Welfare Reform Jeopardizes Women's Access
By Vivyan Adair, The Elihu Root Peace Fund Associate Professor of
Women's Studies, Hamilton College
In 1997, Leslie Wolfe and Marilyn Gittell of the Center For Women's
Policy Studies warned that "the work requirement of the new federal
welfare law is causing thousands of low-income women to drop out of
college to take dead end jobs with low pay and no future. This exodus
of welfare recipients from the classroom must stop." The hope among
committed educators and social activists was that this failure would
be remedied in 2002 when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) came up for reauthorization. A record
number of educators, educational administrators, and students lobbied
for reauthorization that would include post-secondary education as
an option for welfare recipients. Despite their efforts, reauthorization
of welfare reform's key legislation has proven to be even more punitive
for low-income women who are attempting to earn educational degrees
in the U.S.
The House of Representatives' welfare reauthorization bill, passed
on May 16, 2003, put greater limitations on individuals by allowing
a maximum of three months of vocational training during a two-year
period and counting only "job readiness education"--and not education
and training that would lead to career development and sustainable
wages--as work activity. The bill (HR 4092) also increased Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) participation rates that all
states are required to meet and increased the required hours each
TANF recipient must work.
House bill 4092 requires unrealistic work requirements for many
families without necessary support services. The new TANF work goals
requires almost all parent recipients to work and increases their
work from 30 to 40 hours a week regardless of the ages of the children
in the household. At the same time, the bill provides only a fraction
of needed childcare dollars and restricts childcare payments to hours
actually worked, leaving low-income working parents to pay for their
portion of the childcare costs in addition to the costs of childcare
during transport to and from work. In addition, the bill imposes sanctions
on entire families (including children) if parents fail to meet work
participation requirements and gives states the right to override
protections for families under federal law with a "super-waiver" provision.
Four months after passage of HR 4092, the Senate Finance Committee
approved a reauthorization bill, dubbed the PRIDE bill (Personal Responsibility
and Individual Development for Everyone). The Senate's PRIDE bill
also increases both work hours for individual recipients and states'
participation requirements, fails to allocate sufficient childcare
funds, and allows state super-waivers to take precedence over federal
protections. For many, the most egregious components of both the House
and the Senate bills are the reductions in allowances for recipients
to enter into education programs and in childcare funding, coupled
with the ground-breaking earmarking of $1.5 to $2 billion dollars
in federal TANF funds over the next five years for a narrow set of
rigidly defined "marriage promotion" activities.
At the forefront of efforts to decrease funding for educational opportunity
and increase pressure to fund marriage promotion programs were Robert
Rector of the Heritage Foundation and Wade Horn, the Bush administration's
"fatherhood czar." According to Barbara Ehrenreich, Rector, who has
written extensively on the alleged pathology of low-income single
mothers, has suggested that the government provide welfare recipients
at a "high risk of bearing child out of wedlock" with cash payments
of $5,000 if they agree to marry a man--"any man." Horn is well known
for proposing that the government "give preference to two-parent married
households" for scarce services like public housing and Head Start."
After the passage of marriage legislation backed by Rector and Horn,
Republican Rick Santorum (R-PA) filed an amendment to the bill to
increase marriage related funding in TANF by $40 million per year
for the next four years.
Activist allows you to send personalized e-mail messages
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students and for the reauthorization of the Higher Education
Act of 1965.
As many welfare analysts and recipients argue, welfare reform in
1996, and the reform reauthorization in 2003, was designed to control,
regulate, and somehow "neutralize" poor women's "illegal and unruly"
bodies through the institutions of marriage and work. Indeed, the
first sentence in welfare reform's key legislation proclaims that
"marriage and work are the foundations of a civilized nation." From
the perspective of welfare students, this prohibition against both
personal fulfillment and independence through education and single
motherhood has dangerous implications.
While being denied support with which to feed and care for their
children and prohibited from entering into educational programs, welfare
recipient parents are encouraged and rewarded for attending marriage
formation clinics and workshops (for which childcare and lunch are
provided). During the last family formation seminar that I attended
with student recipients in the basement of a church in Utica, New
York, we were treated to a complimentary set of artificial fingernails,
as we were reminded by a very enthusiastic pastor that a good wife
yields to both God and her husband, sometimes even against the perceived
needs of her own children. When a student participant from our group
asked the Department of Health and Human Services Director, who was
observing our seminar, his thoughts about higher education for the
poor, he replied without irony:
"Education is necessary in order to support and nurture your families.
I strongly encourage you to support your husbands in going to college
and doing whatever they can to make you and your children healthy
and happy. Millions of wives--even my own mother--helped put their
husbands through school on the GI bill, and they wouldn't be where
they are today if it weren't for that sacrifice."
Obvious questions arise from these mandates: Who are poor women going
to marry? Why would poor women want to marry? How does marrying a
poor spouse and risking more children lift anyone out of poverty?
Ehrenreich cleverly addressed this question in reminding us that,
"Sadly enough, welfare recipients are unlikely to marry CEOs
or even the residents of conservative think tanks; they're likely
to marry blue collar men--a group whose wages have been declining
since the '80s. So, the real question is: How many such men would
a woman have to marry to lift herself and her children out of poverty?
By my calculations, approximately 2.3, although, strangely enough,
the conservative marriage advocates are not offering to abolish the
laws against polyandry."
More fundamentally, legislation that denies poor women the opportunity
to earn educational credentials, to be fulfilled as individuals, to
be able to stand on their own two feet and care for their own children,
coupled with rhetoric that says that all single mothers are bad mothers
and that as a nation we can only value "legitimate" married mothers
and their children is, or should be, a problem for all Americans.
As educators, we stand at a critical juncture. If we challenge ourselves
to champion and support this vulnerable population in their attempt
to negotiate punitive welfare restrictions in order to earn college
degrees, we will take a step toward insuring that education remains
a truly democratic project that has the potential to enact social
change and foster economic equity. By failing to act, we acquiesce
to the production of a two-tiered system that increasingly widens
the gulf between the educated and economically viable and the undereducated
and economically underprivileged.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2001. Prodding the poor to the altar. The
Wolfe, Leslie and Marilyn Gittell. 1997. College Education Is
a Route out of Poverty
for Women on Welfare. Washington, DC: Center for Women's Policy