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"Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Making Welfare a Women's Issue,"

by Randy Albelda & Chris Tilly November/December 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Why hasn't welfare become more of a women's issue? Welfare, or more formally Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which supports single mothers and their children, is under attack as never before. In the last few years, growing numbers of state governments have imposed or proposed restrictions including:

*Workfare, requiring recipients to work off their grants
*Time-limited benefits (Massachusetts Governor Weld is pushing a draconian 60-day time limit)
*"Learnfare," reducing the welfare grant when children have unexcused school absences
*"Bridefare," rewarding recipients for getting married
*"Family caps" that block any increase in the grant for children born while the mother is receiving AFDC
*Incentives to have the Norplant con-traceptive implanted.

At the federal level, President Clinton has promised to "end welfare as we know it," proposing among other things that welfare recipients be compelled to go to work after two years (though there are some more positive proposals mixed in with the "get-tough" rhetoric). On top of two decades of tightened eligibility requirements and reduced benefit levels, these new proposals threaten to turn AFDC into a program that spends money primarily to punish poor women and children, not to support them.

It's not surprising that those advocating punitive welfare "reform" use implicit or explicit racial stereotypes to fuel their arguments, despite the fact that women of color make up a minority of the AFDC population. In Massachusetts, where non-Latino white women are 52% of those receiving AFDC, one legislator condemned the "plantation mentality" of welfare recipients. Nor is it surprising to hear legislators complain about the unaffordability of AFDC, despite the fact that it claims less than 1% of the federal budget, and a tiny percentage of state budgets as well (3% in Massachusetts). As in the debates over crime or the federal deficit, reality matters less than perception.

But what is surprising is that women's groups have not rallied more vigorously to the defense of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. AFDC places a dollar value on the "women's work" of raising children; it provides a safety net so that women need not depend on men. The handicaps that face welfare recipients seeking to enter the labor market are the same ones that confront all mothers: the time and money demands of child care, and the lower wages available to women. Several of the proposed modifications in AFDC restrict reproductive rights. Nonetheless, most women's organizations have remained silent on the issue.

The Study

In Massachusetts, a pair of affiliated organizations, the Women's Statewide Legislative Network (WSLN, the educational arm) and the Women's Statewide Legislative Alliance (WSLA, the advocacy and lobbying arm) approached us in 1992 with the goal of breaking this silence. They had already conducted training sessions on the budget crisis for over 400 women-both leaders and community members. They had also pulled together a coalition of women's groups to challenge Governor Weld's cuts in social programs. However, they saw a critical need for additional Massachusetts-spec educational materials to bolster a sustained mobilization of women's groups and their constituencies around the issue of poverty.

The result of our collaboration with WS LN/A was Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women, Income, and Poverty in Massachusetts, a popularly written research report completed in Summer 1994, with partial funding from PRRAC. The report draws on computer data from the U.S. Current Population Survey (a sample survey of about one U.S. household in 1,000), as well as data from a variety of secondary sources-notably, data on employment opportunities from the state's Division of Employment and Training. Since it is designed to be an educational document, we wrote and revised it in close consultation with the Network and Alliance, and with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, another advocacy organization that has done important work on welfare.

Many of our findings will be familiar to poverty researchers and advocates. Massachusetts women are far more likely than men to live in poverty, and children are the most vulnerable of all. Black Massachusetts residents are nearly four times as likely to be poor as whites, Latinos almost five times as likely. It's not just being female, but single motherhood in particular that puts women at risk for poverty. Half of single-mother families are poor, far above the average rate of 13%. And the single mothers who end up receiving AFDC are those who face added obstacles. Compared to single mothers who do not receive AFDC, they are:

*More often high school dropouts
*Younger, and more likely to have a child aged less than 6
*More likely to be Latino
*More likely to live in central cities or rural areas than suburbs
*More likely to never have been married

In addition to documenting these patterns, we tried to place them in the context of broader trends affecting the lives of women. Across the country, fewer women are getting or staying marred, and more are working for pay-but their pay has only inched up to 70˘ to a man's dollar on average, barely above the ratio prevailing in the 1950s. Racial disparities add to the gap: in Massachusetts, an unmarried black woman with children earns only 46% as much per hour as a marred white man with children. And mothers face a time squeeze as well; even mothers with jobs report that they spend an average of 37 hours per week caring for children-another full-time job. Employers have done little to accommodate the family responsibilities that women (and increasingly, men) bring with them into the workforce. Instead, to a large extent businesses have created two kinds of jobs: what we call "jobs with wives" ("good" jobs that demand an open-ended time commitment, assuming there's a "wife" at home to take care of things), and "jobs for wives" (jobs that offer part-time hours or flexibility, but often at the expense of decent pay and benefits).

Families piece together their income from four major sources: earnings, interfamily transfers (chiefly child support and alimony), government assistance and property income (such as interest, rent, or dividends). Earnings dwarf the other three sources, constituting 80% of total family income. Consequently, it's not surprising to find that single mothers get left out in the cold. In terms of earnings, they face a triple whammy: they have
children (placing a demand on the parent's time, plus creating greater income needs); they have only one adult to handle both child care and any paid work; and that adult is a woman, with the earnings penalty that implies. For most single mothers, the assistance they get from an absent father or from the government simply does not provide enough to offset these disadvantages.

While our research covered some familiar ground, we also encountered some surprises. For example, we found that government transfers (including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other programs as well as AFDC) have a built-in gender bias-against women living without men-in whom they lift out of poverty. Of Massachusetts families who would have fallen below the poverty line without government assistance, about half are pulled out of poverty by that assistance. But this proportion varies widely by type of family. Among those who would have been poor without assistance, government transfers boost three-quarters of elder-headed families out of poverty, but only one-sixth of women living alone, and only one-tenth of single mother families. In contrast, government aid raises one-third of two-parent families with kids above the poverty line.

Welfare "Reform"

As we finished Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits, a discouraging series of debates on welfare rocked the Massachusetts State House. Despite the best efforts of advocates, legislative leaders and the governor sought to outdo each other in adding punitive measures to a new welfare bill; ironically, the governor finally vetoed the legislature's bill as not being sufficiently "tough," pushing the question over to the next legislative session. We included in our report-which was sent to every legislator as the debate proceeded-a series of recommendations for real welfare reform, including raising benefit levels, which currently leave families at about 2/3 of the poverty line; reducing the earnings penalty that cuts the welfare grant nearly dollar for dollar of wages after four months at work; expanding opportunities for women on welfare to get formal education, and so on. But in keeping with our broader focus, we aLso outlined a more sweeping agenda for supporting low-wage workers and easing work-family conflicts.

In the months since Glass Ceilings appeared, we, along with WSLN/A Director Kelly Bates and other staff, have conducted a speaking tour of Massachusetts (six cities as of early October, with more to come). The forums primarily reach people already sympathetic to our message, but nonetheless serve a useful purpose for the audience, for the Network and Alliance, and for us as researchers.

Our audience has been comprised mostly of leaders and rank-and-file members of women's advocacy and service provider groups across the state It is helpful to have two econom professors confirm what audience members already now, offer added information and an analytical framework, and suggest a relatively ambitious policy agenda that extends beyond immediate reform issues. ("So there are solutions to these problems," one struggling single mother/student commented.) For the WSLN/A, the forums offer media exposure (amplified as well by other media coverage, such as a cable TV talk show one of us took part in) and face-to-face contact with leaders and members from a wide range of organizations across the state. A wide range of women's and anti-poverty organizations-for example, local YWCAs and 9to5 chapters, the Spanish American Union (Springfield), the Martin Luther King Community Center (Springfield), and Amigas Latinas en Accion por Salud (Boston), among many others-have signed on as forum co-sponsors. Interestingly, activists from the anti-battering movement have had a strong presence, and have been quick to point out that AFDC offers an essential escape route for battered women. For us as researchers, direct contact with welfare recipients, advocates, and other activists provides information, ideas, provocative questions, and-not least-the energy that comes from finding that our work resonates with women's lives.

We have not yet turned around the legislative juggernaut that aims to gut welfare in Massachusetts, but we have helped to build the coalitions that can take on this challenge.

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