A proposal calling for a dramatic shift in the nation’s assistance to single parents–endorsed by more than 100 experts on women’s poverty–was dismissed without serious consideration by two architects of the nation’s present welfare law. However, while one stood firm, the other left the door open for further discussion.
In 1996 President Clinton signed a Republican-drafted bill that ended guaranteed support of impoverished single parents. That law will be up for replacement or reauthorization shortly after this year’s elections.
In anticipation of a national discussion over welfare reform which will affect millions of poor women, a group of academics–known as the Women’s Committee of 100–has been working together since October to draft a proposal for the government to recognize and compensate caregiving as a form of work.
Recently completed, An Immodest Proposal: Rewarding Women’s Work to End Poverty, calls for individuals solely responsible for tending their dependents–90 percent of whom are women–to receive cash payments regardless of whether they are currently eligible for welfare. This subsidy would allow them to choose between caring for dependents themselves or purchasing care services for their families.
They argue that the current welfare law addresses poverty as if it were a result of women’s careless coupling and resistance to marriage.
The committee claims the current federal law does not acknowledge the reality that a single mother often has to choose between a lose-lose situation: caring for children full-time and not earning wages or low-wage employment outside the homes and spending most of their earnings to pay for childcare.
The proposal argues that government support of low-income caregivers is necessary because they are performing traditional women’s work–caring for dependents–that historically has not been financially compensated.
The document is the result of a collaboration of experts in a wide range of fields, including Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and coauthor of “Regulating the Poor: The Function of Public Welfare;” Mimi Abramowitz, a professor of social work at Hunter College in New York and author of “Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present;” Gwendolyn Mink, professor of sociology, University of California-Santa Cruz and author of “The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality and the Welfare State;” and Ann Withorn, a professor of social policy at the University of Massachusetts and the coeditor of “For Crying Out Loud: Women’s Poverty in the United States.”
The proposal continues to gain endorsements.
Robert Rector, senior policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, refused to review the proposal before he commented on its merits. Instead, he stated his beliefs about welfare and care-giving.
“This is a truly ridiculous proposal,” Rector said, adding that current welfare law does recognize the value of mothering. “What it doesn’t recognize is the never-married woman.” Rector added that the current law was intended to let women stay home with their children, but with a man involved, “specifically a husband,” he said.
“Women need to make a commitment to marriage and find the right man first and then have a child,” said Rector. “A mom at home alone with the welfare check is a bad environment for children. If you have single mothers,” he added, “try to help them be self-sufficient which means off of welfare and in the labor market.”
Ron Haskins, a Republican staff member for the Ways and Means Committee at the House of Representatives, agreed with Rector, saying the caregiver credit proposal is a disguise to guarantee income for single mothers.
“Welfare reform is very much the opposite of that,” he said.
Rector and Haskins worked closely together drafting the 1996 welfare bill on behalf of the Republicans. President Clinton vetoed two versions and then signed the third bill into law.
The 1996 law ended sixty years of federal policy that entitled families headed by single parents to aid and allocated the amount the federal government was spending on family assistance to the states as a block grant.
The new law also limits the amount of time a family can receive assistance, requires that recipients work and funds abstinence education and state initiatives that encourage marriage.
The women’s policy group contends these features are punitive measures based on stereotypical images of those who receive assistance.
While Haskins remains a supporter of the present welfare law, he admitted that one of the biggest problems with it “is a small population of women who are worse off.” He said, “There is an increase in the number of female-headed families that are below the poverty level.”
“Something should be done about that,” he said. “If this group wanted to meet with us at the House,” added Haskins, “I would be willing to do that.”