Tag Archives: children

Unintended Consequences – Raising Babies

“Janet” was the second woman I met in the workfare training class in Decatur, Georgia, and by far the cheeriest. Surprisingly honest, she had no compunction about admitting that children had not been on her agenda, and that was she was caught flat-footed when she realized she was going to have to learn to raise kids of her own.

She is a resourceful young woman, though, and by all appearances has the common sense get-up-and-go to work things out, whether it means sharing housing with family and friends to make it work, or participating in training programs to get ready for the workforce.

While there have been women I’ve met along this journey who had more kids than Janet, something about the way she talked about the impact having kids really struck a cord, and reminded me that birth control and family planning are effective ways of empowering women and keeping them from a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

The TANF program insists that one of the goals of TANF is  to prevent and reduce unplanned pregnancies among single young adults, yet a Google search of TANF and Birth Control yields not a single relevant News item, and overall web results show only a smattering of state-level references to the topic.

And yet, as reknowned reproductive health researchers at the Guttmacher Institute note in their 2012 publication on unintended pregnancy, nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and are heavily weighted towards the states with the highest levels of poverty, including Mississippi, which leads the nation in teen pregnancy.

This is not good news, and it is news that could easily be improved with widespread family planning and birth control use. So why the disconnect, and what can we do to fix it? The cost of birth control is miniscule in comparison to the cost of raising a child – what if instead of incentivizing childrearing by increasing TANF, Food Stamp, and housing payments according to family size (currently the practice in every state in the country) we turned that incentive around and incentivized NOT having children? What if we made over-the-counter birth control available using food stamps? What if every school provided thorough family planning education to help end the cycle of unplanned, unwanted pregancies?

I look at Janet, and I see potential energy diverted to childbearing and childrearing that she didn’t plan; how many more Janets  are out there that deserve a chance at a life that revolves around more than childrearing and welfare dependency?

Mom on Disability Wants to Leave a Legacy

“Julie” was my final interview in Decatur, and weeks later I remain deeply touched by her story.

What makes Julie’s story unique is that she is dying, of a rare and incurable disease, with a life expectancy of two to three years. What makes it more unique is the choices she is making with that knowledge in hand. Rather than sitting back and letting fate have its way with her, she is determined to shape her own destiny until the very end. That destiny, for Julie, means achieving what has become her life’s passion and goal: leaving her child with the memory of a mother who worked, and made her way in the world, and provided for her.

It is not going to be an easy road, because her way is blocked by the very system that should be helping her. Because she is on TANF, she is required to participate in workfare full time. But, because she is sick, she cannot work the full time schedule required of her, and there is no flexibility for women like her who want to work, but aren’t healthy enough to work full time. In her case, her physician has indicated that she should be on permanent bed rest.

Due to her illness, she will soon be put on disability (SSI). Once that happens, she will be forbidden from working at all – in fact, her doctor has already insisted that she can’t work, although she desperately wants to, and can do so, on her good days.

And so Julie has come up with by far the most creative use of disability benefits I have ever heard – and something policy-makers should hear about as they ponder the wisdom of SSI’s impediments to working. First, she is going to take business classes at the local college, so she can learn to run a small business. Then, Julie plans to take her disability payments, save as much as she can, and open her own in-home business.

That way, she can work her own hours, thereby insuring that when she isn’t well enough to work she won’t be fired. That way, her child will be able to see her mother working for their future, and hopefully be inspired to be independent herself. And that way, when she leaves the world  and her child behind, she leaves memories of a mom who worked to make their lives better, in the face of truly daunting odds.

While we can be thankful that there is a safety net out there for people like Julie we should also question its efficacy; if she wants to work, shouldn’t our goal be to help her do that, instead of relegating her to her bed?


“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?