Needed: A National Commitment to Families*

UNCOMMON SENSE 17 © February 1997

#4 of FAIR WORK AND WELFARE: a welfare reform packet

By Ruth A. Sidel, Professor of Sociology, Hunter College and Advisory Board, National Jobs for All Coalition

*Adapted from Keeping Women and Children Last: America’s War on the Poor, Penguin, chapter 7.

Welfare repeal is forcing poor mothers and their children off the welfare rolls and into a labor force that is already overcrowded, particularly for workers with scant schooling and few skills. The nation is implementing harsh policies that harm families in the name of helping them and that are likely to increase poverty and unemployment. In such times it is important to propose and analyze alternative policies for aiding families and children.

United States leads in child poverty

Studies of several Western industrialized countries (Canada, France, the former West Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom) indicate that in the mid-1980s the United States had the highest poverty rates, especially for families with children (see notes).1 While all these countries were experiencing high unemployment rates and economic dislocation, their effectiveness in reducing poverty varied dramatically. Among the seven countries, only in the United States did tax policies and income transfers have almost no effect on the poverty rate of families with children. Here public policy reduced family poverty by only 3.5 percent, leaving about 24 percent still poor. Canada had the next lowest reduction, lifting approximately one in five poor families with children out of poverty, and leaving nearly 17 percent still poor. At the other extreme, the Netherlands and Sweden had considerable success in reducing poverty. In the Netherlands, there was roughly a 50 percent reduction, with a remaining poverty rate of le ss than 8 percent (despite difficult labor market conditions). In Sweden, over 60 percent were lifted out of poverty, leaving about 5 percent of families with children still poor.

Government generosity does not create poverty

This success shows that government generosity does not lead to higher rates of poverty, as conservatives in the United States claim. On the contrary, countries with far more generous government programs have significantly lower poverty rates than does the United States, which has both the lowest level of benefits and the highest rates of poverty. With respect to the elderly but not families with children, the United States has also proven that benefits reduce poverty. Without government transfers, 50 per cent of the elderly would have been poor in 1995 instead of 10.5 percent.

Policies that reduce family poverty

What are the policies that succeed in reducing poverty among families with children? First, all the European countries cited provide a children’s or family allowance–a universal cash benefit for each child regardless of the family’s income. A second element of the family policy in place in all European countries–and virtually all other industrialized countries as well–is some form of national health insurance or national health service which assures all families and individuals access to health care. Third, some of these countries provide universal, low-cost or free preschool care to all or almost all children from the age of two or three. Fourth, many industrialized countries provide special benefits for divorced families, guaranteeing a minimum amount of child support if the non-custodial parent fails to pay.

Everyone accepts the importance of strong, stable families. The question for the United States today is what social and economic policies will most effectively help our affluent society to achieve them. What is the appropriate role of government? The policies of other affluent societies can guide us. Should our family policy stress universal benefits–that is, benefits that go to all families with children, not only to the poor? Or should policies be targeted for the poor alone? Should we move toward a combination of the two approaches? Many other countries use a complex combination of tax policy, employment policy,  universal social policy, and specific programs targeted to the most vulnerable.

In thinking through a family policy for the twenty-first century, we must recognize that most mothers today, particularly single ones, are caught in a difficult and often painful role conflict that is exacerbated by the unwillingness of American society to recognize and respond to the real needs of families. As Lydia Morris has pointed out:

Recent developments in the conceptualization of citizenship have increasingly placed at least as much emphasis on obligations as on rights, the prime obligation being work as a means to independence. This places women in an ambiguous position: either they earn their ‘public’ citizenship rights by their own paid employment or they perform their ‘private’ family obligations and remain dependent. This conflict can only be resolved by a redistribution of the ‘private’ obligations of unpaid labor, or by some acknowledgement of the ‘public’ service such labor performs, or by increasing state involvement in the ‘private’ obligation to care for children.2

This is exactly where the United States stands today. Women are still expected to care for the home and particularly for the children. But women — particularly poor ones — are increasingly expected also to work for pay. While the industrial countries o f Western European have developed a panoply of social supports for families, American society has not redistributed the private obligations of women on a significant scale to men or to the public sector. What “welfare reform” really means is that women are being forced to take on both roles full time without adequate salaries or adequate help in providing for their children. Many mothers provide care and love, food and clothing, and values and discipline while holding down a full-time job and earning wage s either below or close to the meager poverty line. They are increasingly expected to do all this both without the help of a man and without the help of society.We need a universal family policy

We sorely need a universal family policy. It may seem quixotic to propose a universal family policy at a time when conservatism is in the ascendancy and when government programs are viewed with widespread pessimism, cynicism and even distaste. So it is helpful to recall that American proponents of social insurance spent decades sowing seeds that would not take root until the more fertile soil of the New Deal.

Such a family policy should include the following:

  • children’s allowances to all families with children under the age of 18; comprehensive, universal,
  • affordable health care through national health insurance or a national health service;
  • paid leave for parents at the time of the birth or adoption of a baby;
  • accessible, affordable preschool and after-school care for all children; and
  • a housing policy that expands the supply of housing that is both adequate and affordable and insures that this housing reaches all segments of the population, including those most in need;
  • and an education policy that improves all schools and that brings the education of those most in need up to national standards.

Full employment and family policyA central component of any family policy must be a national commitment to a full-employment policy: decent jobs at livable wages for all women and men who want them. Such a policy would also help to ensure an expanding economy in which prosperity is shared, as well as reducing poverty. The family policy proposed above would result in the creation of millions of additional jobs.

Public policy must encourage the private sector to create jobs. Direct creation of jobs by the public sector is essential as well. During the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression, public works programs built much-needed hospitals, bridges, roads, stadiums, and parks. Today we should do no less. Our public buildings, particularly our schools, hospitals, and public housing, our bridges and tunnels, our parks and playgrounds are sadly–and sometimes dangerously–in need of repair and, dare we suggest it, beautification. All levels of government could thereby create millions of jobs at decent wages while providing facilities that enrich us all.

If a work program is to lift people out of poverty, it must pay a livable wage. Raising the minimum wage to a level at which a family of four with a full-time worker would live above the poverty line would lift millions out of poverty and would strengthen all families.

Another way to create additional jobs and to strengthen families would be to reduce work time. I believe this would be particularly valuable to parents of young children. A shortened work week must be available with little or no reduction in pay. This policy can be partially financed from the ensuing
productivity increases.

If Americans doubt that the lives and well-being of working- and middle-class people are intertwined with the lives and well-being of the poor and near-poor, we only need consider what severe cutbacks in human services mean for those who provide them. As Federal, state and local governments cut funds for education, teachers are laid off. As food programs, health care, and job training are defunded, the poor will surely be harmed and harmed severely, but those who provide these services will be harmed as well. Social work, health care, and education have traditionally provided avenues for the poor and the working class to move into the middle class. If these opportunities are cut still further, what jobs will be available to these workers, the vast majority of whom are women? Will they, too, be forced to flip hamburgers for the minimum wage, with no benefits and no career path?

How to diminish poverty

When we ask the exceedingly difficult question of what should be done with the welfare system, the key question we should be asking is, “How does an affluent society shrink the number of people living in poverty?” According to the Federal government’s own estimates, the current welfare “reform” will add millions of people, many of them children, to the ranks of the poor. We know the pernicious effects of poverty–the social, psychological, physical, and intellectual effects of deprivation, of marginalization, of hopelessness. And like their wealth, the poverty of parents is likely to be passed on to children. That children inherit poverty and disadvantage challenges our commitment to provide equal opportunity for all.

In the United States, the components of a universal family policy would help diminish the number of persons living in poverty–as they do in Western Europe. But a full-employment policy focused on creating additional new jobs for those who want them, one that raises the minimum wage to a living wage, is indispensable for further reducing the number of poor by permitting most families to be self-supporting.

For those who remain in need we should, I believe, maintain a welfare system with standards set at the Federal level. The elements of such a welfare system would provide a cash benefit at least equivalent to the poverty line; the child care provided other parents; training programs with stipends, leading to jobs paying a livable wage; and income supplements for the working poor, to bring their income at least to the poverty line.

Over three decades ago, Michael Harrington ended his powerful exposé of poverty in America with these words: “The means are at hand to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can now be abolished. . . . How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?”3


1. Katherine McFate, Timothy Smeeding, and Lee Rainwater, “Markets and States: Poverty Trends and Transfer System Effectiveness in the 1980’s,” in Katherine McFate, Roger Lawson, and William Julius Wilson, eds., Poverty, Inequality and the Future of Social Policy: Western States in The New World Order, New York: Russell Sage, 1995. Poverty rates are standardized at 50 percent of the median income of non-elderly households.

2. Lydia Morris, The Underclass and Social Citizenship, New York: Routledge, 1994, p.134.

3. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, Baltimore: Penguin, 1963, p.170.

Editor: June Zaccone, Economics (Emer.), Hofstra University