Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare

Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare

Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare

Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare

Synopsis

Most Americans are insulated from the poor; it's hard to imagine the challenges of poverty, the daily fears of crime and victimization, the frustration of not being able to provide for a child. Instead, we are often exposed to the rhetoric and hyperbole about the excesses of the American welfare system. These messages color our perception of the welfare problem in the United States and they close the American mind to a full understanding of the complexity of family poverty. But who are these poor families? What do we know about how they arrived in such desperate straits? Is poverty their fate for a lifetime or for only a brief period? In Faces of Poverty, Jill Duerr Berrick answers these questions as she dispels the misconceptions and myths about welfare and the welfare population that have clouded the true picture of poverty in America. Over the course of a year, Berrick spent numerous hours as a participant-observer with five women and their families, documenting their daily activities, thoughts, and fears as they managed the strains of poverty. We meet Ana, Sandy, Rebecca, Darlene, and Cora, all of whom, at some point, have turned to welfare for support. Each represents a wider segment of the welfare population--ranging from Ana (who lost a business, injured her back, and temporarily lost her job, all in a short period of time) to Cora (who was raised in poverty, spent ten years in an abusive relationship, and now struggles to raise six children in a drug-infested neighborhood). And as Berrick documents these women's experiences, she also debunks many of the myths about welfare: she reveals that welfare is not generous (welfare families remain below the poverty line even with government assistance); that the majority of women on welfare are not long-term welfare dependents; that welfare does not run in families; that "welfare mothers" do not keep having children to increase their payments (women on welfare have, on average, two children); and that almost half of all women on welfare turned to it after a divorce. At a time when welfare has become a hotly debated political issue, Faces of Poverty gives us the facts. The debate surrounding welfare will continue as each of the 50 states struggles to reform their welfare programs, and this debate will turn on the public's perception of the welfare population. Berrick offers insight into each of the reforms under consideration and starkly demonstrates their implications for poor women and children. She provides a window into these women's lives, brilliantly portraying their hopes and fears and their struggle to live with dignity.

Excerpt

Andrea's apartment is small and oppressive, with sagging and broken furniture and an old and stained carpet. A tired lace tablecloth covers a small kitchen table, a testament to Andrea's meager efforts at maintaining dignity in her home. On the walls, pictures of her grandmother, her mother, and her daughter provide the only color in these otherwise drab surroundings and represent three generations of women raising young girls -- three generations of little education, few jobs, racism, and unrelenting poverty. Andrea talks about her life, her community, and her efforts to raise a daughter against all odds. Then she drafts off for a moment and gazes through the bars on her front window. A police car passes her house and those of her neighbors. She watches, sighs, and quietly murmurs, thinking no one will hear: "This is about as poor as I can take. . . ."

When we think of poverty in America, what is the image that comes to mind? An old, dilapidated shack in southern Alabama? Or a ratinfested tenement house in New York City? Both images are correct, for poverty exists in the backwoods of Appalachia as well as in the heart of the inner city. In homes across the country, poor women are raising poor children. Even though some seem resigned to their fate, others rage in frustration against their predicament. Most are trying desperately to move up and out and into a better life.

Most Americans do not know poor people, have never talked with them over lunch, or shared their ideas about children, politics, or their communities. This is partly a result of the growing insulation of middleclass American communities from the pockets of poverty that are becoming more pronounced throughout the United States. The likelihood that people from different classes and races will mix in churches or parks is diminishing each year, because poor people shop in different stores, travel on different streets, and eat in different restaurants, and their children attend different -- usually substandard -- schools.

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