Welfare Reform, Family Hardship, and Women of Color
by Linda Burnham, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 577, Sept 2001, p.38
Six years ago, tens of thousands of women’s and human rights activists gathered at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, to focus their attention on improving the condition and status of women worldwide. Working through cultural, religious, political, economic, and regional differences, women from the nations of the world produced a comprehensive document, the Beijing Platform for Action, that detailed actions to be taken by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and multilateral financial and developmental institutions to improve women’s conditions. The platform for action called on governments to take action to relieve “the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women” and address gender “inequality in economic structures and policies, in all forms of productive activities and in access to resources” (United Nations 1995).
Yet, in the six years since Beijing, in a time of unparalleled national prosperity, policies contradictory to the spirit and intent of the platform for action were promulgated in the United States, targeting the most vulnerable citizens and, rather than assisting women onto the path of economic security, driving many deeper into poverty. While U.S. officials pledged in international forums to uphold women’s human rights, those rights were substantially undermined by the 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).
Several studies document how much worse off many women are in the wake of welfare reform (Sherman et al. 1998; USGAO 1999a). Those who remain on welfare, those in transition from welfare to work, and those who have been pushed off welfare into the low-wage economy often face worse conditions, with less support than the woefully inadequate previous system provided.
Although the PRWORA was trumpeted as a step toward strengthening families, increased housing insecurity and homelessness have led to families being split apart. Most family shelters do not take men, so the fathers of two-parent families that become homeless must either go to a single men’s shelter or make other housing arrangements. Many shelters also do not accommodate adolescent boys or older male teens. Family breakup may be required for a shelter stay.
The housing instability of poor women and their children has profound consequences, both for them and for society as a whole. Homelessness compromises the emotional and physical health of women and children, disrupts schooling, and creates a substantial barrier to employment. It widens the chasm between those who are prospering in a strong economy and those who fall ever further behind. In the six years since the United States made its Beijing commitments to improving women’s lives, welfare policy, rather than widening poor women’s access to safe and affordable housing, has created higher levels of housing instability and homelessness.
One of the chief accomplishments of the Beijing conference and the Platform for Action was to position women’s issues squarely within the context of human rights. Building on the foundational work of activists worldwide, Beijing became the first U.N. women’s conference in which “women’s rights are human rights” was articulated not as a platitude but as a strategic assertion. Indeed, the phrase was taken up by former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton who, in her 5 September 1995 speech to the conference, asserted that “women will never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected.”
PRWORA is wholly incompatible with the strategic objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action and profoundly compromises the exercise of women’s human rights. Rather than improving the status of poor women, the legislation has deepened the misery of tens of thousands of women and their children. By undermining women’s access to a stable livelihood, welfare reform constructs barriers to their exercise of political, civil, cultural, and social rights.
Undoing the damage of welfare reform – and bringing U.S. policy in line with its stated commitments to the world community – will require the promulgation and implementation of policies that restore and strengthen the social safety net for women and children while funding programs that support women along the path to economic self-sufficiency. In the absence of the political will for such a comprehensive reworking of U.S. social welfare policy, advocates for poor women and families face an extended, defensive battle to ameliorate the cruelest and most discriminatory effects of this radically regressive policy.
Sherman, Arloc, Cheryl Amey, Barbara Duffield, Nancy Ebb, and Deborah Weinstein. Welfare to What: Early Findings on Family Hardship and Well-Being. Washington, SC: Children’s Defense Fund and National Coalition for the Homeless, 1998.
United Nations. Fourth World Conference of Women Platform for Action. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 1995.
U.S. General Accounting Office. Food Stamp Program: various Factors Have Led to Declining Participation. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1999.
Biography taken from www.speakoutnow.org
Linda Burnham has worked for decades as an activist, writer, strategist, and organizational consultant focused on women’s rights and anti-racism. Most recently she has been serving as the National Research Coordinator of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and prior to that, she provided organizational consulting to Domestic Workers United and facilitated the Gender Justice from the Grassroots Inter-Alliance Dialogue gathering in March 2010.
Linda Burnham is a co-founder and former executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center. The Women of Color Resource Center is a community-based organization that links activists with scholars and provides information and analysis on the social, political and economic issues that most affect women of color. Burnham founded the center to provide a strong institutional base for an agenda that recognizes the crucial interconnections between anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic organizing.
Burnham was a leader in the Third World Women’s Alliance, an organization that grew out of a women’s caucus in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and that, early on, challenged the women’s movement to incorporate issues of race and class into the feminist agenda. She has participated in conferences and meetings with women in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Cuba, returning with insights about the global factors that affect women’s status and the unique ways in which women organize to create change in their communities.
In 2004, Burnham was a leader of Count Every Vote, a human rights project that trained citizens to monitor the polls for the presidential election in the southern states. In 2005, Burnham was nominated as one of 1000 Peace Women for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2008, she was awarded the Twink Frey Social Activist Fellowship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 2009, she edited the anthology, Changing the Race: Racial Politics and the Election of Barack Obama. Burnham is a frequent featured speaker on college campuses and to community groups, addressing issues of women’s rights, racial justice, human rights and peace.
Burnham has written extensively on topics of Black politics and women’s rights. She was the first editor of Race File, a publication that compiles and analyzes articles highlighting key trends in communities of color. She has been an editor of Crossroads, a magazine that promotes dialogue and debate on the left side of the political spectrum.
In her consulting practice, Burnham focuses on working with social justice organizations that are committed to intentionally and systematically integrating racial justice and gender justice frameworks and values into organizing, advocacy and communications. Burnham’s writing and organizing are part of a lifelong inquiry into the dynamic, often perilous intersections of race, class and gender. Burnham has practiced and taught yoga for decades and is also an avid student of African and African diasporic dance.