Flat Broke With Children

Any book recommended by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, I will pick up with a sense of anticipation. That's what I did with Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform by Sharon Hays [New York: Oxford, 2003].

Hays is a sociologist at the University of Virginia and gives a down-to-earth treatment of the plight of welfare mothers today, telling us at the beginning that her mother-in-law was such a mother. Yet she did an excellent job of bringing up her husband and his three sisters under those hard circumstances.

During the Clinton administration in 1996 "welfare reform" became the law. The present program is called TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families. It replaced AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The federal time limit in the new program is five years.

Hays says that ironically it cost a lot of money to start the present system.

She reports on her research in two cities which she dubs Arbordale and Sunbelt City -- not their real names. Arbordale is a traditional-feeling small city somewhere in the southeast, and Sunbelt City is, we assume, in the great southwest. She writes with authority because the main part of her research was done interviewing caseworkers, seeing what forms the applicants have to fill out, and what they have to say about the system in their own homes. Many individual cases are examined here in detail. She concludes that the feel of an overwhelming bureaucracy is worse in Sunbelt City than in Arbordale.

Being at the mercy of a bureaucracy is an experience most of us have had, but being in that awkward situation as a single mother needing the necessities for her children must be exceptionally painful. The applicant has to answers questions like, "Do you have any cash in your purse or at home? Do you have a checking or savings account? Do you get any money from work on the side, like babysitting or other odd jobs?" and dozens of other questions which are followed by long explanations of the intricacies of the program.

The poverty in the country with the greatest gap between rich and poor of all industrialized nations is ironic and tragic. Hays writes that by 1998 over 40% of children being brought up by single mothers were in families with earnings of less than $12,500 a year. The fact is that today millions of children are in working families with incomes below the poverty line.

The complexity of the welfare problem is seen too in the welfare recipients themselves. Many support the idea that they should be working full time despite the lack of supports like child care they can afford. Yet it is hard not to be down and discouraged when jobs are hard to find and don't pay very well. Many welfare mothers go in and out of the system. They work awhile, get laid off, go back on welfare, work again, and the cycle goes on.

The author concludes that the old "family ideal of an independent bread-winning husband and a dependent domestic wife, bound together for life by their complementary roles, is, realistically speaking, outdated." And trying these days to get an errant father to keep up child support payments is, I'm sure, a full time job in itself. An increase in the minimum wage for everyone might help, if it were big enough.

Then think about this: Most of the people on welfare in this country are children. For the sake of our future as a free country and for a community spirit that cares about children, they ought to be helped. It shouldn't be like a Republican-type cartoon I saw a couple of years ago. It showed a well-dressed man talking to a boy playing on a swing in his slum-like neighborhood. The man exclaimed, "What? You are eight years old and you've never had a full time job?"

Ehrenreich was right. This is a good book which ought to be taken very seriously.

To contact Alvena Bieri, email

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