Welfare Reform and the Assault on Daily Life: Targeting Single Mothers and Their Children

Social Justice, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform and the Assault on Daily Life: Targeting Single Mothers and Their Children


I WOULD LIKE YOU TO LISTEN TO THE STORIES OF YOUNG CHILDREN, FOR THEY SPEAK to the texture of young lives on the edges, to the nuts and bolts of daily suffering and survival. Why begin with stories of children when welfare reform targets their mothers? I believe that we must examine what childhood and motherhood mean to citizens of the Other America. What do they mean for those o us living on the side of privilege, who make policies about them, policies that put those mothers to work or into mandatory community service programs, and tha relegate their young children either to unavailable childcare slots or to unregulated, low-quality childcare? Poor children are cheap; they matter instrumentally, not existentially -- they are deserving of public money only if minimal investment in their early lives has economic payoffs. How do they fare as they carry the multiple burdens of their poverty to school and preschool? Listen to Heather's story:

Seven-year-old Heather was easy to identify as a problem second-grader as she sat at her desk pushed out into the hallway. The children passing by told me that they were not allowed to speak to her, and neither was she allowed to spea to anyone. She could not go to recess or eat lunch with the others in the cafeteria anymore. What had the child done, I wondered, to receive such harsh punishment? The teacher claims: "This child just does not know the difference between fight and wrong -- she absolutely does not belong in a normal classroom with normal children." I look at Heather, now being sent to the principal's office, awkwardly slipping in her flip-flops three sizes too big for her feet, walking down the corridor -- in the middle of a snowy December -- dressed in a summer blouse several sizes too small and a long flimsy skirt. What had Heather done? "I've given up on this child -- she's socially dysfunctional -- three times now we've caught her stealing free lunch and storing it in her desk to take home!"

Heather's crime was indeed noteworthy. The child of a single mother, she lived with her sister and mother in a trailer park. The children appeared chronically hungry, particularly when food stamps ran out before the end of the month. Apparently Heather had been caught stealing extra free lunch on three Fridays, knowing that she and her sister would have to wait until Monday for their next free meals.

Listen to four-year-old Duke's early experiences in an underfunded, public preschool for poor "at-risk" children:

During story time about Sylvester, a donkey who discovers the powers of a magic pebble, Duke feels in his pocket and excitedly exclaims, "See, I have one, too, maybe it can make magic like Sylvester," and he begins to rub the pebble and sa "biggledy boo." "Sit down and hush," says Mrs. Roby sternly, and a new student teacher is instructed to hold Duke on her lap as he is now jumping up and down, saying, "See, it's magic," to the other children who have moved out of the circle and are trying to touch the pebble. As Duke continues to disrupt story time, he is given another warning and then sent to the time-out chair at the fa end of the room. His is now defiant and begins to shout, "No, leave me alone!" as he kicks the student teacher, screaming, "Gimme gimme," and trying to snatch his magic pebble back, which has been taken away from him. Duke is removed, screaming, from the classroom. Mrs. Roby later tells me, "I've had it up to her with him. He comes from one of the housing projects, his mother is on welfare, and he'll end up in prison or on drugs like his older brother. I don't know wha kindergarten teacher here is going to take him -- we'll have to get him referre to developmental and special education."

What do these observations reveal? Do they chronicle the making of early educational failure in classrooms, which become landscapes of condemnation for poor children? Do we see a continuing assault on young lives that has its origins in an educational discourse that consigns poor children to the hem of classroom life? …

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