Welfare Warriors: Honoring the Value of Motherwork

By Pat Gowens
Issue 109, November/December 2001

Welfare Warriors demonstrating.Without my powerful belief in motherwork, which I learned from my mother’s creative dedication to home and hearth, and without the support of my friend Carol, I might not have survived single motherhood. During the eight years my husband and I were married, he hit or pushed me several times when he couldn’t win an argument. Those assaults, combined with his unwillingness to share motherwork and money, convinced me that I had to leave him for the sake of our three sons and myself. But how would I support the four of us? How could I get away from him without a battle? How could I stay home with my kids until they were ready for school?

It was Carol, a single mother with two daughters, who told me about welfare. I had heard it was shameful to receive it. But Carol was a pragmatist; she pointed out that as bad as welfare was, my husband was worse. “You don’t have to put up with being hit-ever,” she told me. “And you can get $265 a month. That’s more than he gives you.”

I was determined to stay at home as long as possible to help my children recover from the violence they had witnessed and the loss of their dad, their home, and their friends. I believed that providing unrestricted time to my children was essential after the separation. Few folks agreed with me, however. My mother, who had stayed in a rough marriage until her youngest was 18 rather than resort to welfare, shrank in shame when I applied for such stigmatized child support. She felt this way even though I never received any financial support from my ex, who had told the judge, “She wants the divorce, let her support them.” My oldest brother scolded, “Don’t expect taxpayer help. You made your bed, now you have to lie in it.” Another brother droned, “It’s all just a matter of choices,” insisting that I had fallen in love with the wrong man. My little brother laughed, saying I’d been a fool to fall for my husband’s romantic letters and sweet talk during our courtship. Strangers in the grocery store gave me the evil eye or talked about my purchases; people I barely knew called me an irresponsible parasite for letting the government support my babies.

Carol gave me the practical advice I needed. She taught me to take notes in front of caseworkers, to request hearings, to send letters to welfare directors with carbon copies to politicians, and to ask politicians’ aides to intervene on my behalf. Our relationship wasn’t all business. Carol and I also spent hours on the phone after the kids were in bed, discussing the world of courts and therapy, the never-ending childrearing worries, and relationships with boyfriends.

Without my mother’s training in frugality, my sons and I never could have survived on welfare’s inadequate income. But we did survive–and we thrived. We grew closer and freer and happier, living together in peace, enjoying a child-centered pace. By the time we’d been on our own for a year, I had gained a huge amount of knowledge about doing motherwork on a shoestring, the importance of community, and the legal and social treatment of women and children living in poverty.

When my children were strong enough for me to leave them every day, I returned to college, taking 12 credits, the minimum needed to qualify for government grants. When welfare eliminated daycare benefits, I took my youngest to class with me for one semester. In college, I was again forced to defend myself for receiving welfare child support, this time to students who didn’t have a clue. After college, I worked as a paralegal at Legal Services. Using what I had learned as a survivor of poverty, I represented clients in unemployment and welfare hearings.

The experience of being regarded as a social pariah led me to become an activist. I was appalled that our society punished mothers and children for the sins of the fathers. When fathers do not support their children, it is the mothers who are labeled irresponsible and dependent! Because we care for dependent minors, we are called dependent. Because our “missing male role models” take most of the community with them, our families are labeled “broken,” and our kids are called delinquent or even illegitimate. When we work for no pay, we are called lazy. When stingy corporations pay us poverty wages that result in our being evicted from our homes, we are charged with child abuse.

When my children entered adolescence, I needed the strength of my convictions to stay sane and help them. My sanity was indeed challenged. I had fallen into the trap of guilt and self-blame for my sons’ truancy, disrespect, and refusal to do chores. Few teachers knew my kids in the overcrowded classrooms. Counselors, neighbors, and even a judge blamed me for the boys’ problems. Once again, a woman friend helped me survive. Michaelle convinced me to forget the useless guilt and instead focus on the present, making changes, creating consequences.

I decided to dedicate myself to the 3 to 11 p.m. shift my teens required, so I quit my job and faced welfare again. Three things pushed me into the arms of Big Brother: I could not mother the boys from my office; I was too worn out at night to be consistent, controlled, and capable of the necessary supervision and training; and the welfare laws had changed, causing single, employed moms to lose supplementary income and medical coverage.

I planned to stay home for one year but ended up taking about three. “They’re in school all day, so why do you need to be home?” friends and foes demanded. But I knew what I had to do. I would not give up on my kids, nor would I put money or social respectability ahead of their future. With Michaelle’s help, I devised an elaborate system of rewards and consequences. It was hard work, but it was worth it. Eventually (and grudgingly), all three boys learned to share the chores, cooking, and shopping without prolonged protest. They all finished high school, and each held a paid job from the age of 15. The two oldest went on to college and became an engineer and a computer consultant, respectively; the youngest is an apprentice electrician. What about me? After my grueling motherwork with three teenagers, I was eager to change society’s treatment of mothers and children and end the invisibility of motherwork. I joined forces with several other single mothers to found the Welfare Warriors. Soon after we began publishing Welfare Mothers Voice, a 28-page quarterly news journal, the war on the poor heated up. First, Congress required mothers to leave children under school age (as young as two years) to search for work. Then, in the early 1990s, they forced hundreds of thousands of moms out of college by not counting college as “work” and not providing child care. Finally, in 1996, Congress wiped out the 1935 Social Security Act that had created AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), replacing it with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which gives the states rights over families on welfare. TANF established a lifetime limit of five years for welfare support, but allowed states to impose even shorter time limits. Congress created “sanctions” to punish mothers who failed to work off their welfare support by doing unpaid work for nonprofits. And they legislated huge bonuses to states for reducing caseloads. Meanwhile, the corporate media helped keep the public ignorant of these dangerous changes by publishing endless propaganda about the irresponsibility, dependence, and dysfunction of single mothers.

The states responded by establishing laws more draconian than any that had existed throughout the 65 years of welfare programs. In Wisconsin, for example, single moms must begin working off their state child support when their babies are three months old. All the states have drastically reduced the number of families receiving welfare support by reducing checks as a punishment for real or imaginary failure to cooperate and by using intensive discouragement as “frontline deterrence” to new applicants. As a result, only 25 percent of eligible Wisconsin families now receive food stamps. Moms in crisis are forced to return to violent men or take any job, anywhere, for any pay. Wealthy corporations, nursing homes, temp agencies, hotels, restaurants, and security corporations have their pick of all the low-wage workers they want. Wisconsin even awarded welfare contracts to private corporations.

For those of us who received welfare before the attacks of the 1990s, it is shocking to see the suffering of younger mothers today. Most of us believed that welfare could never get any worse. Now we have to admit that what we experienced was, in fact, the Golden Age of welfare. If I were trying to escape an abusive husband now, I would not be allowed even one month at home with my traumatized children, but would be forced to look for work immediately, with no cash support for rent or bills. I would have to work off any cash welfare support or food stamps by doing unpaid work for nonprofits, or take whatever job I could get. I might be required to take a job in another city. I would be denied post-secondary education.

My sons and I were healthy. Imagine the misery of children and moms with disabilities. In Wisconsin, mothers are frequently sanctioned for staying home to care for children who are disabled or sick. Even premature babies must be placed in full-time daycare. In New York, two women with disabilities actually died on their jobs while working off their grants. Motherwork is not counted as any work at all.

The children are the biggest losers. Milwaukee’s African American infant mortality rate has increased 37 percent since welfare repeal began. And the statistics do not include the deaths of children like 13-year-old D’Andre Reeves, who suffered from cerebral palsy and mental retardation and used a wheelchair. Milwaukee’s private welfare agency, Goodwill, denied D’Andre’s mom cash support to stay home during the summer to care for him. They also denied her child care because D’Andre was over 12 years old. D’Andre was scalded to death in his bathtub when his 14-year-old sibling caregiver left him to make lunch.

Privatization was touted as a more economical means of administering welfare, but it has been a very expensive, as well as heartless, experiment. In 1985, Wisconsin’s welfare program cost $548 million for 299,700 people; in 2001, the budget is $710 million for fewer than 20,000 individuals. From 1985 to 2000, administrative costs jumped from four to 52 percent. The five Milwaukee corporations that run welfare earned $33 million in profits in one year, and $47.2 million in surplus dollars. These profits are the result of denying support to families in crisis.

The Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau found that Maximus and Goodwill, two of the five private agencies running welfare in Wisconsin, have spent hundreds of thousands of welfare dollars in other states, and on meals, parties, and drinks–even logos on fanny packs! Maximus admitted to “wrongfully spending” $411,000. Goodwill admitted to “wrongfully spending” $370,000. Neither agency lost its welfare contracts or was prosecuted for criminal welfare fraud.

In 2002, Congress must reauthorize the 1996 bill that created the TANF welfare program. They can amend it or repeal it. Let’s tell our federal legislators how deadly TANF’s time limits, sanctions, and frontline deterrence have been for mothers, children, and the disabled. No woman should be forced to stay with a violent man. No children should be forced to spend hours alone every day. No disabled child should be forced to grow up in danger. No mother with a disability should be driven to an early grave. No single mom should be denied the time to get enough education to support her family. As mothers, we must challenge the government to stop its attack on its most vulnerable citizens. If we do not fight for the children, who will?

For More Information:

Connolly, Deborah R. Homeless Mothers: Face to Face with Women and Poverty. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Dujon, Diane, and Ann Withorn, eds. For Crying Out Loud: Women’s Poverty in the United States. South End Press, 1996.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Metropolitan Books, 2001.
Funiciello, Theresa. Tyranny of Kindness: Dismantling the Welfare System to End Poverty in America. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994.
Mink, Gwendolyn. Whose Welfare? Cornell University Press, 1999.
Seccombe, Karen. “So You Think I Drive a Cadillac?” Welfare Recipients’ Perspectives on the System and Its Reform. Allyn & Bacon, 1998.
Swanson, Jean. Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion. Between the Lines Press, 2001 (720 Bathurst Street #404, Toronto, ON M5S 2R4, Canada; 800-718-7201).

Hip Mama
PO Box 12525, Portland, OR 97212

The Long Haul
End Legislated Poverty
456 West Broadway, Vancouver, BC V5Y 1R3, Canada
Subs: Free to low income, $30.00 others

Survival News
95 Standard Street, Mattapan, MA 02126.
Subs: Free to low income; $10.00 others; $25.00 organizations.

JEDI for Women
(Justice, Economic Dignity and Independence for Women)
352 Denver Street, Suite 260
Salt Lake City, UT 84111

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union/Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign

People Escaping Poverty Project
116 12th Street South
Moorhead, MN 56560

For more information on welfare, see the following editorial in a past issue of Mothering: “Democracy Is for Children, Too,” no. 103.

Pat Gowens is editor of Welfare Mothers Voice and director of Welfare Warriors. The Warriors Mothers Organizing Center was burglarized on August 15, 2001. Computers, printers, telephones, answering machines, and a fax machine and scanner were stolen. The Welfare Warriors is a 501 (c)(3) organization; donations are tax deductible. Readers can help by sending money or machines to 2711 West Michigan, Milwaukee, WI 53208. For subscriptions to Welfare Mothers Voice, write the above address or call 414-342-6662, or visit www.execpc.com/~wmvoice

Photo by Peter Carter.

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