The Lottery Nobody Wins: Child Care Subsidies in America 2010

She wants to work. No child care – no work.

She’s a single mom. She’s young. You might think you know her – irresponsible, a slacker, having babies so she can get Welfare payments. You’re wrong. A recent article in The New York Times, “Cuts to Child Care Subsidy Thwart More Job Seekers,” presents a clear picture of the lose/lose many working low-income families face. Moms. Dads. Moms and Dads. And always – kids.

“The social safety net was always in patches, and now it’s more frayed,” said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center. “For a single mom, it’s a lottery in many states whether she gets child care or not.”

We are an addicted society – hooked on short-term fixes, hooked on not noticing that the enormous wealth in this country keeps recycling back to the wealthy. I’m not talking about Obama administration bailouts. I’m talking about the elegantly necrotic “save the rich” policies of the Bush administration – policies that were the equivalent of the free goodies drug dealers hand out. What do you call it when a person (and corporations are now individuals) can’t ever get enough? Classic addiction.

As the money and power addicts thrive, our social service agencies are forced to cut back again and again, losing employees and programs. The myopic right shrieks, “Less government spending” – and I see the desperate women bring their children for a Sunday meal to the community center I work in, a center that serves homeless and low income women, men and families. The women are quiet. It is clear that there’s anywhere else they’d rather be. Sometimes we talk. They’ll tell me that they had a job, but their child-care benefits were cut, and so … They have a college degree, but it’s 2010 and employees are afraid to hire a woman with kids and make-shift child care. They worked for a company in a town 18 miles away, but the old beater car broke down and there’s no money to fix it and the bus service is spotty and they’d give anything to not have to rely on handouts.

Maybe you know. Maybe some of you are women, with and without kids, in your 20s or 30s, many of you working – many of you not working because of our unemployment crisis. Maybe you thought it would be easy to find another job. You have a great resume, great skills – even a great degree. It doesn’t matter. Time has gone by and you are beginning to feel terrified.

Wealthy Americans are, by and large, the junkies that are getting high off your fear. They may contribute a few bucks to the symphony. They may drop their used clothes off at a thrift store. They may even volunteer at a soup kitchen over the holidays – only to disappear for the rest of the year. While they have the means to do those small things, too many of them are not big enough to face their role in your pain.

We who are raising children on too little have no choice but to face the pain. My children are full grown, my grandchildren blessed to be in families that can afford to take care of them, but 45 years ago my husband walked out, leaving me with three kids, 2, 3 and 4. There was no child care system at that time. It would be a few years before Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies kicked in. I was 25 with no college degree and job skills limited to waitressing and home making.

I found myself sitting in a bleak waiting room with dozens of other women. Most of us looked shame faced; most of us were numb. I waited four hours to be seen and when I left 30 minutes later, I had food vouchers and a rent stipend. And I was grateful. Six months later, I found a job – thanks to a tough woman willing to take a chance on someone too many employers had seen as a bad bet.

I worked a few years as an activities director in a nursing home under Susan Reynolds, the woman who first taught me about real compassion, how holding a terrified old woman’s hand meant more than filing a report on the act. When I tried to organize the staff, I was told by our boss, a grimacing man whose body seemed to contain no bones, that my services would no longer be needed.

I hit the streets looking for work. On my first interview, the director of the city health council looked at my three-entry resume – office temp, cocktail waitress and nursing home activities director – and said, “Why don’t you tell me who you really are?”

I did. As little as I knew. I was racked by near constant panic episodes … I had discovered I could numb my brain by working every moment I was not asleep – and earn sleep by working to exhaustion. Fifty hours at the nursing home, evenings and weekends as part of a few dozen people reclaiming the gutted Inner City, full time raising my kids.

I looked at the director’s tough face, his kind eyes. The room seemed airless. I took a deep breath. The whole truth began to move from my lips. “I,” I said, “I…” He grinned. “It’s O.K.,” he said, “I think I can guess …”

He sent me back to college. I went under Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program – with my rent covered, on food stamps, with child care – to become a sociologist; to figure out what made people be people, so we could educate them for change, so we could make revolution.

I believed I would gather with my professors and other students under the huge trees on the campus lawn. We would read and argue; we would untangle threads of meaning and follow them back to a common source. We would reweave what we found into a future in which no one would be poor, no one would be hungry, no one would be afraid and no one would work at other than their gift.

A month into my first political science class I listened to my teacher tell us who welfare mothers were, and why it was so hard to organize them. I looked out the window to the big trees, saw the hard, dull lines of the projects rising along the river. I couldn’t stay in my body. I seemed to drift from the room.

To occupy memory so absolutely I could smell the scent of the neatly dressed black women around me, feel the music bless my bones. I knew where I was in memory. A few months, earlier a 100 women had gathered in an old Baptist church in the ghetto’s belly. A robed gospel choir walked slowly around the perimeter of our chairs, circling again and again, until the room had filled. Their voices were steady, singing over and over, “We’ve come this far by faith.” One woman’s soprano rose above the others, circling like a bright, copper bird above us.

I remembered the mothers filing up to the microphone, how each of them paused, fanned herself in the wet August heat, then spoke: “I ask the Welfare Department to put back the hot lunches. My husband left me and my kids without a nickel.” “I work ten hours a day cleaning houses to get by. Sometimes, that hot lunch is what holds my kids till I get home.”

I brought myself back into the university classroom and looked at the smart, white, doctor of political science telling us who I had been. Who, in so many ways, I would always be. Solace: rituals of loss and desire.

Whether your life is relatively easy compared to other women’s, you never know when accident, abandonment, the devastated economy or bad luck can bring you into the ranks of women waiting in the rooms of social service agencies. Should you read this post and decide to learn more about the fate of your sisters and yours sisters’ children and grandchildren, you might learn what could eventually save your future.

You might begin to wonder how the rest of us can hold the wealthy accountable. You might begin to explore ways to fight not just for yourself, but for other women. You might find yourself remembering the huge risks the feminists of the 70s took in challenging a misogynist society. You might decide that those risks are worth taking again. The stakes are too high to ignore.