Academic journal article Social Work

Voicing Realities and Recommending Reform in PRWORA

Academic journal article Social Work

Voicing Realities and Recommending Reform in PRWORA

Article excerpt

Jimenez (1999), in her feminist analysis of welfare reform, regretted the fate of poor women. Jimenez's thesis is that welfare reform is a back-lash against poor women's challenge to traditional gender roles and mainstream values about women's place in society. She reviewed five testimonials to the U.S. Congress between 1994 and 1996 that indicated that the debate over welfare reform and its bipartisan support was also a class issue. Nonpoor men and women engaged in an expert discourse (Fraser, 1989)--for nowhere in these testimonials is a poor person's voice heard-- to determine what is good, right, and responsible behavior of people who are poor, not just women who are poor (Albert, 2000; Hardina, 1999). In the United States, poor people's right to basic welfare depends on decisions by representatives of classes of people who have little understanding of or exposure to dire poverty (Pearce, 2000).

The primary purpose of this article is to listen to voices of women facing and of men and women implementing welfare reform. Yet, I falter at the outset, remembering bell hooks's (1990) statement:

I am waiting for them to stop talking about the "Other,"... I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own... I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk. (pp. 151-152)

I ask myself, can an other like myself--born in postcolonial India and raised in a Hindu family, shamed to live in the United States because of a marital breakup, and for 14 years living its consequences as an academic and a single mother--give voice to women facing welfare reform and men and women implementing it? How can I get around "the problem of credentials" (Marks, 1996) if single parenthood and shared gender with a majority of my research participants (Titley & Chasey, 1996) are not grounds enough for representing people who are unlike me? Wilkinson and Kitzinger (1996) stated:

No discussion of "representing the Other" can fail to take up the question of the category itself. We cannot write about the Other as if some totalizable intelligible object simply "exists" out there, waiting to be represented. Others are constructed--by those who do the Othering, by those who reflect upon that Othering, and by the Others' own representations of themselves. (p. 15)

These authors further stated that the problems of "othering" could be negotiated in four ways: speaking only for ourselves; speaking of otherness only to celebrate it; attempting to destabilize otherness; and interrupting othering. I cannot take the strategy of speaking only for myself and maintaining respectful silence about others, leaving them to represent themselves because it has resulted in silencing others through enacting welfare reform. By only celebrating the skills, talents, and resources of others, I may refute and even shift the dominant discourse on their pathology. Nonetheless, I have learned that this strategy alone may trap me in romanticizing the heroic aspects of lives of people with very little power. I agree with Wilkinson and Kitzinger (1996) that by "destabilizing Otherness" and by "interrupting Othering," I stand a stronger chance of representing them (that is, acting as their advocate, speaking for them by upholding their voices) rather than representing them (that is, describing them , painting a portrait of them, speaking about them) (Spivak, 1986). I will attempt to destabilize otherness by co-constructing others' experiences of welfare reform, and I will try to interrupt othering by "working the hyphen," which is to "probe how we are in relation with the contexts we study and with our informants, understanding that we are multiple in all those relations" (Fine, 1994, p. 72).

My goal in representing others is to provide them with the opportunity to voice their realities and recommendations about the "work first" component of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (P. …

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