in America: Book
By Rafi Rom
Upside Down World News
Flat Broke With
Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform
Oxford University Press, 2003
The Working Poor:
Invisible in America
David K. Shipler
David Schipler spent
several years witnessing poverty in America, but nothing prepared him for
his tour of a typical migrant labor camp in North Carolina, which he compared
to “visiting a memorial at the scene of a crime.” He saw men living
together, isolated from society, at the mercy of their employers and an inhospitable
government; he saw entire families invisible to the American public. He and
his son, translating for him, were
suffused with the same
recollection, which we learned later by comparing notes: of another kind
of camp where the greatest crime occurred. And then we apologized to ourselves
for feeling the parallel, which of course was no parallel at all. No injustice
that happened here approached what happened there. And yet the sensation
of standing where something terrible had taken place was not dissimilar.
Even in the emptiness, you were somehow a witness.
Sharon Hays and David
Schipler have joined an endless number of authors who have published essays,
reports, books, articles, and research papers on the state of poverty in America.
Some analyze how many eligible poor people receive food stamps county by county.
Others, like the two authors reviewed, synthesize all of this information
to make a more sweeping point: American bureaucracy, private and public, constantly
antagonizes both the working and non-working poor.
There has been no lack of people “witnessing” the terrible trauma
Americans are put through, such as degrading employment opportunities, segregated,
sub-par schooling (as if the two don’t already go hand in hand), and
nightmarish housing standards. They are the victims of ruthless capitalist
organizations, such as H&R Block, which exploit poor people for the little
money they have via ridiculously high interest rates. The invisible poor are
also more susceptible to medical problems like asthma or depression because
of the lack of adequate treatment and overall awful living conditions. The
infinite barriers poor people face operates as an open prison, trapping people
within its endless web. As Schipler puts it, "working poverty is a constellation
of difficulties that magnify one another."
Hays, a Professor at University of Virginia, focuses on the welfare system's
treatment of women with children since Bill Clinton spearheaded the welfare
reform effort in 1996. She interviewed hundreds of welfare "moms"
and the result is a staggering, wide-reaching examination of this country's
value system and how it affects the poor. She argues that the “work
requirements” and “family values” goals of the welfare system
are contradictory and punish poor women. In essence, the welfare state in
this country simply imposes a set of government-regulated beliefs onto those
who seek help. Poor women are expected to work, a lot, while raising children
on their own with grossly inadequate assistance and a multitude of barriers.
Many states, for instance, have instituted "family caps," which
prohibits any welfare recipient from receiving more assistance if she has
another child while on the dole. Bush’s proposed welfare reform, expected
to reach the senate early this year, is raising the current work requirement
from 25 to 40 hours a week, while giving no additional money to childcare
or other supportive services. Both Hays and Schipler offer ample evidence
of why these demanding schedules are impossible for people whose "opportunities"
are strictly low wage service jobs: McDonalds, Burger King, Wal-Mart. The
employees are treated as expendable business expenses. As one Wal-Mart “team”
manager explained to Schipler, if wages were raised “We’d have
to cut corners on other things like, you know, we may not be able to put all
the pretty balloons up all over the store. The non-necessities we’d
have to cut back on.”
Wal-Mart is under constant
scrutiny for its employment practices. A recent NY Times article reported
that Wal-Mart employees were discouraged to use emergency exits even for true
emergencies, and were made to work before and after clocking in and out. Yet
all this scrutiny, all of these reports, don’t seem to be the answer.
Reform after reform after reform, where are we now?
I think these are the questions Hays and Schipler grapple with in their respective
books. It’s impossible to read these books without feeling at least
a pang of defeat. Obviously things are so screwed up, the intentions of the
government and the American people warped, that there is no recourse. Yet
both of them choose to dwell on the alternatives, all of which broadly fit
under empowering poor people with the right to happiness. Both writers, in
the end, see an even stronger, more encompassing state as the answer to these
problems, a powerful but inherently problematic argument given how hard they
dwell on its current pitfalls.
For instance, both writers talk about universalizing benefits programs such
as medical assistance, so it will no longer have the scarlet letter of poverty
attached to it. "As it is true in many Western European nations where
more family friendly, income-equalizing policies are already in place, many
of these programs should operate as universal programs, available to all people
and all levels of the class system. No one need think of them as 'charity'
or 'handouts' to the unworthy."
This is probably a good
place to mention that at my day job I help people get food stamps, medical,
and cash assistance, which puts me in a position to agree wholeheartedly with
this wishful thinking. The current state of affairs requires recipients of
welfare benefits to suffer an unnecessary level of defeat before becoming
eligible for benefits. On top of that, during the application process, those
in need are subjected to an often hostile bureaucracy that further enforces
the impression that they are simply leeches of the American system.
prohibit me from going into any specifics about how strong-willed and good-hearted
people I have met have been constantly mistreated by various government functionaries
and employers, but that’s ok, because in their respective books Hays
and Schipler offer plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up their condemnations
of how poor people are abused. And we're not just talking about the fact that
low-income people are subjected to a lesser standard of customer service than
other, better-off folk, but are also the brunt of ideological experimentation
and work place exploitation at a grand scale.
Let’s go back to
Schipler's description of migrant labor camps. At Burch Farms in North Carolina,
he was introduced to Pedro, a 25 year old Mexican, who like most of his colleagues,
sent most of his wages back to his family in Mexico. Although it was census
season, all Pedro knew was that it was time to harvest sweet potatoes. He,
like the scores of other undocumented workers in this country, are invisible
to the American public they serve, yet they pay Federal and State taxes (via
black market social security numbers). Yet they live in constant terror from
being "discovered" by the INS and subsequently deported back to
This is where the heart
of the matter lies. Undocumented workers are invisible, and well-planned,
terorristic government policies keep them that way. Enough undocumented workers
are deported to scare the rest of them into quiet submission. They are constantly
referred to as "illegal," a widely accepted but revolting label
that smacks of slavery.
Less than two hundred
years ago black people were considered one-third of a normal white person
by census rules. Now, as Schipler cannily points out, Pedro and his compadres
don't even exist. They have no access to any of the rights afforded to others
that live in this country, even though they are an important element of the
There is a clear demand for cheap labor in the agriculture, garment, and service
industries, and so the government tacitly allows "illegals" to live
off the fat of the American land in exchange for go-nowhere jobs and isolated
lives in a foreign, hostile country.
Hays' study of another
disenfranchised segment of the American population--poor, single moms, with
little education and support networks--further reinforces the insidious relationship
between values and labor demand. She spent most of her time interviewing welfare
recipients from two "typical" welfare offices, renamed "Sunbelt
City" and "Arbordale" to protect the privacy of those involved.
Hays likens the "model used to train low-income mothers" to Pavlov's
theory of "conditional reflex," first observed in the behavior of
drooling dogs, as "a system of rewards for proper behavior and punishments
for improper behavior [meant to] teach people to behave in the desired way."
Just like the presence
of undocumented workers mirrors the demand for cheap labor, the ever-shifting
world of welfare rules and regulations are dictated by the needs of the market.
Hays writes, "There is also a real danger that the more valuable versions
of the principles of independence and citizenship have been debased by this
process, transformed into a demand for a new form of wage slavery, where the
lives of welfare mothers and their children are treated as worth far less
than those of the American middle class." The women Hays' spent time
with are flung from one skill-less job to another, while dealing with non-stop
obstacles, such as lack of transportation, inadequate health coverage, and
punitive "sanctions" by welfare caseworkers. In one life sketch
Hays shares with us, Carolyn, a Sun-Belt City native, spends her entire life
working service sector jobs, only to end up on welfare in the aftermath of
an abusive relationship. After leaving her husband (and having a nervous breakdown),
she was left caring for three children by herself. At this point she was subjected
to the multitude of welfare restrictions, forcing her to work even after her
doctor told her to rest, at the same, dead-end jobs. Obstacles, some the fault
of the government, others her ill luck, seemed to trap her at every corner.
In the end, to put it
for more bluntly and less eloquently than the authors reviewed in this article,
poor people in America are essentially beaten into submitting to the demands
of the market, while simultaneously being the brunt of America's anger towards
the "terrorists" or lazy "Welfare Queens" (a term coined
by Ronald Regan and long discredited by any self-respecting academic but still
a powerful stereotype for public policy). What I find both hard and easy to
accept is that a stronger state is the answer. Hard, because as the state
stands now there is no way any legitimate reform will ever come to surface.
Take Bush's "compassionate" immigration plan, which allows people
to take cheap paying jobs with no benefits "legally," but only for
a three year time period. Under this plan these laborers would now be "documented,"
making them far easier to kick out and replace with a fresh batch of desperate
workers who in advance know that they will never have access to the "American
dream." However it is clear that besides universalizing state programs
for the poor and labor regulations, things can only get worse. What will be
the catalyst for this change remains unanswered.
to go home