Exploding the Stereotypes: Welfare
by Rita Henley Jensen, originally appeared in Ms. Magazine, Jul/Aug 1995.
I am a woman. A white woman, once poor but no longer. I am not lazy, never was. I am a middle-aged woman, with two grown daughters. I was a welfare mother, one of those women society considers less than nothing.
I should have applied for Aid to Families with Dependent Children when I was 18 years old, pregnant with my first child, and living with a boyfriend who slapped me around. But I didn’t.
I remember talking it over at the time with a friend. I lived in the neighborhood that surrounds the vast Columbus campus of Ohio State University. Students, faculty, hangers-on, hippies, runaways, and recent émigrés from Kentucky lived side by side in the area’s relatively inexpensive housing. I was a runaway.
On a particularly warm midsummer’s day, I stood on High Street, directly across from the campus’ main entrance, with an older, more sophisticated friend, wondering what to do with my life. With my swollen belly, all hope of my being able to cross the street and enroll in the university had evaporated. Now, I was seeking advice about how merely to survive, to escape the assaults and still be able to care for my child.
My friend knew of no place I could go, nowhere I could turn, no one else I could ask. I remember saying in a tone of resignation, “I can’t apply for welfare.” Instead of disagreeing with me, she nodded, acknowledging our mutual belief that taking beatings was better than taking handouts. Being “on the dole” meant you deserved only contempt.
In August 1965, I married my attacker.
Six years later, I left him and applied for assistance. My children were 18 months and five and a half years old. I had waited much too long. Within a year, I crossed High Street to go to Ohio State. I graduated in four years and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I have worked as a journalist for 18 years now. My life on welfare was very hard – there were times when I didn’t have enough food for the three of us. But I was able to get an education while on welfare. It is hardly likely that a woman on AFDC today would be allowed to do what I did, to go to school and develop the kind of skills that enabled me to make a better life for myself and my children.
This past summer, I attended a conference in Chicago on feminist legal theory. During the presentation of a paper related to gender and property rights, the speaker mentioned as an aside that when one says “welfare mother” the listener hears “black welfare mother.” A discussion ensued about the underlying racism until someone declared that the solution was easy: all that had to be done was have the women in the room bring to the attention of the media the fact that white women make up the largest percentage of welfare recipients. At this point, I stood, took a deep breath, stepped out of my professional guise, and informed the crowd that I was a former welfare mother. Looking at my white hair, blue eyes, and freckled Irish skin, some laughed; others gasped – despite having just acknowledged that someone like me was, in fact, a “typical” welfare mother.
The purpose of this antiwelfare oratory and the campaigns against sex education, abortion rights, and aid to teenage mothers is to ensure a constant supply of young women as desperate and ashamed as I was. Young women willing to take a job at any wage rate, willing to tolerate the most abusive relationships with men, and unable to enter the gates leading to higher education.
To accomplish their goals, political leaders continually call for reforms that include demands that welfare recipients work, that teenagers don’t have sex, and that welfare mothers stop giving birth (but don’t have abortions). Each “reform” addresses the nation’s racial and sexual stereotypes: taking care of one’s own children is not work; welfare mothers are unemployed, promiscuous, and poorly motivated; and unless the government holds their feet to the fire, these women will live on welfare for years, as will their children and their children’s children.
This type of demagoguery has been common throughout our history. What sets the present era apart is the nearly across-the-board cooperation of the media. The national news magazines, the most prestigious daily newspapers, the highly regarded broadcast news outlets, as well as the supermarket tabloids and talk-radio hosts, have generally abandoned the notion that one of their missions is to sometimes comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Instead, they too often reprint politicians’ statements unchallenged, provide charts comparing one party’s recommendations to another’s without really questioning those recommendations, and illustrate story after story, newscast after newscast with a visual of an African American woman (because we all know they’re the only ones on welfare) living in an urban housing project (because that’s where all welfare recipients live) who has been on welfare for years.
Today, welfare mothers have even less opportunity than I did. Their talent, brains, luck, and resourcefulness are ignored. Each new rule, regulation, and reform make it even more unlikely that they can use the time they are on welfare to do as I did: cross the High Streets in their cities and towns, and realize their ambitions. Each new rule makes it more likely that they will only be able to train for a minimum-wage job that will never allow them to support their families.
So no, I don’t think all we have to do is get the facts to the media. I think we have to raise hell any way we can.
Our goal is simple: never again should there be a young woman, standing in front of the gates that lead to a better future, afraid to enter because she believes she must instead choose poverty and battery.
Biography taken from Women's eNews
Rita Henley Jensen is founder of Women's eNews. A former senior writer for the National Law Journal and columnist for The New York Times Syndicate, Rita Henley Jensen has more than 30 years of experience in journalism and an armload of awards, including the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Alumni award, the Hunter College Presidential Grant for Innovative Uses of Technology in Teaching, the Alicia Patterson fellowship, and the Lloyd P. Burns Public Service prize. Jensen is also a survivor of domestic violence and a former welfare mother who earned degrees from Ohio State University and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She is the grandmother of four, two granddaughters and two grandsons.