I bet politicians didn’t have any idea they were voting about the role of women in society when they pushed for welfare reform.
Gov. Arne Carlson last week proudly signed into law a welfare-to-work bill that requires parents who receive aid to find work within five years. It sets up a job or education track program for each adult. And it provides important safety nets like child care and health care to enable parents to work.
Lucky for politicians, the welfare-to-work law could not have come at a better time. The nation is experiencing its lowest unemployment rate in decades, the economy is good and Minnesota is projecting many job opportunities in the coming year.
Upon signing the bill Carlson said, “If you’re never expected to work, you will never expect to amount to anything.”
That’s a pretty strong statement, and I think, generally, most Americans would agree. But what I found interesting about welfare reform was not the program itself, but what it symbolizes as far as changing American values.
Who was Carlson talking to and what was he trying to say?
He’s mostly talking to single mothers, who make up the majority of the state’s 50,000 welfare recipients. Across the nation, 83 percent of welfare recipients are single parents, either never married or divorced.
He’s saying, if a woman doesn’t earn an income, she won’t amount to much. This makes me wonder: Do you think this statement would have gone over well with a group of traditional stay-at-home mothers 20 years ago?
If you read between the lines in the new welfare law, America is making an important, but subtle change in its opinion of the woman’s role. Basically, the woman’s place is no longer at home taking care of her children, but in the work force.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 created Aid for Families with Dependent Children, a form of welfare payment. Its intent was to keep mothers at home with their children if their husbands died or deserted them. More than 60 years later, we’re telling women in similar situations they must get out and work.
Whether a woman should work or stay at home with her children is by no means a new issue. Even when I was growing up in the mid- 1970s, it was still controversial for mothers to be working. The assumption (albeit watered down from my grandparent’s generation) was that the children would suffer if the mother spent too much time away from the nest.
My mom was one of these controversial women. She worked the night shift in an emergency room until I was about five years old.
Like many people I know, I was born to college-aged parents who had few resources to support a family. My dad quit school early to take a good job with a computer science company while my mom finished school and raised me. During the month in which I was born, my parents received welfare benefits to help pay the medical costs. I was a welfare baby, my mom says.
But to me, we never seemed poor. I guess kids don’t notice those kinds of things, probably because my parents managed to pull it together. My mom actually ended up finishing two degrees during my childhood.
While many people in those days went crazy about how children would suffer if mothers worked, I think my mom made the right choice.
I learned to be an independent latch-key kid. I learned how to make tea and coffee and breakfast for myself every morning. I learned to catch the bus in time for school in second grade. I did my own hair and dressed myself, (much to my parents’ entertainment).
I don’t know if it’s because of my own parents’ experience, or the sage declaration of Gov. Carlson, but I don’t give a second thought to being a working mother.
The last time I was at home I talked with my mom about this. We were sitting in freeway traffic, where we tend to have a lot of deep discussions, and I was telling her about why I was thinking about going to law school.
“You know, journalists don’t make a lot of money,” I told her. She looked at me as if I had suddenly leapt out of my college ideological world into the real one.
“And lawyers can make a good income and I think I have a lot of skills I could use to do it well,” I finished saying.
I told her I needed to make an income that would support a family, say, if I wasn’t married or got a divorce.
It’s horrible to think of life in terms of the negative possibilities. But I reason that a man also wants to make an income to support a family, so why shouldn’t a woman think that way?
I’ve read way too many sociological studies that show how after a divorce, a man’s standard of living shoots up and women and children’s standards of living come crashing down.
And we wonder why so many people who receive welfare benefits are single mothers and children. There’s no bread-winning man around, and the system prevents women from supporting themselves. Sixty percent of women who leave AFDC rolls do so because they get married or get back together with their husbands — not because they find jobs.
As I shared with my mom these sweeping conclusions about life, I started to think about how terrible it is that I’m planning my education on the odds that someday I’ll be a single mother.
Then my mom said reassuringly, “You know, I used to think that way when I was in college.”
I think a lot about my own parents’ arrangements of work and family when I think about how I’m planning my own education. My father is the breadwinner, my mom has the supplemental income and they still fight about how the house always looks messy.
From my dad’s point of view, he says the women’s movement confuses him. When it was the 1970s and just starting, he thought it was great that my mom went to school while he worked.
Even though my parents struggled early in their lives together making ends meet, one thing was never answered for my father: How are husbands supposed to act at home in response to their wives’ presence in the work force?
Perhaps our traditional roles need redefining. I think what’s at the bottom of welfare reform is a general command for responsibility. That means if you’re a parent — even if you’re a single parent — you need to step up and provide for your children because the government’s no longer going to do it.
It means women need to start aiming higher and “deadbeat dads” need to be held more accountable.
I think welfare reform has touched on something symbolic of the times that could maybe help give people like my dad an answer.
Maybe we — men and women — should stop thinking about our future roles as mothers and fathers and start thinking about ourselves as future, providing parents. In this age, we are all breadwinners and caregivers.Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
Letters to the editor may be sent to [email protected]