Your life can turn upside down in an instant. I was once the proud wife of a PhD, living the American Dream as I pursued my career in entertainment and raised my beautiful daughter in the heart of Manhattan. After my divorce, I suddenly found myself technically homeless and without income as I scrambled to pick up the pieces and define my new life. I moved in with my mother, and that allows my daughter to attend Head Start, a pre-school program for low-income New Yorkers. There, she’s learned to read and write the alphabet, her name and many other words. Head Start allows me to write, too – providing me with a few hours of childcare a day that I couldn’t otherwise afford. But what happens to single mothers who, facing subsidized childcare cuts by their state governments, are no longer able to afford employment? They begrudgingly turn to welfare to get by, because it makes more financial sense to take a government handout than it does to work.
The New York Times reported today that “swelling numbers of low-income families (are) struggling to reconcile the demands of work and parenting, just as they confront one of the toughest job markets in decades. Now, in this moment of painful budget cuts, only two kinds of families are reliably securing aid: those under the supervision of child protective services — which looks after abuse and neglect cases — and those receiving cash assistance.”
Ron Haskins, a former Republican Congressional aide who was instrumental in shaping Clinton-era welfare changes, says, ”We’re going the wrong way. The direction public policy should move is to provide more of these mothers with subsidies. To tell people that the only way they can get day care is to go on welfare defeats the purpose of the whole thing.”
Jamie Smith, a 23-year-old single mother in Tuscon, AZ, once earned an hourly wage of eight dollars as a Target employee. She was able to work for such low wages because she only had to pay “$1.50 a day for her 3-year-old daughter, Wren, to stay at a child care center. The state picked up the rest.” In December, she was late re-applying for her childcare subsidy and was bumped to the waiting list for the center her daughter was already attending. She had trouble finding a replacement sitter, and by March, she lost her job. She says, “It’s a blow to my own self-image and self-worth as a person who can take care of myself. I’m totally able, physically and intellectually, to continue working. But I can’t work without child care, and I can’t afford child care without work.”
Many people think that women on welfare are lazy and don’t want to work. They’re painted as losers living off the system. People don’t understand that women are often forced into the welfare system. For example, using my given circumstances, were I not receiving support from my ex, I’d easily be on the dole. Head Start covers three-and-a-half hours a day of childcare for my daughter. If I were to work outside the home full time, I’d have to pay for approximately 6 hours of supplemental childcare a day (not to mention having to figure out complicated travel logistics). That would cost an estimated $48/day. Working an administrative position at $10/hour would gross me $70-$80/day, meaning that over half my paycheck, before taxes, would go to childcare. And that’s after the Head Start subsidy.
The Times reports that “among families with working mothers and incomes below the poverty line, child care absorbs nearly a third of total household budgets, according to census data.” I imagine in many cases childcare costs would require more than a third of household budgets, but in those cases, women turn to welfare because they’d rather struggle financially and raise their own children than struggle just as hard financially and give their children over to strangers for 8-10 hours a day.
Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center says of the cuts, “The social safety net was always in patches, and now it’s more frayed. For a single mom, it’s a lottery in many states whether she gets child care or not.”
Photo: Joshua Lott for The New York Times