Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Gift for TANF Mothers

The term "welfare mother" has been so loaded that I chose for the heading the bureaucratic abbreviation of the current program. After all, ever since Ronald Reagan invented out of whole cloth a public aid cheater in Chicago, some people deem a welfare mom as practically a criminal -- all to justify sending poor mothers with infants to work outside the home.

Indeed, I found myself nodding when, during a visit to Washington a few years ago, the head of the United Kingdom's social programs under Tony Blair made clear that, forcing a mother with children under six to leave home to perform mindless low-skill work was so horrifying to the British public, that it had never been even suggested in Parliament.

What we have done since 1996 to poor women heading households with children in the United States is unspeakable. What we did before wasn't much better.

Now we tell them to go out get the first menial job they can, or else we'll cut them off the cash from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (the TANF in the heading) -- and amount ranging from about $230 a month in Mississippi to about $950 in New York.That's below poverty? Add SNAP (the new name for food stamps) and public housing subsidies. It comes close to the poverty line. Not much more.

Since when is making sure a child is fed, loved, cared for -- in a word, mothering -- less important than flipping burgers or sitting at a cash register?

Conservatives argue that these women make lousy mothers, since they are all on [add drug of the day here] and work as [insert sexual occupations serving conservative customers here]. Or they're lazy and uneducated and [add whisper] black.

In fact, most welfare mothers are white. Let's factually adjust the picture just enough to conjure up an image to which most Americans, even the stupidest, will react to with a smidgen of compassion. A poor white woman is a WPA work of art, no?

But even if we think the worst of welfare mothers, isn't the drugs, prostitution, compulsive TV watching, etc., largely a result of nurture rather than nature? Couldn't this behavior be changed?

Imagine a modern equivalent of a "sewing circle": a daily, neighborhood gathering of TANF moms with non-TANF peers and an older, motherly role model who had raised children of her own.There would be opportunities for peer-to-peer problem solving, career exploration, even eventual job search or home-brewed microenterprises (yes, I know all the lingo).

Wouldn't that be much, much better than merely throwing them out into the labor market with no skills? Wouldn't that be better than denying cash, food, housing? Throwing them and their children out like garbage?

Some brave people are attempting things like this, but it's far from being national policy with serious resources. That should be our Mother's Day's gift to all TANF moms.

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