Welfare reform and women’s labor force participation

Via Brad Plumer, I ran across this interview with Bob Moffit.  Moffit is a labor economist who does a lot of work on welfare and low-income populations, and generally has interesting things to say. 

In response to a question about why welfare reform passed in the 1990s, Moffit answers:

"As for the source of the increased conservatism on the part of voters, I think that the increased labor force participation of middle-class women was part of the cause. That transformation really changed the attitude of voters. Once a large percentage of middle-class women were working and putting their children into day care, the public began to question why we shouldn’t expect the same thing from poor women. There was no longer the support for paying women to stay at home with their children, which was the goal of the original legislation in 1935."

I think this is dead-on, in the sense that a lot of low to middle-income married parents thought "I’d love to [have my wife] stay home with our kids full-time, but no one’s handing me [or her] a check to do so. Why should I pay more taxes so these single moms can stay home?"

But I want to distinguish this claim from the similar-sounding one that Caitlin Flanagan made in her screed against female professionals:

"…women like herself [Chira], who have chosen to separate themselves from their children for long hours of the day, and who feel a clawing, ceaseless anxiety about this. Conflating the hardships of the working-poor mother with the insecurities of the professional-class mother ennobles the richer woman’s struggles (entirely self-inflicted). Describing how even poor mothers are "working and thriving," and extolling the benefits of passing a child around among family members while her mother is gone for hour after hour, makes the richer woman’s choices look not like what they are—a series of decisions often based entirely on providing herself with maximum happiness—but, rather, like the empirically proven superior way to raise children."

7 Responses to “Welfare reform and women’s labor force participation”

  1. Mrs. Coulter Says:

    It’s been a while since I read the complete article…but my memory is that while Flanagan has some good points, it hard to take seriously anyone who considers themselves a SAHM and has a nanny to boot. I mean, I know she has twins, and I’m sure it’s hard for a single person to manage (after all, I find one hard enough to manage). And yes, she admits that the nanny does all “hard” stuff (presumably the sorts of things Linda Hirshman thinks are “untouchable”). Yet arguments about why daycare is universally *bad* and mommycare is universally *good* (as opposed to personal preference of individual parents) all revolve around a unique bond assumed to exist between mother and child, a bond with which, presumably, a nanny interferes. And she’s still hiring a “serf” to clean up the sh*t and vomit, even if she feels conflicted about it.

  2. trishka Says:

    shoot, i wanted to read the caitlin flanagan article, but it was only available to subscribers. i honestly couldn’t tell if she was serious or not at first; her opening paragraphs sounded like such a parody of the “supermom” stereotype.
    again & again & again the issue keeps being framed in terms of decisions that MOTHERS make about whether or not to go back to work, how much, whether to hire a nanny or send the child to daycare.
    where are the fathers in these discussions? it’s so bizarre. it’s like they don’t exist. they just go disappear at their jobs & turn into nothing but an absentee paycheck provider — with their relative ability to provide being transformed into little more than a defining factor in the choices available for the mother to make.
    how can families, and children, benefit from this paradigm?

  3. jen Says:

    I completely agree with Elizabeth: this comment is dead on.
    Many families go thru the absolute wringer to support their kids, provide them with a safe home and appropriate schooling, etc. When you’ve worked that hard, and you’re that tired, I can see where anyone who does anything less just sounds like a whiner.
    It reminds me of two things. First I think of people who have been thru college hazing or even internship as a physician. You could respond to the hellish experience by saying, this is crazy, no one should have to do this. But instead many people emerge from the experience almost wishing to heap the abuse on the next class or generation. Like that somehow validates the suffering.
    Some of the most bitter women I know are women who were forced against their will to put their kids in daycare. I can think of many women in my office, for example, who are practically vibrating with anger towards their spouse because of it. But the anger also spills over to others such as welfare recipients, parents who are able to stay home, etc.
    All of which makes me wonder: why does the anger so easily channel to another person who’s the victim of the same system (but perhaps a different sort of victim, or not such a severe case of victimization)? Why do I so rarely see anger directed towards the boss, or the mortgage broker, or any of those people who essentially chain us to our desks?

  4. landismom Says:

    I think this is really a version of the animosity that exists between the working class and the ‘undeserving’ poor. Along the lines of, “why should my taxes pay for Medicaid, when I have to pay for my own health insurance?” It’s pretty clear that the anti-tax, right-wing types have been successful for a long time at driving a wedge between people who by all rights should be on the same side of these arguments. The question is, how do we turn it around?

  5. Anne Says:

    Arrrgggghh, I hate that Flanagan article. That’s the reason I stopped reading The Atlantic. I couldn’t believe they’d publish something so nastily critical of the very women likely to be reading their magazine.
    Jen brings up a good question: why is anger more often directed at other victims than at those who benefit from the current system? My guess is that people feel most anger, envy, and competitiveness towards those they identify with in some way, like in their roles as mothers.

  6. Anne Says:

    Arrrgggghh, I hate that Flanagan article. That’s the reason I stopped reading The Atlantic. I couldn’t believe they’d publish something so nastily critical of the very women likely to be reading their magazine.
    Jen brings up a good question: why is anger more often directed at other victims than at those who benefit from the current system? My guess is that people feel most anger, envy, and competitiveness towards those they identify with in some way, like in their roles as mothers.

  7. amy Says:

    It’s called cat-kicking. I think the anger doesn’t get channeled up because the TANF moms can’t hurt us and the bosses can. That and good obedience training. We just got back from a hellish flight & back, went nearly $1K in the hole to be treated like refugees, stuck in unheated plane on a subzero morning, put on a tour of US airports with a zillion carry-on bags, small child, giant carseat, with many useless, sweaty races from gate to gate, bonus security checks, etc. Called demoralized, wage-cut remnants of airline staff to complain. They defended their airline. Pointed out this was the same airline that’s already robbed them and would be happy to fire them tomorrow to save a few bucks, asked why are they defending it instead of handing out vouchers and refunds like candy? Got helpless apologies, “I don’t know”s. The poor schmucks just don’t want to be fired any faster than they have to be, that’s all, and they have no subversive training. Couldn’t get a direct management phone number or name out of any of them, either. Damned good watchdogs.
    Landismom, we turn it around by opening services to a much higher income range. Social democracy, in other words. I had my education in this last summer, looking for county mental-health services for my husband. His disability insurance puts us at 300% of FPL, well out of the running for Medicaid, and we spend a quarter of it monthly on health insurance that doesn’t cover the heavy-duty services Medicaid does: home visits, group home services, vocational rehab, etc. Those services are so wildly expensive we can’t begin to pay for them out of pocket. For a while, it looked like we’d get nothing from the county, either; too much income for their guidelines. Forget that we were eating emergency savings every month and trying to protect the retirement and college money we’d saved, or that I was spending nearly all my time as unpaid nurse/administrator for the man and taking care of the child. Left no time for paid work, and a salary would’ve been immediately eaten by child/nursing care anyway. Medicaid’s answer is, “Break your family and get destitute, then come to us. We won’t help you while there’s anything left to save.” The county nearly gave us the same answer.
    At that point, I recognized that DHS was not my friend, and wouldn’t help me or my family. We’d pay taxes to help others, but to hell with us when we needed help. At that point, even if we’re only paying $80 a year to county services, I want it back. And will vote and campaign to get it.
    Fortunately, county DHS reconsidered and cut us a break. But I won’t forget what I went through to get it, or how I felt recognizing we’d likely get no help till we had a broken, destitute family, even if minimal help could’ve kept us whole.

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