OTI Online
Summer 1997

The Wages of Motherhood Is Poverty
Book Reviews by Rita Henley Jenson


The Wages of Motherhood Is Poverty

Forced low-wage work, racial bias, taking children from their parents -- these characterize America's history of programs for mothers needing help.

REGULATING THE LIVES OF WOMEN: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present

by Mimi Abramovitz
(South End Press, $22)

THE FEMININE ECONOMY AND ECONOMIC MAN

by Shirley P. Burggraf
(Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., $24)


Progressive women will have to reassume their historic role as advocates for the poor and clean up the welfare mess created last year by the Democrat and Republican Washington Boys. We will be the eyewitnesses to the devastation caused by their joint decision -- made while pumped up with misogyny and racism and in the lustful throes of desire for reelection -- that single parents can no longer count on the federal government for financial assistance while coping with the living, breathing results of heterosexual intercourse. While it might be unfair to be compelled to take on this burden, in addition to all the others we shoulder, clearly we can not leave such important work in the hands of current elected officials.

Before we so much as attend a conference, however, we must read and understand two important works that approach welfare issues from very different viewpoints: the recently updated Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present by Mimi Abramovitz and The Feminine Economy & Economic Man by Shirley P. Burggraf.

Abramovitz, a political activist and professor of social work at Hunter College in New York, has written a carefully researched and heavily annotated account of how the country has dealt with a basic fact of life since Hester Prynne's Puritan New England: When a penis is inside a vagina, semen escapes and occasionally, an ovum is fertilized as a result. Any additional input from men during the production of the next generation is, frankly, both optimal and optional.

Regardless, the young human needs watching over and costly supplies: shelter, food, medical care, education. Most often, it is the mother who is left alone with the responsibility of raising children -- the parent often least able to earn sufficient income through market labor, even if she could find a parent-substitute to tend her children while she worked elsewhere.

How should the community intervene? Should single mothers live with their child in their home and be supported by the larger community? Should the children of single mothers be placed in orphanages, freeing the mother to work and protecting the child from their mothers' immoral character, proven by the child's very existence? Or is separating a mother and child an additional evil? Or should impoverished mothers be denied all aid and their survival depend on the invisible hand of the marketplace?

Throughout our history, Abramovitz argues, America answered those questions in various manners, but whatever the plan, it always codified the mom and pop family ethic and was riddled with race bias.

In Hester Prynne's era, towns were responsible for their own poor. Most towns passed settlement laws that required the person seeking aid to be an official town resident. Towns had ways to encourage paupers to move on; Male and female paupers could be stripped to the waist and openly whipped with as many as 15 strokes of a lash before being ordered to look for help elsewhere.

As time passed, the settlement laws became more exclusionary, often to the disadvantage of unmarried women. A pregnant woman stranded by a runaway husband could not claim residency in their hometown, for example, but had to return to hers, which might reject her as well.

Those who needed aid and succeeded in proving they were legally settled in town had to prove they were deserving: a widow or married to someone sick, temporarily disabled or otherwise temporarily unavailable to support her. These women, usually mothers, were eligible for what was known as outdoor relief, that is, outside of the workhouse that permitted them to live in their own or a neighbor's home and receive firewood, bread, clothes, medical care and possibly a small sum of money.

The undeserving female paupers often were forced to work and live in the jail or later the poorhouse, Abramovitz writes. Those denied outdoor relief and not sent to a workhouse had their services auctioned off.

By the mid 1800's, these auctions became a recognized source of cheap labor. Women often found themselves forced to leave their homes and live in the family residence of the man who purchased their labor.

Black women [and men] were often ineligible for aid -- either for the deserving or for the undeserving. Those who were once slaves remained the responsibility of their masters, even in the North. New York allowed slaveholders to use its poorhouse -- for a fee of course -- to support or for whipping of their unruly slaves. African-Americans who had not been slaves often were simply denied assistance and forced to rely on the smaller and poorer resources of their own communities.

The law of the era also permitted the government to separate children from their pauper parents, their very poverty being an indication of parental vices such as idleness. The children could then be indentured and apprenticed to strangers for the purported purpose of saving the children's characters. Often, unmarried mothers without resources indentured their own children rather than wait for the town to take action.

As the nation's population has grown and become more urbanized, these four elements -- preferential treatment for widows with children, forced low-wage work, racial discrimination and the removal of children from their parents -- have continued to characterize American programs for mothers needing assistance.

After the Civil War, public antagonism toward the poor grew even as the nation became more and more prosperous. Social Darwinism began to take hold throughout the country. Eventually, all major cities cut back or phased out all outdoor relief. In the most frightening passage in her nearly 400 pages, Abramovitz writes of this era:

"We do not know for sure what happened to women once outdoor relief was contracted, or abandoned, but cutbacks both before and after the Civil War must have sent women (and men) into the labor force or looking for a spouse for support. Some also turned to prostitution. Those who went to private charities discovered that the charities preferred to aid only those who they thought could be resocialized to accept the proper family roles. The remainder became separated from their families as they entered the institutions or the workhouses that had proliferated in the period." The author does not mention it, but surely some fell ill and died.

After the Civil War, the Freedman Bureau aided African-Americans in the South for a brief period until its minimal effort ended in 1872 -- undone by protesting whites who claimed that the bureau's aid created idleness and pauperism. In fact, the author and other historians believe that the intense, racially inspired animosity toward that first federal welfare program burned bright for decades afterwards and was responsible, in part, for the fact that the nation had no federal aid to the poor until the 1930s.

During the Progressive Era of the 1910s, political leaders were strongly influenced by the women's and settlement-house movements. They began expressing concern for the well-being of children raised in institutions or foster families. In both the white and African-American communities, proponents of a system of cash aid to poor mothers based their campaigns on the argument that a mother's care at home was needed to raise a productive work force. States began to respond, creating Mothers' Pensions, but they invariably limited the aid to the "deserving," which in practical terms meant widowed and white.

In fact, racism and bias toward unmarried mothers remained embedded in the programs of the 1930s. The Social Security Act of 1935 created a two-tier system: Social Security for the deserving, that is, the elderly, the widowed and disabled; and Aid to Dependent Children for the unmarried mothers and their dependents. One was and is respectable assistance; the other is highly stigmatized, with rules limiting aid to morally fit mothers with suitable homes. Decoded, that meant celibates, and the provisions were often used to systematically exclude African-Americans, Abramovitz writes.

It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court invalidated such rules. During the ensuing four years, 368,000 additional single-parent families became eligible for aid. Another reform of the 1960s, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children-Unemployed, provided for the first time aid to poor families with both parents present. Its purpose was to end the economic incentive for low-income women to hide from the welfare authorities their relationships with low-income men. But few states adopted the program, and it remains an underutilized and tragic artifact of the slave era when African-Americans were not permitted to officially marry and establish households.

Now the powerful forces of racial animosity and antagonism toward unmarried mothers have risen again. The 105th Congress threw back to the states the management of aid to unmarried mothers. At the same time, the Congress demanded the states find jobs for mothers on welfare within two years and approved a five-year lifetime limit for a family to receive federal aid. Aid for child care was extremely limited. There is no denying that AFDC was an awful program that embodied the worst gender, class and race biases of the nation. It also assured the survival of roughly 11 million mothers and children. Now, each state must grapple with designing an assistance plan for poor single parents -- about 85 percent of whom are single mothers.

In this new dark era, what should feminists argue for? After we pushed our way into the paid labor force, will we be left speechless or idea-less when low-income mothers are marched out of their homes to join us? Are our sisters being hoisted on our petard?

Abramovitz argues for a comprehensive income-support program for all single mothers who can not work and for those whose work does not provide them with an income above poverty level. Yes, that is clearly the way to go, but she left unstated the intellectual justification for such a policy. Shirley Burggraf, an economics professor at Florida A & M University, does not provide the answers. She does, however, lay the foundation of a brand new way of thinking about the issue. She views family issues through a market-economy lens, a perspective that she argues has been missing up to now.

"Economists still measure labor productivity as they always have -- the ratio of output to number of workers employed -- without adjustment for the fact that there used to be millions of invisible employees. Employers who once got two (an employee with a back-up spouse at home) are now most often getting just one. Managers who used to get overqualified secretaries and assistants are now more likely to be getting what they pay for, as the talented and ambitious woman goes for an MBA instead. Yet the manager's productivity ratio is still measured the same way by statisticians; and economists wonder why it is declining!" Burggraf writes.

Those once invisible now have the opportunity to earn, say $200 an hour as lawyers. Therefore, those of us who stay home to care for children and perform unwaged labor pay an enormous opportunity cost through decreased lifetime earnings and lower Social Security retirement benefits, according to Burggraf, and the author includes charts and tables galore that prove her point.

With their own money in their pockets, women have begun to insist that all human rights be extended them. Such a fundamental redrawing of the human contract means that women's investment in reproduction can no longer be assumed, she says. "We are actually going to have to talk about it."

To begin the conversation, Burggraf asks a question so basic that, just by reading it, one immediately sees how threatening women's economic freedom is. It clarifies that the current backlash is not only about men worried about additional competition for jobs or being unwilling to change diapers.

"Why should women value their traditional roles as important when society assigns them little value?" she asks. In other words, what if many more women then at present became unwilling to bear children because the pay is bad and the benefits few? Or for that matter, what if even more women abandon- ed altogether their other low-wage careers such as teaching in elementary schools to become, for example, management consultants? Obviously, the wage structure of the economy would have to shift to begin compensating women fairly for their previously unpaid work. However, after asking such a basic question, Burggraf's focus shifts and becomes extremely narrow. Rather than follow through on exactly what adequate compensation might mean for so-called women's work, she concentrates on making an argument for increased compensation for schoolteachers and changes to the federal retirement system.

She states that school vouchers would produce accountability in the education system and, at that point, higher wages could be proposed. She also proposes that financial assistance for those over retirement age be reconfigured so that only those who invest either time or money in children are eligible for federal retirement benefits. Everyone else -- most especially fathers who don't pay their child support -- should put aside their own funds for retirement. She adds they should have plenty of excess cash since they did not pay child support or spend years at unwaged work.

The logical conclusion for Burggraf's arguments is that single mothers should receive some compensation from society at large for raising the next generation. But -- trapped as she is in market reasoning -- she apparently can not bring herself to do it. When she finally turns to the issue late in her book, she leans heavily on the aspect of her argument that would provide higher retirement benefits for stay-at-home moms. She admits that none of her suggestions address the short-term concerns of welfare recipients, "but they could have considerable indirect and long-run effects," she adds cheerfully.

That may not be enough for a single mother who is compelled to surrender her child to foster care because she has no income, or to ask her 5-year-old child to care for an infant sibling while the mother is at work. Burggraf's arguments are further weakened by her biases and shallow research. Throughout the book, she uses the word "family" to refer to a two-parent family. In addition, her examples are consistently $200-an-hour lawyers or other elites, not the average male employee.

Beyond that, she frequently cites The Wall Street Journal, newspaper columnist William Raspberry and other less-than-scholarly sources when discussing national demographic, political or economic trends. She mentions Betty Friedan but once and, overall, gives short shrift to other, more daring, feminist writers, even those who write for newspapers.

Nevertheless, Burggraf puts us on the right track. Federal welfare programs have actually been wages for mother's work -- low and miserable wages, but wages nevertheless. The new welfare laws are now requiring these mothers to continue to do the same job with little or no compensation, as well as find and keep additional full-time employment. I believe it is here that progressive women can begin, in discussing fairness and equity for all low-income single mothers.


Rita Henley Jensen writes frequently on economic issues.


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