Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform. Sharon Hays. New York: Oxford. 2003. 304 pp. ISBN 0-1951-3288-2. $30.00 (cloth).

For over 3 years, Sharon Hays hung around welfare offices and visited the homes of welfare clients to discover what the "success" of welfare reform means in the lives of real women leaving welfare. She describes her findings in Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform. Although others before her, using primarily surveys, have found that the picture of families leaving welfare is not particularly rosy, her qualitative interviews and subsequent analyses provide additional depth and richness. Hays juxtaposes two views that she calls the "work plan" and the "family plan," both features of welfare reform.

Both the respondent's vivid words and her own penetrating analyses clearly illustrate how the work ethic is created and enforced, including by methods designed to instill fear and intimidation, and what the consequences of this model are. As Hays suggests, the "work plan" model "provides no answer to who will care for the children, and leaves us to wonder just how we will care for one another or how we might be convinced to work together to build a better society. It implicitly suggests that we conceptualize children as relatively meaningless appendages and view our fellow citizens as merely potential rivals in the quest for success" (p. 23).

Hays shows us that welfare reform has explicit rules not only about work but also about family life. Instead of staying home, poor mothers are expected to provide financial support for their children, find and orchestrate child-care arrangements, make sure their children receive all the needed vaccinations, and see to it that their children attend school daily. Mothers must also seek economic assistance from the fathers of their children, and in nearly half of all states are required to control their fertility. They are, in essence, expected to be "supermoms." They must do this alone and on exceedingly limited budgets. She suggests that the ultimate goal of the "family plan," as pursued through these work requirements, is to teach women a lesson: Their duty is to get married and stay married so that they can nurture others in the appropriate fashion.

In particular, I found Hays's analysis of the paradox over "family values" to be especially engaging. …

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