The Past 30 Year History of the War on Poor Single Mothers:
Poor women/single mothers are poor and downtrodden because of a legacy of ongoing discrimination in a patriarchal capitalist system. Long before this “second Great Depression” was even acknowledged, the middle class was on perilous ground.
It began with the multi-pronged attack on women’s most basic human and civil and Constitutional right to have control over their own bodies with birth control and abortion (which in many cases, saved women’s health and lives — something “pro-life” males care nothing about since women are nothing but breeder chattel solely for male exploitation in their patriarchal worldview) and Big Business support of Reagan undermining workers’ living standards — beginning with Reagan firing the air traffic controllers.
It was barely a decade after women FINALLY won the right to advanced educations and career opportunities as lawyers, doctors, professors, etc., after the Roman Catholic Church and The Moral Majority-influenced patriarchal assault on women’s most basic human rights began in earnest — starting with the Hyde Amendment.
Today, even access to affordable contraception and voluntary sterilization and early term abortion are largely unavailable for women in most rural/semi-rural communities across the US.
Another prong attacking the poor and working class was what Mimi Abramovitz calls the “Feminization of the Underclass”, which drew on the stereotype and gender-oppressive ideological notions of women’s “proper roles” narrowly defined as wives and mothers only. These gender-discriminatory stereotypical ideas fueled theories on poverty that demonized women and popularized the idea of an underclass as “less than”, as undeserving of the same rights as rich or middle class white Christian males in our capitalist society which is inherently patriarchal — justified, normalized and legitimized by the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church’s prolific political influence.
By treating women punitively, especially poor women, according to their value based solely on their sex appeal to alpha males (who have all the money and liberties they frequently seek to deprive others of) which determines their abilities to conform to the terms of “the family ethic”, welfare safety net programs have always been able to regulate women’s lives in ways that support the dynamics of capitalism and patriarchy.
The “family ethic” says that women belong in the home, married, economically dependent on and subordinate to the male breadwinner. Noncompliance (for whatever reason, whether or not within the locus of any given woman’s control) meant penalties for stepping out of role.
But this “family ethic” failed to account for the realities faced by battered wives, poor white unmarried women (whose opportunities to marry middle/upper class men were zilch because of classism), immigrant women, and poor women of color whose life circumstances prevented them from being able to comply with patriarchal religion-justified terms and definitions of women’s “proper places and roles.” The “family ethic” is one defined by, and viewed through the lens of, middle/upper class white Christian male privilege. It failed to remotely consider the needs of poor women. White Christian male dominated society — rife with the political and wealth influence of the Roman Catholic Church — not only refused to recognize the needs and rights of poor women (especially poor women of color), but in accomplishing its own greed-driven imperialistic ends, routinely politically assaulted the families of the poor, of poor women of ALL races.
The general premises of the “family ethic” are deeply ingrained in social welfare programs. Welfare programs defined white married women with disabled husbands or white widows as more “deserving” of aid than poor single mothers, abandoned wives with children, and women whose male breadwinner failed to provide steady secure support.
Welfare, as meager of an entitlement as it was prior to Slick Willie’s evisceration of it in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, was not only a vital component ensuring that poor women and children could survive; it also served to buttress the wages and living standard of the middle class.
With assaults on women’s human rights to have control over their own bodies regarding abortion and contraception access, the war on poor welfare mothers was simultaneously racheted up throughout the Reagan, Bush, Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr years. This jihad against women was really a jihad against the middle class and the poor whose tactical primary targets were (and are) women.
In garnering voter support for eliminating welfare (as miserly of a benefit as it was even in its heyday); the rich — backed by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian organizations — stigmatized poor women on welfare as “bad mothers” unable to raise their children properly. In reality, poor single mothers on welfare should have been valued (and paid adequate compensation!) if not praised for protecting their children from unlicensed childcare workers, the absence of medical coverage, abusive fathers and pedophile priests.
The Weaponized Language in the Marriage of Misogyny to Classism:
Poor families on welfare were defined as disorganized by virtue of the absence of a male breadwinner. The truth: poor families suffer disorganizing impact of endless poverty fueled by racial, gender, and class discrimination in a shrinking pool of middle class jobs in our Serengeti economy.
The uncertainty that accompanies irregular poverty-wage employment, the risk of losing badly needed Medicaid and food stamps disproportionate to any paltry earnings, and the threat of utility shut-offs and homelessness — what could possibly be more disruptive to organized family life than constantly worrying if you will have enough money to feed, clothe, and house your family?
In the mad rush to vilify welfare female-headed households (and poor unmarried women without kids who were “taking away men’s jobs” in order to be able to live) for their lack of a “good” husband; the majority of American voters forgot that as a social institution, the “traditional” family was also very problem-ridden, frequently violent, and historically structured on the subordination of women as second-class citizens with NO rights outside of their role as breeder livestock property owned by men.
The “traditional” family notion is centered on the Iron Age Roman pater familia system, which was (unsurprisingly) incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings which promotes the subordination and oppression of women. Catholicism’s bastard progeny — Protestantism, Evangelical Christianity, and Fundamentalism — are also joined at the hip with Roman Catholicism’s treatment of women.
Poor women on welfare have always been regarded as “lazy” and “irresponsible” and unmotivated to work. They’re regarded as “free-loaders” without any work ethic who “only got pregnant for the money” so they can “live high on the hog” off the taxpayer’s backs — rather than suffering from job discrimination, poor education, abusive economic policies, and limited opportunities.
Middle class married women who have additional children and get generous EITC payments are never accused of “only getting pregnant for the money” so they can “live high on the hog.”
Middle class men who get vasectomies reversed, or who routinely use Viagra and impregnate a woman are never castigated as being “irresponsible.”
Middle and upper class women who need to take longer work leaves than normal to heal and recover completely from pregnancy and giving birth are not accused of being “lazy” and “lacking work ethic.”
Calling welfare mothers “lazy” and pushing Workfare (more appropriately called “Slavefare”) requiring welfare mothers to work outside the home at ANY minimum wage job implied that women at home are NOT working.
But they were/are working: without ANY pay, they produce enormous benefits for their families and for the rest of society — especially for men.
They are enduring pregnancy and childbirth — at great personal sacrifice to their own bodies and health, suffering excruciating pain, even dying or almost dying — bearing children (rather than getting abortions “for convenience”) whom they raise. They are feeding, clothing, cleaning up after, sheltering and taking care of family members; keeping them fit for another day of productive labor. They are providing care for those who are unable to work due to age, illness, disability, or lack of a job.
All of these tasks are critical to the smooth functioning of the patriarchal capitalist society that has been our legacy, and vital to the smooth running of our economy. But these tasks are only counted as “work” and renumerated when they’re performed outside the home — and even then, as “women’s jobs”, they command very paltry wages.
Welfare mothers have been demonized for being dependent on the state, which sharply contradicts societal directives to other women to be economically dependent on men — even though lots of men were/are selfish in keeping all their money from their “breadwinner’s jobs” for themselves instead of supporting women and children because in our patriarchal Christian-dominated, capitalist society, everything is always all about them and to hell with poor women and children.
Poor women and children go without health and dental care, nutritious food, proper clothing, and homes while middle class and rich men had plenty of money to blow in stripper joints, bars, and on expensive toys. Poor men who have been left out economically frequently end up in prison. (But ex-felons get more economic support and help with job placement in living wage jobs than poor women with clean records and educations). That’s where the Ponzi scheme of Biblical-influenced patriarchy, “traditional family values”, and capitalism gets us: fucked without kissed.
While welfare mothers are subjected to routine social abuse and personal value judgments for relying on the crumbs of what remains of the tattered and torn welfare safety net, the media celebrates well-off professional women who “give it all up” and return to home and husband — implying that this is where they really belong and it’s about time they realized it.
While media and many church-supported campaigns funded media’s and government’s assault on poor women, over-privileged Ivy League scholars formulated the “dependency argument” of welfare being the cause for family break-ups, illegitimate births, teen pregnancy, crime, and inter-generational reliance on welfare as a way of life.
The idea that welfare is a “free ride” which produces character flaws and poor personal habits that are transmitted from mothers to children — perpetuating dysfunctionality — had been challenged long ago (and many times since) by the findings of a massive longitudinal study undertaken by Greg J. Duncan, Martha S. Hall, and Saul Hoffman and published in 1988. [“Welfare Dependence With and Across Generations“, Science 239 (January 29, 1988) pp. 467, 469]
This study examined the economic status of poor families over the span of 19 years. It found that the majority of daughters raised by poor welfare mothers never applied for welfare at all. It also showed that daughters from middle/upper class families were least likely to need financial assistance as adults. The results also suggested that the few cases of inter-generational welfare dependency related directly to the difficulty of escaping poverty due to systemic classism, and also because of discrimination, lack of enough jobs for everyone who needs one, and lack of access to education and other social resources — not the welfare program itself per se.
Life During the Better Times Wasn’t Good For Poor Women:
Even before the massive American jobs exodus due to “free market” deregulation free-for-alls, NAFTA, GATT, and globalization, the job market was very hostile towards poor women — especially poor single mothers. Lack of childcare, lack of accommodating employers, and lack of equal pay for equal work (or even an equal opportunity for a good paying “man’s job”) was the norm for poor women.
Another problem unmarried women (whether they’re mothers or not) face is a lack of the safety net of a spouse’s employer-provided health insurance and the safety net of a spousal income in the event the woman loses her job and suffers prolonged unemployment.
Single mothers are also faced with having to do the work of TWO adults. Raising and taking care of children plus financially supporting them are two demanding jobs that even many married mothers have difficulty pulling off.
Even though many married mothers work out of economic necessity (especially if hubby lost his job), most are employed only part time so they get to spend more time with their kids than single mothers forced to work two minimum wage jobs and spend two to four hours each day commuting by buses since many can’t afford a reliable car. They also have a spouse who is occasionally willing to help pitch in with housekeeping and childcare — a benefit single mothers don’t have.
The Feminization of Poverty:
By linking poverty to the rise of female-headed households suggests that a person’s gender and marital status makes them poor.
Being female does not cause poverty; discrimination against women does. Facing job discrimination, education discrimination (especially in the “hard sciences”), low-wages, higher health insurance premiums than men get charged, lack of access to contraception and abortion, plus having full responsibility for children DOES make one poor.
These are economic and social problems that disproportionately harm women because of our patriarchal capitalist social arrangements centered on a Christian/Biblical patriarchal system, flavored with traditions from ancient Roman paternalism.
Reserve Army of Labor:
The threadbare rug of meager welfare support as an entitlement was pulled out from under poor women’s feet. The women thrown off of welfare after exhausting their 5 year lifetime limits have not been absorbed and welcomed into the middle class job market. In fact, many have been denied even the low-paying dead-end menial jobs, too — because of lack of reliable childcare and transportation.
But the rich, who own the means of production, orchestrated (with the backing and complicity of the Church) attacks on women’s right to birth control and abortion — while simultaneously dismantling of the meager welfare safety net — grew poverty by creating a larger pool of desperate workers. And the pro-forced birth policies will only exacerbate this.
Between that and a steadily shrinking pie of good paying jobs because of “free trade” agreements and globalization, the ground on which the middle class once stood eroded.
Employers began requiring Bachelor degrees for lower-middle class (and often dead-end) entry-level jobs that only required a high school diploma 30 years ago. At the same time college degrees were increasingly required by employers, need-based student aid was slashed by the Gramm-Rudman Bill under the watch of Bush, Sr. while college tuition soared and outpaced inflation. Grad school, med school, law school, etc., was put totally out of reach for those in poverty and the lower-middle class. Student loans used to be dischargeable under personal bankruptcy. Not anymore. That changed in the 1990’s.
And the dismantling of further protection under the bankruptcy laws has caused more middle class people to fall into poverty and destitution (mostly from medical bills). The 2005 amended bankruptcy law is for the middle class what welfare reform is for poor women (particularly poor single mothers). And it was the same bunch in Congress who passed both.
Simply put, the rich got richer by taking from the middle class and the poor by attacking and undermining the few hard-won rights and gains women finally managed to get only one generation ago — after centuries of oppression, abuse, enslavement, and discrimination promoted by the Roman Catholic Church and its spin-off denominations, justified and legitimized by the Bible.
All of this has led to the impoverishment of the majority of Americans of both genders, all races, and all ages. Our power of the vote has been dwarfed by the most recent anti-American SCOTUS fig-newton folly of granting corporations full citizenship status so they can use the 1st Amendment right of “free speech” through use of their wealth and lobbyists to determine America’s geopolitical landscape in terms that favor them, which necessarily and patently disenfranchise the rest of us. Things are only going to get worse for everyone not in the top 1% club — the super rich elite.
As of 2004, a US Dept. of Labor report stated that for every job opening, there were 100 jobless applicants looking for work. If we only include full-time jobs that pay a living wage with health and pension benefits, that ratio is very similar to that recently seen in Massilon, OH (one hour’s drive from where I live) where 700 desperate job-seekers applied for ONE job opening — a janitorial job with the Massilon School District.
For the one applicant who got lucky and got the job which pays a living wage and health benefits plus pension, 699 job-seekers got sent home poor and empty-handed.
Due to the collapse in the housing and financial markets, the fate of America’s poor and jobless got a hell of a lot worse. The economic top 1% of the population now owns 70% of all financial assets — an all-time record. To be clear, 400 people have more wealth than 155 million people combined.
2009 was a stellar year for Wall Street executives’ bonuses as firms gave $150 billion to their executives — 100% of which are directly from our tax dollars.
Rich men at the helm of corrupt, ruthless corporations, insurance giants, and banks got generous welfare benefits — money that dwarfs the paltry TANF welfare benefits doled out begrudgingly to all the poor single mothers in the US.
If that welfare for America’s rich on Wall Street had instead been used to create jobs rather than for the unjust enrichment of a handful of executives, we could have paid an annual salary of $30,000 to 5 million jobless poor who certainly need the money more than Wall Street’s economic cannibal class — who have produced nothing except corporate bankruptcies, corruption, and consumer and taxpayer fraud.
Not one penny of the welfare given to the rich has gone to create a single living wage job for a poor jobless person — 6 million who have NO income at all and are only getting food stamps.
This should make every last over-privileged welfare mother mugger too ashamed to live with themselves. Poor women and children have suffered first and foremost from the collective rejection of social and federal responsibility for the downtrodden.
Mean-spirited welfare cuts and reforms and attacks on abortion and contraception — women’s right to have control over their own bodies — over the last 30 years are neither innocent nor unrelated. It was deliberate: Poverty by design to create a Reserve Army of Labor to suppress wages and make workers too desperate and fearful to demand better pay and conditions because there’s a line of desperate poor people waiting to take your job.