Book Review: Flat Broke With Children

Between 1996, the year in which the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was implemented, and 2001 welfare enrollment dropped by more than half.

This statistic has been widely trumpeted as evidence of the success of welfare “reform.” Sharon Hays, a University of Virginia professor, asks what happened to these recipients, who were overwhelmingly single mothers, in Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform.

Hays spent three years in two American cities observing measures that required recipients to work a minimum of 30 hours a week, regardless of how many dependents they had, and limited each recipient to five years’ worth of assistance. She describes the practicalities of the laws and their application in these cities, which she calls “Sunbelt City” and “Arbordale” in order to protect the anonymity of both the welfare agents and their clients, in a measured tone that, at first, contradicts the frustration felt by both groups.

Hays separates the competing discourses of the act into two sections; the “work plan” reverberates with a liberal American ethos of individualism and “self-sufficiency,” while the “family plan” attempts to channel women into family units in which the state is replaced by a male breadwinner.

What Hays discovers is that the law effectively polices women out of the safety net, humbling the welfare applicants with an odd merger of the public and private sphere. Women must accept blame for their circumstances; they are told that their immoral choices have led them into poverty and that the only way out is hard work and sacrifice. Untenable work requirements make it clear to these women that not only is there no agency or institution on whom they can rely, but that they will be punished for moral failure if they leave the unreliable, and often abusive, fathers of their children. As Hays points out, it should not take long for a woman to figure out that her only option is to find a man for support, as recommended by the congressional authors who stress the importance of the traditional family unit.

What emerges as a particularly egregious injustice in Flat Broke With Children is ow today’s welfare and labor laws erode women’s ability to make their own choices. While the rhetoric of personal responsibility and choice are laid solely at the doorstep of these women, there is no regulation of the employers who pay such dismal wages for such arduous work. It is hard not to ask, like the Arbordale welfare childcare supervisor, “Who is gonna make the general public wake up and understand that it is not acceptable to do this to an entire population in our culture?”

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