family. Lacking any research support, but fueled by rising rates of single motherhood among women in all walks of life, legislators charged that the old welfare system caused the upsurge in single-parent families. They blamed single motherhood for many of the nation's woes, ranging from school drop-outs and drive-by shootings all the way to the deficit.

So, the new law included punitive family-values provisions: the child exclusion (or "family cap"), which denies aid to children born to women on welfare; the "illegitimacy" bonus for states that keep down non-marital births without increasing abortions; the funds for sexual-abstinence but not sex-education programs; and stiff paternity and child-support rules.

Many feminists defend the paternity and child-support rules to protect women. Mink shares the exasperation with fathers who do not pay. But she argues against compelling poor women to identify, track down, and collect money from their children's fathers or lose their cash assistance because safeguarding the autonomy of single mothers and defending their right to be a parent are of central importance to her.

The father-chasing rules, Mink says, penalize poor single mothers for exercising their freedom to associate and coerce them into unwanted relations with men. Going after "dead-beat dads," who often lack income and jobs, yields little money. But it may threaten the woman's physical safety and open the door to absent fathers to challenge the mother's custody rights. It also upholds the ideology of the traditional two-parent family and the presumption of women's economic dependence on men. Both premises limit the possibility for women's equality in all spheres of life.

Mink contends that the welfare law also pressures women to trade reproductive rights for subsistence. Believing that women should be at the mercy neither of men nor of the market, she uses a women's rights argument to buck the near unanimous view that poor single mothers on welfare should work outside the home.

Like many liberal critics of this welfare law, Mink is concerned with its practical consequences. It imposes a five-year lifetime limit on welfare eligibility, enforces stiff work requirements, and narrows job-training and educational options. She asks: What will happen to the women who are forced off welfare into an unwelcoming labor market with too many low-wage jobs that offer no child care and health benefits? What will happen to their children? Who gains and who loses when the competition among thousands of former welfare mothers and thousands of other job seekers makes it easier for employers to keep wages down and harder for unions to negotiate good contracts?

But Mink goes beyond the economic critique to point out a double standard at the heart of public policy: the differential treatment of women based on their compliance with prescribed wife and mother roles. She notes that the same week Congress enacted the welfare law that pushed poor women into the work force, it passed another law that, for the first time, allowed the establishment of Independent Retirement Accounts for non-employed, full-time, married homemakers, thereby encouraging them to stay home. The family-values camp promotes the idea that married women should be full-time caregivers. That's why it vigorously opposes child care, family leave, and other services that make women's employment possible. At the same time, these social conservatives hypocritically insist that, as a matter of morality, women on welfare must get a paying job.

Mink pays special attention to the provisions of the welfare law that she thinks "endanger poor single mothers' constitutional right to parent" their own children. The tough work rules force mothers into the marketplace, where low wages and lack of affordable child care provide a built-in incentive to leave the kids with the neighbors or an older sibling or even home alone. With the cuts in benefits for having additional children, women are under enormous stress to make ends meet. This does not help them provide good care for their children.

Without time or money, some mothers may become desperate enough to turn their children over to the state to ensure their survival--a practice all too common at the turn of the century, before government programs existed. Others may find themselves open to charges of neglect by the child-welfare authorities, who may take the kids away and put them in foster care.

The new welfare law reflects a deep distrust of parenting by poor single mothers--especially women of color--that for years has dominated public policy. Mink attributes this distrust, in part, to the assumption that only married women can be good moms. She argues that the new welfare law makes single mothers "pay for daring to be mothers at all."

Anyone familiar with the welfare debate has heard the infamous question: "Why should we pay for them?" That is, why should taxpayers subsidize poor women on welfare when other working-class women marry, work for wages, seek child support, and limit family size? Mink's radical answer is that all women should have the economic resources to raise their children at home.

To this end, she believes that raising children should be remunerated as work. Instead of thinking of welfare as an income substitute for the wages earned by the absent breadwinner, Mink wants to reconceive "welfare as the income owed to persons who work inside the home caring for, nurturing, and protecting children and redistributed in a way that supports the most needy caregivers."

Mink reintroduces a demand common among some European feminists in the late 1960s: "wages for housework." Believe it or not, a 1973 report issued by President Nixon's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare also justified AFDC grants as payment for non-market work: "The choice confronting the AFDC mother," it declared, "should no longer be between taking a job or receiving no assistance (which really is no choice at all), but rather the choice between working at home, in her own house with her own children, or working outside the home. In the long run, such a change ... would not only cost less, but it would also permit the welfare family to keep its respect and at the same time enlarge an important area of choice in our society."

Many contemporary feminists fear that a "wages for housework" strategy would tie women too closely to the home and would reinforce a sexist division of labor. But Mink argues that unpaid labor in the home leaves women either impoverished or dependent on men. And for the children of poor single women, the failure to remunerate housework can be devastating. It deprives them of their mother's care, and it forces their moms into jobs that pay wages far below the poverty line.

These are the reasons Mink calls for paying women for the work they do in the home. It would provide them with economic security, protect their right to mother, aid their children, and establish a foundation for women's autonomy and equality.

Welfare's End gives us much food for thought. It shifts the focus away from behavior modification for poor women and toward a public policy that protects and enhances the rights of all women. This slim but provocative book should be read by anyone seeking alternatives to the current conservative policy agenda and anyone interested in broader social change.

Mimi Abramovitz is a professor of social policy at Hunter College School of Social Work and CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of "Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy From Colonial Times to the Present" (South End Press, 1996) and "Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States" (Monthly Review Press, 1996).
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Author:Abramovitz, Mimi
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1998
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