For all the shameful sucking up to multimillionaire mom Ann Romney after Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen accused her of never having worked “a day in her life,” the reality is neither Republicans nor Democrats treat most parenting as work, and thousands of poor women are living in poverty today as living proof of that fact.
Do we need to state the obvious? Women of different classes are beaten with different rhetorical bats. For the college-educated and upwardly aspiring, there’s the “danger” of career ambitions. Ever since women started aspiring to have men’s jobs, backlashers have told those women that they’re enjoying their careers at the expense of their kids’ well being. They really can’t have it all. They’ll raise monsters, or worse, they’ll grow old on the shelf. Remember the Harvard/Yale mob that made headlines with a “study” showing that unmarried women over thirty had a slimmer chance of matrimony than they had of being taken out by a terrorist? Susan Faludi took them apart in Backlash! But the evil spawn of that story still circulate. The media still love stories about stay-at-home moms and professional women are still punished for wanting to succeed. For the poor, though, it’s very different.
Following Rosen’s remark, Ann Romney tweeted her first tweet: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” Her husband’s campaign hoisted that cudgel high and they have been beating Rosen and the Democrats with it for almost a week.
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It was a relief, then, to see this gotcha clip from Mitt Romney at a campaign event in January, in which he said mothers on welfare should be forced to get a job outside the home or lose their government benefits. Cruel? No: “I want those individuals to have the dignity of work,” said Romney.
The remark, made to a Manchester, New Hampshire, audience, was aired during Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show Sunday. Nice. But pushing poor women out to “work” wasn’t just a Republican trick. For half a decade, from President Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it” to his signing of welfare reform (the pointedly named 1996 “Personal Responsibility Act”), pundits and politicians of both parties took aim at poor moms and skewed statistics to cast mothers on welfare—especially women of color on welfare—as dependent, lazy, greedy and breeding for benefits. For their good and ours, we were told, welfare “queens” needed to be forced out “to work.”
In many places, even raising kids while getting an education wasn’t “work” enough. The City University of New York, for example, lost thousands of welfare-receiving students when, under the direction of mayors Giuliani and then Bloomberg, administrators refused to count class time, work-study and internships as sufficient work activity to qualify for benefits. I keenly remember following Maureen Lane and fellow welfare recipients at Hunter College, as they led legislators on a tour of places where benefits recipients were forced to work. Low-wage, unskilled assignments without benefits or security were the only jobs people pushed off the rolls without education and training could get in the 1990s—in a good economy.
Now, as the New York Times’s Jason DeParle reported belatedly this past week, the situation’s worse. Throwing poor moms off benefits has shrunken welfare roles, but not poverty, to the contrary:
Pamela Loprest and Austin Nichols, researchers at the Urban Institute, found that one in four low-income single mothers nationwide—about 1.5 million—are jobless and without cash aid. That is twice the rate the researchers found under the old welfare law. More than 40 percent remain that way for more than a year, and many have mental or physical disabilities, sick children or problems with domestic violence.
Using a different definition of distress, Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard examined the share of households with children in a given month living on less than $2 per person per day. It has nearly doubled since 1996, to almost 4 percent. Even when counting food stamps as cash, they found one of every fifty children live in such a household.
If the Democratic politicians now pandering to the Romneys had any spunk, they’d have backed Hilary Rosen 100 percent. If either party legislated as if parenting was work, things for poor women and their kids would be very different. Next time welfare reform is up for reauthorization, I hope they all—and their pet pundits—come in for no end of grief. They deserve it.