The federal Family Support Act of 1988 sought to transform Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) from a program that makes it possible for single mothers to stay home with their children into a mandatory work and training program. The controvers ial legislation was just the first of a series of welfare reforms that seek to dictate the behavior of women on public assistance. Some states now deny additional benefits for children born to women on welfare. Others cut benefits to families who fail t o see a doctor, keep kids in school or pay rent on time. In the name of fraud prevention, some states now fingerprint welfare mothers. And in the White House and the Capitol, the current welfare debate centers around how best to impose a two-year limit on participation in the program.
As a candidate, Bill Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it." Advocates and women on public assistance would also like to change the system "as we know it" so that AFDC could be both a decent safety net and a means of escaping poverty. But it is clear that the current reform debate has less to do with practical improvements and more to do with limiting the length of time a client can be in the program, and making that period as difficult as possible.
Frequently, these coercive plans gain wide public support by playing to a host of stereotypes and myths about AFDC and the women who use the program. The following myths, facts, and comments can be used to undermine the stereotypes -- and to build suppor t for more legitimate social policies based in fact, not fiction.
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MYTH: Women on welfare have large families
FACT: The typical welfare family is comprised of a mother and two children, slightly less than the size of the average family in the United States. Forty-two percent of AFDC families have only one child, 30 percent have two. AFDC families, like o ther families in the United States are getting smaller.
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MYTH: Welfare mothers live "high on the hog."
FACT: The average combined state AFDC and food stamp benefit in 1993 was only 65 percent of the poverty level, or less than $7600 for a family of three. In no state in the union do food stamps and welfare benefits together lift a family of three o ut of poverty, and most AFDC families are worse off today than their counterparts were in the 1970s: the real after-inflation value of the AFDC grant fell 45 percent from 1972 to 1993, 26 percent if food stamps are counted. Meanwhile, during the 1980s, the average pre-tax income of the richest 20 percent of all families rose 77 percent while that of the poorest 20 percent declined by 9 percent.
COMMENT: Instead of helping poor women and children live high on the hog, AFDC keeps mother-only families living in poverty.
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MYTH: Welfare recipients are lazy and do not want to work.
FACT: Of the 14 million AFDC recipients, only 4.5 million are adults, 90 percent of whom are women. In nearly 60 percent of welfare homes, the youngest child is under six years of age; in 30 percent, the youngest is under age two. Many mothers on public assistance combine work with welfare, or receive AFDC benefits in the interim between jobs. Still others want to work and can't find jobs (10 percent of all single mothers are unemployed) or cannot find jobs that pay enough. The $4.25 an h our minimum wage is considerably less than the $6.00 an hour needed to keep a family of three out of poverty. On average, employers pay women 70 cents for every dollar earned by men.
COMMENT: If work was available and paid enough, fewer people would need welfare. If taking care of one's own children was defined as "work," all mothers would be working.
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MYTH: Few women on welfare are white.
FACT: Of all AFDC mothers, 39 percent are African American, 38 percent are white, 17 percent are Latina, 3 percent are Asian, 1 percent are Native American, and 2 percent are of unknown race.
COMMENT: Women of color are over-represented among those on welfare because they are over represented among the poor. The idea that AFDC is a program primarily for women of color is used to mask the fact that so many AFDC mothers are white, to div ide women from each other, and to make welfare a tool in the politics of race.
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MYTH: Once on welfare, always on welfare. Welfare is a trap from which few escape.
FACT: More than 70 percent of women on welfare stay on the rolls for less than two years and only 8 percent stay for more than eight years. While many return to AFDC for a period of time within five years due to a renewed family crisis or job loss , research on intergenerational welfare dependency has not established that daughters of welfare mothers necessarily end up on welfare, too. Some do. Some do not.
COMMENT:It is not welfare that is so hard to escape, it is poverty. Those who follow their parents onto the welfare rolls do so because it is very difficult for children of poor women to work their way out of poverty, especially in the current eco nomy. Inadequate education and job skills are significant hurdles for children in poor families. Again, the minimum wage does not suffice.
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MYTH: Women on welfare have kids for money. Eliminating AFDC will put an end to nonmarital birth.
FACT: On average, the states provide about $79 a month per additional child. Yet despite years of research, studies have found no link between AFDC grant levels and births outside of marriage. Indeed, nonmarital births are no more frequent in hig h-benefit states and states with rising grant levels than in states with flat or falling AFDC grants.
COMMENT: Like the AFDC mother, the average taxpayer also receives an annual grant for children -- the tax deduction for dependents. Yet no one claims that taxpayers have larger families just to reduce their taxes. Neither AFDC nor the tax deducti on for dependents are rewards for having children. Rather, these income supplements recognize the high cost of raising children and their value to society. Moreover, pregnancies reflect complex human factors, not calculated economic decisions.
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MYTH: The AFDC program is costly and bloated, has enlarged the deficit and threatens the economy.
FACT: The federal and state governments together spent $24.9 billion on welfare in 1992. The federal share amounted to 1 percent of the entire federal budget. The state share equaled 3.4 percent of the average state budget. Ninety percent of the AFDC budget is spent on benefits, 10 percent on administrative costs.
COMMENT: The costs of AFDC can be compared to the roughly $300 billion in tax dollars received annually by the Department of Defense and the billions spent on the savings and loan bailout.
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MYTH:Mandatory programs such as time limits and workfare are needed to get the welfare poor to behave properly.
FACT: Mandatory programs do not work very well. Workfare has produced only modest, if any, increases in employment and earnings, and mandatory programs do not have any greater success than voluntary ones. A recent study of California's GAIN progr am found that workfare participants earned an average of $271 more per year than non-participants -- while receiving $281 a year less in welfare. A University of Wisconsin study found that Learnfare (the program that docks $200 a month from a welfare mot her's check if her children miss school without an acceptable excuse) failed to improve the school attendance of welfare children but did exacerbate preexisting family problems.
COMMENT: Mandatory programs imply that the poor will not work, marry, plan their families, send their children to school, or take them to the doctor unless the government makes them do so. Supporters of mandatory programs are often the same people who argue that the government should "get off people's backs." But when it comes to the poor, they support government telling people what to do and how to live.
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MYTH: If poor women only married, they would not be poor.
FACT: Family composition does not cause poverty. Although two incomes are clearly better than one, the poor tend to be poor before, during and after they tie the knot. The majority of the poor live in households with workers employed full year, f ull time.
COMMENT: Marriage is not an effective antipoverty strategy for women.
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MYTH: Female-headed households are responsible for rising poverty rates.
FACT: The percentage of all poor families that are headed by women has declined since 1990. Yet at the same time, the poverty rate for families has increased from 10.7 percent in 1990 to 11.7 percent in 1992.
COMMENT: Gender does not make people poor. Rather, the treatment of women based on gender has contributed to the impoverishment of women. Blaming women for rising poverty rates does, however, mask its real causes.
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MYTH: Those who work are not poor.
FACT: Nearly 7 percent of the workforce, or 9.2 million workers, remain poor despite being employed. Almost 60 percent of all poor people live in families where someone works. Until the mid-1970s, the minimum wage lifted those who worked full-tim e, year-round, out of poverty. Today, it leaves a three-person family $3,862 below the poverty line.
COMMENT: For a large segment of the population, the promise of the American dream -- that if you work you will not be poor -- has not been kept for the last 15 years.
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MYTH: The poor are freeloaders.
FACT: Five percent of the population receives AFDC. Forty-seven percent of the population receives some kind of direct government benefit such as social security, Medicare or veterans' benefits. In addition, the tax code provides numerous health, education and welfare benefits to the rich and middle class, and another set of subsidies to corporations.
COMMENT: Everyone is on welfare.