Deconstructin' The Demonology of Women on Welfare


root - Posted on 01 January 2000

PNN attends a screening of the new documentary; Once Upon a time Welfare Made a difference

by Sarah Hotchkiss and Christina Heatherton/PoorNewsNetwork Community Journalists

I first tried to get on welfare when I was 18 years old because I was abused. My welfare department sent me to a shelter in a whole new county where I didn’t even have relatives. I was 18 years old, unable to finish high school because I was in a different county, 2 months before I was supposed to graduate. I had job skills, I was trying to get an education, and there was welfare all smug and happy not helping me but expecting me to better myself. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a place to start from. I had no clue. How can they honestly expect anyone to get anywhere if they don’t have a place to start from?

The 1996 Welfare Reform Legislation to "end welfare as we know it" has had profound and devastating effects on poor people in this country especially those trying to pursue an education. By instituting a 5 year lifetime limit, and mandating a 35 hour work week, the bill has penalized this pursuit. In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a new bill that ups the work requirement to 40 hours a week denying most recipients a chance to get an education.
On Thursday, April 24, at the Boalt Hall Law School at UC Berkeley, a coalition of Bay Area organizations hosted the West Coast premiere of "Once upon a time....Welfare made a Difference". The documentary showcased the stories of four women from different social, regional, and ethnic backgrounds who, prior to 1996, were able to use welfare as a lifeline while they gained degrees in higher education. Following the movie was a panel discussion by four bay area welfare recipients on their local struggles to get an education while on welfare.

The event was designed to deconstruct the "mythology" and the misogynistic and racist "demonology" of women on welfare. As Linda Burnham from the Women of Color Resource Center noted in her opening address, there has been a concerted effort to depict women on welfare as "lazy, sexually immature, unwilling or unable to work, poor caretakers of their children, and unwilling or unable to hold a man." In this way, these women have been accused of scamming the system while corporations have been involved in the "plunder and theft" of billions of dollars of in corporate fraud.

The event offered some of these women the chance to tell their own story. As panelist and current Laney College CARE specialist, Mildred Lewis offered, "People don’t know your story. They think they know what a welfare recipient looks like. They don’t know your dreams or that you’ll make a contribution in your life."

Far from the lazy stereotypes they have often been made out to be, the event demonstrated how women on welfare are often the most adept money managers, creatively improvising to stretch meager funds in order to feed, clothes, house, and care for themselves and often their families too. Another panelist, Eric Benson, challenged the stereotype that only women go on welfare, as he discussed his difficulties as a single father also trying to go to school.

"The goal of welfare is case reduction and not reduction of poverty," according to Vivian Hain, panelist and CalWORKS student parent. If the government was interested in getting people out of poverty, they wouldn’t make it so difficult for recipients to go to school. As it stands, Vivian’s forty hour work week often expands to close to fifty once she factors in transportation, getting gas, and food. She must attend a minimum of 12 units of school (about 20 hours with transportation and homework) in order to qualify for financial aid. On top of those 70 hours, Vivian must cook, clean, and care for her family- which is a full time job itself. As she described it, "it seems like they don’t want to see you get ahead." 

I had a hard time relating to this movie even though I have been on welfare too.
I asked myself, what about people who are unable to better themselves, who are stuck in the same rut, unable to get out of it? Most welfare money is given to people who are going to get on track quick. These people have their shit together and are going to be able to pay back the money quicker. In other words, they are people who have a home. If you don’t have a home, if you do not help someone pay for room and board, you only get $28 dollars in Oakland and you still have to work the 40 hours. I applied for welfare here and refused to take it when I found this out. If you get a statement that you have a home and proof from a landlord, then you can get $350 a month in Oakland.

Going to school is just about impossible in this situation, let alone trying to find enough work to fill the 40 hours. People are not going to hire you when you are homeless, especially when you are using a shelter address. That’s the damn truth.

While the film talked about mothers, it didn’t talk about mothers with children on the streets. Do you think they get help quicker? Do you think they get to keep their kids? These women have Child Protective Services (CPS) breathing down their necks 24/7. To save their kids, this usually means that these families have to get away from the area. This also means that they’ll loose all their welfare benefits in the process. And if the mother tries to take her kids to a shelter, she’ll either be turned away or she’ll be putting her kids in a dangerous situation.

The event also spoke exclusively about able-bodied people who are physically able to work. My husband is disabled. How is he supposed to get a job, let alone go to school when he’s not even supposed to be sitting up? He’s supposed to get $28 but he was kicked off. Now he can’t get general assistance until he wins his SSI. He can’t get a halfway decent doctor. He can’t get the medication he needs. He can’t get a scooter. Besides, he’d have nowhere to keep it.

This campaign to defend welfare tries to break down some stereotypes but it also creates new ones. It makes homeless people even more invisible by talking about poverty without talking about homelessness. It speaks only about poor people who have homes, who are able bodied, who are not being persecuted by CPS, and who are in recognized relationships. People in alternative relationships such as gay relationships are subject to a whole set of other difficulties. Part of the new welfare bill devotes an enormous amount of money to marriage promotion. By speaking exclusively about straight couples, the movie and the campaign reinforces the invisibility of gay, transgender, and alternative relationships.

By promoting education as the solution to poverty, the film also comes close to perpetuating the very same stereotype it is supposed to be fighting against. This stereotype is that poor people can lift themselves out of poverty because, it assumes, they are responsible for their own poverty. Linda Burnham explained in her opening, the myth in America is that "everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps." This myth allows the public to discard "a whole layer of society" who can’t pull themselves up.

Linda spoke of the American economy as both an engine of incredible wealth and an engine of poverty. This engine "creates and recreates poverty everyday in the US and all over the world." During the war, discussions of poverty have been swept off the table. It is important to connect the war against the poor to the war abroad. Burnham mentioned that Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, has just been awarded a contract to run the welfare system in Florida. The company, who makes huge profits off of war, will now be making huge profits off of managing Florida’s poor. In order for a country to subjugate and dominate another population, it has to first dominate its population at home. All you have to do is look at the streets of your city to see that this is being done on an everyday basis.

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