“Strong, Black and Proud” Mom Wants off of Welfare

“Tanya” is a tiny woman, full of energy and drive, who floors me when she announces she is the mother of not one, not two, but five children, with the oldest, at seven, conceived while she was still in high school.

That first child ended her high school career, and she is still trying to finish, by taking classes in preparation for the GED (high school equivalency exam). She is also in a TANF-mandated welfare-to-work program, which she hopes will lead to a full-time job soon. It is clear she has a lot of ambition, if few skills.

Tanya has spent her entire life on welfare, first in her mother’s house and now in her own, and is nearing the end of her state-mandated lifetime allotment of TANF cash benefits. Like her mother, she will still be able to live in her subsidized housing for free, get her utility bills paid for, and her phone, and her transportation, and get food stamps for herself and her family, and Medicaid, but her monthly cash benefit will disappear. We talked about what happens next, and it’s clear that Tanya wants a job so she can support herself and her kids.

When I asked about the fathers of her children, she said that they would rather live the street life, dabbling in crime and getting locked up regularly, than try and straighten out and play a parenting role. She considers it too much of a hassle to get these ‘baby-daddies’, as she calls them, to step up and do their part as the fathers to her kids. Her attitudes towards the fathers of her children, and towards child support in general, mirror attitudes I found across the country, and are troubling for at least two reasons.

The first reason concerns child support – in Tanya’s opinion, since her kids can live on public assistance, she sees no reason for the government to get involved in ‘her business’ and ask her to go after the fathers for child support. In essence, she would rather rely on the state to take care of her kids, than rely on the fathers of her children,  a troubling trend for the children, and an expensive trend for the country.

The second reason concerns putting the fathers of her children on the children’s birth certificates. Often, these young mothers end up aquiescing to the father’s demands not to be named on birth certificates, in exchange for promised under-the-table child support. Predictably, this child support is only paid for a few months, before the fathers disappear. This leaves the children without fathers on their birth certificates, the mothers with no means to collect child support without costly legal battles and DNA testing, and the fathers off the hook, free to continue with their chosen lifestyles.

Tanya’s best hope is the job she dreams about and is in training for; the TANF program she is in has inspired her, and, combined with her pluck and determination, puts her in the best position she has been in so far to reach that goal. Traveling the country this summer, the main theme running through the conversations I had with welfare recipients was this: people want jobs, NOT welfare. So why have so many states now been given the option of gutting the work requirements of TANF? Why remove the only program with a work requirement, when it is clear that work is what people want?