The Gestapo of Welfare Reform
By Lucky Jean
There is a sinister trend emerging in the area of welfare reform that has gone largely unnoticed by non-poor people: the role of CSD (Childrens Services Department).
While CSD is supposed to help children by removing them from abusive and/or neglectful parents, what they have ended up doing in many cases is to define conditions of poverty or voluntary simplicity as "neglect" and demand that parents live a middle-class American lifestyle or lose their kids.
Here in Josephine County, Oregon , several people have been threatened with the removal of their children for such parental "neglect" as having no electricity, phones, or hot running water. Many families have done without such amenities for years, especially those who have been dependent on welfare, since, as has been repeatedly pointed out, welfare checks are not really sufficient to survive on. If a family has no other source of income--help from relatives, under the table jobs, or income from illegal activities--then theyre probably doing without something, like a car or a phone. They may be living in a bus or a "substandard" house.
Middle-class people who assume that a welfare check is sufficient to achieve a middle-class lifestyle (erroneous information in Readers Digest and elsewhere claim that a family on welfare gets $30,000 a year) assume that the "extra" money must be going for booze and drugs, when, in fact, there is no extra money in the first place.
Now, of course, under welfare reform, if these families do not work a certain number of hours a week, their check will be reduced or eventually cut off. Those who are working will also probably not lift themselves out of poverty, just maintain it as before.
Now imagine the nice, middle-class CSD workers (who probably never had to survive themselves on a welfare check or a low-wage job) coming in to your house to inspect for child neglect.
We used to live in a school bus, until recently, and still know families who do. We were often envied by families who had to camp in their cars waiting to be able to afford a place to live, or by friends who had to shell out 99 percent of their check every month for rent, only to worry how long they would get to live in a house before being asked to leave for some arbitrary reason. We congratulated ourselves on having a shelter of our own to live in, and on not being held hostage to rent or bills every month.
We have recently moved into a house (with help from relatives) and have been shocked to hear stories from our friends, who have been told by CSD to move out of their buses and rent rooms in houses. One young man we picked up hitchhiking told us how his woman friend took their newborn baby to live with her father because the hospital wouldnt let them take the baby home to live in a bus.
I have never, however, heard of anyone in CSD protesting the enforced poverty of welfare for the sake of the children.
Demanding that a family rent a house instead of living in a bus or other shelter reveals an attitude that supposes that families are better off being one check away from homelessness than owning anything for themselves. It also assumes that the measure of ones possessions proves the effectiveness of ones parenting.
(Does this mean that grandparents who live in RVs should be forbidden from seeing their grandchildren?)
These sorts of rules, insisting that parents work hard enough to achieve middle class lifestyles (with no help from anyone, of course) amounts to outlawing high time intensity parenting for most parents. Only those two parent families with enough money from one paycheck, or single parents with generous child support checks, are "allowed," economically anyway, to have their children spend time at home with a caregiver who loves them.
This is especially hard on single mothers, who have never earned as much money as men. Mothers who are very attached to spending the day with their children will be more likely to stay with abusive partners, or take up with men they would otherwise have little to do with, for the financial help and support.
If the only good parents are those with phones, electricity, hot running water, and housesdoes that mean that all those parents in history that didnt have those things were neglectful? (Were the Waltons a dysfunctional family?) And what about children in other countries where such things are very scarce? Should we send out a UN version of CSD to rescue every child in the world without a middle-class American lifestyle? And why not? Are they any less deserving?
The whole idea assumes that poor people are willfully poor, and that there are no conditions in America outside oneself that could contribute to poverty. I believe this has partly to do with a class blindness on the part of non-poor Americans, who do not see poor people in their daily life and certainly not on TV in any positive way. They suffer from the same delusion afflicting third world TV viewerseveryone on American TV is rich, therefore, everyone in America is rich, or at least middle class.
Whats to stop these "standard of living" requirements from being raised later? What if parents are required to have to update computers for the good of their children? What if they are required to have cars that are less than ten years old? What if they are required to live in $90,000 homes?
What will happen to our children if the trend toward mass child relocation continues? A lot of CSD workers and foster parents will have "work" for which they get paid, at the expense of children and their parents, who have been doing the job of parenting for free. Will caregivers who parent for money do a better job than those who would do it for love?
Lucky Jean is a former welfare mother, musician, and earthworm farmer.