Hayes cry for change in the ways that America views poverty, motherhood, welfare and work: Sharon Hays' overview of Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

Welfare is an issue that creates profound anxiety for the citizens of United States, regardless of where a person stands upon the issue of welfare reform. The need for welfare upon the part of many women seems to fly in the face of all the values America stands for as a nation. On one hand, the United States likes to envision itself as an individualistic society, full of infinite opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard. The need for a social safety net belies this common desire to see the nation as a classless meritocracy. The underlying assumption becomes that if someone cannot succeed without government assistance, ergo that person must lack character or moral fiber.

Also, the fact that so many single women with children are on welfare in the United States further contradicts the nation's self-perception as a nation of strong 'family values' where the nuclear family is the norm. The United States wishes to see itself as a compassionate nation that loves children, but to support children and single mothers with welfare with what are seen as 'free handouts' makes many people angry, even if they have little sense of the people receiving such social support. Theoretically, according to the national myth, such single, needy mothers and children should not exist -- the father should be the breadwinner.

This national sense of anxiety and moral and mythical contradictions is why, so many of the stated ideals of today's welfare programs and laws have very little to do with practical policy aims, and everything to do with vaguely articulated national values. For example, one assumption behind the current network of welfare laws is that work is superior to simply receiving government funds, even work at a dead-end job as opposed to government support for childcare, and future education and training that can be put into practice after the child has matured. Instead, even if the work the welfare recipient must labor at is an entry-level job at Wal-Mart, that requires a mother to leave her child in the care of strangers at greater cost to the government than she receives stocking shelves, the fact that such a requirement is made so she does not lose her eligibility for benefits shows the underlying assumption that it is better she is 'working' no matter.

Sharon Hays' book Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, Hays examines the financial and social implications of welfare reform, not from the perspective of the cultural stereotypes of lawmakers or media pundits, but by interviewing the single mothers with children who make up the bulk of the recipients. In search of the truth, Hays spent 600 hours interviewing 50 welfare caseworkers and about 130 welfare mothers. She was surprised, she writes, of the ordinary nature of most of the people who live on welfare. There stories were not extraordinary tales of avoiding work, but quite often of women who had previously engaged in hard work but met with unfortunate circumstances, or women who had made bad decisions early on in their lives that they were never able to recover from, despite great efforts. Often, failures are the result at least partly due to a welfare system that provided these women with little helpful assistance to enable them to turn their lives around.

Author Hays writes that the women she interviewed were neither saintly heroes nor 'welfare queens.' Instead they are young people trying to live day by day. Hays does not specifically have a conservative or liberal agenda per se, although she does dispute the orientation of much of modern welfare reform that focuses on getting recipients off the rolls of welfare, to the exclusion of all other policies. Instead, she is interested to bring to light the many defects of the so-called Personal Responsibility Act by putting human faces on the statistically documented, negative consequences of a system that worships the appearance of work above all else, even above the health and well-being of children.

According to the Personal Responsibility Act, to remain eligible for benefits welfare recipients had to be working at (presumably) low-income jobs, could prove that they were actively looking for such work, or demonstrate that they were actively receiving job training. Otherwise, they would lose their support and benefits such as childcare and transportation to and from work. Furthermore, the Personal Responsibility Act specifically defined marriage as the foundation of a successful society, a statement that openly challenged the lifestyle of the single mothers who made up 90% of the welfare rolls. Only 7% of welfare recipients are married. But although marriage was defined as the primary promoter of the best interests of children in the words of the act, the result of the law was the reduction of benefits to children, as children on welfare outnumber adults by a ration of 2:1. A bill supposedly about work and job empowerment, not about morality and marriage had a clear underlying ideological agenda. Its agenda was apparently not to ameliorate the fact that one child, age 12 or younger, dies every 56 seconds in the United States as a result of hunger.

Hays writes that one of the reasons the women she interviewed for her study were so eager to share their stories was because these had heard about the stereotypes labeling welfare mothers as stupid, lazy, and sexually promiscuous. They wished to challenge these stories with their lifetimes of experience. Often, these mothers were more likely to be the victims of unstable living environments. For example, one of the women, Sheila, was working with her mother at a dry cleaner. When her mother became unable to work because of a medical condition, Sheila was also unable to work as much and take care of her mother at the same time. Before her mother became ill, Shelia was a tireless worker for her employer, but balancing the demands of work and family proved difficult.

Then, Shelia was raped, became pregnant, and had to go welfare for support. Sheila always wanted to work, but was concerned about meeting her family obligations to her mother and child and finding a job that was close enough to home so she could take care of these people who were so important in her life. She did not trust the safety of the transportation or daycare options structures in her community, even though the government could provide her with monetary assistance for childcare, and government assistance provided little aid in helping her care for her mother. The fact that women are often the bearers of eldercare as well as childcare is another important point highlighted in Hays' anecdotes about women on welfare.

Health problems of the recipients and their loved ones are a common undercurrent throughout the book. One woman, Elena, was temporarily disabled. She was ineligible for disability coverage, but because she was still too sick to work, she was also precluded her from getting unemployment benefits. Hence, welfare was necessary to gain medical coverage to cover her health expenses and to cover her son's health care. Another woman, Christine, who had suffered a stroke in her twenties, was genuinely medically unable to work at all, but had difficulty proving this legally. Other women grappled with the difficulty of recovering from a lifetime of substance abuse. While they acknowledged that they had made many mistakes, the system made it difficult for them to make a positive change in their lives, after encouraging them to kick the difficult habit of hard drugs or living with violent, abusive men. Of course, many women have trouble staying clean regardless of systemic flaws. But Hayes suggests that even for women who have truly have escaped the grasp of their negative coping mechanisms, the nature of welfare does not facilitate an easy transition from dependence to work.

Sharon Hays does not deny that there are women who abuse the system of social support. In fact, she devotes an entire chapter on the mothers who seemed to have a kind of learned helplessness, or a dependence on the state. She identifies such out of the mainstream beliefs among welfare recipients like the "Burger-Barn Syndrome," or the idea that it's not worth working hard at a job at McDonald's because there is little difference between the minimum wage and welfare, the "Candy-Store Syndrome," or the idea if it is there, one should take it, the "System-Screwed-Me Syndrome," or idea that if the recipient's life has been hard, then the world 'owes' the recipient something back, and even the "Lorena Bobbit Syndrome" of anger against men. Some of these perspectives have some twisted validity, however skewed the logic, although of course Hays does not support the idea of long-term welfare dependence. Rather she stresses the government must mandate a minimum wage that is truly capable of giving…