- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (October 14, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195176014
- ISBN-13: 978-0195176018
- Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.6 x 5.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #215,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform
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From Publishers Weekly
While welfare reform in the mid-1990s meant new employees and equipment for some welfare offices and perks like interview clothing for some welfare recipients, it also meant harsh guidelines aimed at punishing welfare recipients who did not follow strict protocols. In Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, Sharon Hays, using her research from two towns, focuses on single mothers who have at least occasionally relied on welfare for support. She finds that they are often pushed into dead-end employment with no career stability, while the government's emphasis on "family values" encourages them to marry men who can support them. These mixed messages, put forth via a rigid bureaucracy, pull welfare recipients and well-intentioned case workers in multiple directions. Hayes's subjects tell stories of the extreme poverty, broken families, sexual abuse, homelessness, and the lengths to which they go in attempts to juggle multiple part-time low-paying jobs, but they do not portray themselves as victims.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"With President Bush pushing for more hours in the required workweek, the timing couldn't be better for 'Flat Broke With Children'; Hays's detailed, judicious survey of the reforms punctures mythology on all sides of the debate.... Indeed, the strength of 'Flat Broke' is its blending of an academic's statistics and analysis with the techniques and eye for detail of a journalist."--Boston Globe
"A balanced portrait of the most controversial of all public programs. Thoughful and well researched."--Kirkus Reviews
"Hays' subjects tell stories of the extreme poverty, broken families, sexual abuse, homelessness, and the lengths to which they go in attempts to juggle multiple part-time low-paying jobs, but they do not portray themselves as victims."--Publishers Weekly
"This very readable, important, and stimulating work deals with the consequences of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996."--Library Journal
"Flat Broke with Children is simply the best original work on welfare reform to date. Based on interviews with dozens of welfare recipients in two cities, it explains how 'reformed' welfare really works on the ground--and what it does to the lives of poor families. Painful as it often is to read, Flat Broke belongs at the top of the to-do list for anyone involved in the welfare debate, on any side."--Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America
"A compelling study of the American system of welfare reform. Sharon Hays' engaging book is replete with insights on the impact of welfare reform on the procedures of welfare offices and on the lives of mothers and children who receive public assistance. I rank it among the best studies of poverty and welfare in the last two decades."--William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
Top Customer Reviews
Flat Broke with Children is an analysis of the welfare system of the United States; the focus of the book is the conservative welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 under the Clinton administration: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
The Personal Responsibility Act completely redesigned the preexisting welfare program, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, and enacted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. The program, referred to as cash assistance or simply "cash" for short, allows recipients a monthly allotment they can access through a debit card and at ATMs.
TANF is only for qualifying low-income families with minor children. It established a plethora of new regulations defining what makes households eligible for assistance; among the new rules, the two most monumental and controversial changes are: (1) the inclusion of strict mandates that require most recipients to leave their homes and participate in mandatory weekly hours in an employment and/or training "activity," and (2) time-limited assistance for a maximum of five years. TANF also added that applicants must document their own job search prior to being approved for cash assistance benefits, and will lose their cash assistance for minimum periods (called “sanction” periods) if, without “good cause,” they fail to maintain their hours at their mandatory activity assignment.
Applying all starts with an application, interview, job search report, and signing an Agreement of responsibilities to begin an activity. Hays sits in on an interview with an applicant, and I must say the author captured it well. It was pretty much spot on with how they tend to go (44 - 48).
Employment and training "activities" can be: part-time paid employment a recipient finds on her (or his) own; enrollment in schooling (at the client's expense such as through student loans and aid) including college, technical school or GED prep; or, if the recipient does not have any of those, full-time attendance in a privately contracted job training program. To make it possible for recipients to attend these programs and activities, TANF provides subsidized childcare and vouchers for transportation. TANF is designed to eliminate excuses from trying to better oneself by offering the tools needed to obtain some form of employment. Hays stresses repeatedly that the training programs and work assignments are "unpaid,” and portrays them negatively with a client's testimony that they are a form of "slavery" (110). Hays misses an easy opportunity to refute that criticism. Recipients are paid: Their compensation is their public assistance.
Hays criticizes TANF for a number of reasons. Hays points out that even though TANF time limits save taxpayer dollars overall by shrinking the number of recipients on the rolls, the government spends far more on each individual client than with AFDC due to the exorbitant costs of childcare subsidies (230). Because of this, argues Hays, it was more cost-effective and more families were helped before the 1996 reform. Hays denounces the Personal Responsibility Act in how it prioritizes work over family life (84) and forces most "welfare mothers," as Hays calls them, out of the home and to place the raising of their children into the hands of others. Hays suggests that staying home with the children is a right of motherhood, and that we should "just give these women their welfare checks and let them go home" (234).
Hays illistrates TANF as if it heartlessly tears mothers away from their children. Dare I say so does a job? That is the whole idea: to get them in a work mindset. My experience has not been that the moms want to be with their kids but exactly the opposite: the free childcare is undisputibly the single biggest incentive of the program. Most mothers apply almost exclusively so they can enroll their kids in the daycare of their choice and have a break from parenting. To be eligible for the childcare at the government's expense, the parent must be actively engaged in one of the training activities. Often, the moms will sign up for TANF, take their kids to daycare and then use their free bus passes to gallivant with their girlfriends who aren't going to the training either. Then they become angry when their benefits are flagged for sanction for non-attendance in their training assignment. They'll rush their kid to an urgent care center (the state medicaid pays for their medical bills) and bring in a doctor's note to say their doctor's appointment should be good cause for why they spent two weeks not going to their assignment. Then we ask, if your child was sick for days, why does the record show you still put her in daycare each day? Hays' book would have you believing that TANF recipients are all victims, but don't be fooled: they're not.
There are several shortcomings in Hays' research.
First and foremost, she relies heavily on the term "welfare," which is an extremely ambiguous word that can encompass all assistance programs available at welfare offices across the United States. This includes TANF, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the new name for Food Stamps), the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP, which allows grants to families for utility costs in winter), medical coverage (Medicaid), subsidized public housing (housing with rent as low as $0), free school lunch programs, and Women Infants and Children (WIC, which provides food assistance to mothers with children, on top of the food assistance already received with SNAP). Hays only mentions "food stamps" one time (237), three pages before the end of the book, and fails to mention any other form of aid.
Hays speculates how former welfare mothers will survive after their time limits (for TANF) have been reached. Hays suggests that one mother, who met her time limit, would not be able to support her children on her low wages. According to Hays, this would force the mother to consider giving up one or more of her children or turn to illegal activity (190). Hays fails to mention that this mother would remain eligible for continued assistance from the other programs. Clients can still get all the other forms of “welfare,” just not TANF cash assistance. The same also applies with sanctioned clients. The sanction process is an elementary concept in TANF and does not affect any other welfare benefit programs.
It is clear that Hays does not realize the spectrum of programs in the welfare system and resources available to Americans in poverty. She states on families who have been forced off "welfare," "one-half are sometimes without enough money to buy food" (227). What does this mean? Aren't most middle class people "sometimes" without enough money to buy food? And when this occurs, caseworkers refer clients to food banks where there is free food for low income families!
The second downfall of Hays' research is that only two welfare offices, anonymously named, were used to represent welfare reform across all 50 states. This offers a profoundly limited perspective of welfare in the United States, as the Personal Responsibility Act allows states flexibility in administering and interpreting the law and enacting their own rules. Hays does point this out, but only briefly (27). Absent from Hays' analysis is that there are states which actually extend the TANF time-limited assistance beyond five years. A major component of Hays' argument is that, because of the new five-year limit, there is no longer such thing as forever being on welfare because "all [clients] eventually leave the welfare rolls permanently" (174). This is simply not true everywhere. In Pennsylvania, where I work, there is "Extended TANF," which has no time limits and allows TANF clients to receive assistance for as long as they have no income and a minor child they can claim in the household.
States are able to define what constitutes "good cause" for not participating in a required employment and training activity. Hays does not explore this and presents the sanction rules in the two welfare offices she observed as if they apply everywhere (41). The rules vary by state. Pennsylvania will grant good cause for having your apartment building burn down, which Hays reports (but does not cite) is not a good cause excuse where she did her observations (41). I highly doubt that one's home burning down would not qualify as good cause in the state Hays studied, but because the location is anonymous, there is no way to corroborate that claim.
Just like good cause, "exemptions" (criteria that excuse clients from the mandatory activities for long periods) also vary greatly from state to state. Hays notes this (72), but again, only briefly. Hays offers the policies only at the two anonymous offices she studied (107, 165) and does not explore others.
Third, Hays' argument is often biased, especially on the topic of family "caps." Traditionally, welfare recipients would see an increase in their monthly benefit with every childbirth. Caps are limits on the number of children a person can have that would result in an increase, so that if a person has a second, third, fourth, fifth, or subsequent child, the benefits would stay the same as if those children were not born. Hays calls this regulation a "failure," "arguably unconstitutional," and that it "penalize[s] women for exercising their right to reproductive choice" (69). Hays even goes on to say that family caps "punish children for being born" (234). Hays fails to juxtapose this ideal with a middle class perspective: working people do not see an increase in their salary or hourly rate when they have a baby. That gross omission alone, that profound and obvious oversight to how money works for most people, tipped the scales in my opinion of the book. Further, not all states institute "caps." Pennsylvania, perhaps one of the most lenient welfare states in the country, has no such cap.
All-in-all, the author's presentation of the national TANF program is not only limited, but tainted with bias. Hays' analysis makes no mention of the other various public assistance programs that welfare offices offer to impoverished individuals who receive TANF and also to those who have exhausted their time on TANF. The author does not explore regulations in different states. The author relies heavily on observations and interviews and does not balance them with sufficient quantitative data. Finally, the author observes only two anonymous welfare offices, out of thousands that exist in the United States, and uses them to illustrate and represent the issues of welfare reform across the country. Due to these deficiencies in this argument based on such limited research, I leave this book with two stars.
The bottom line is that we are living in a society that is still grossly unequal in terms of sex, race, and class. I especially appreciated the realism that the ideals and provisions of welfare reform fall far below any sort of real hope of mobility in terms of the demands of an evolving global market place.
This book is not just about welfare reform; it is indicative of a society that we are becoming - one that undermines the care of our nation's children and welfare for struggling families and most especially the plight of single mothers.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who seeks a better understanding of the paradoxes and contraditions in our laws regulating the family.