In 1996, Bill Clinton officially announced that motherhood was not work. He did this through his Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. This legislation stated that people could no longer receive benefits unless they fulfilled 30 hours per week of out-of-home work requirements. Clinton said this would “end welfare as we know it.” And it did. Since 1996, the number of families with children living in extreme poverty ($2 a day or less) has increased by nearly 130%.
When I started interviewing mothers for Gross Domestic Product, I focused on mothers who were receiving, or had at some point received some type of government assistance. I was fascinated by the difference between mothers who had raised their children before 1996, and those whose children were still young after 1996. I would like to introduce you to two single mothers, Vera and Madeline (names are not real).
Vera raised her daughter in the late 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. When I asked her about how and where she worked throughout those years, her answer was this:
I was working for the most part, like a secretary or administrative assistant. So that's what I would do to earn our money. Back then there were different rules for DSS (Department of Social Services) So you could work for a year or two or whatever and then you could come home and collect. That worked for me, because there were some years when my daughter was fine. Everything was going along in school, her grades was fine, she seemed emotionally healthy, et cetera. And so I said, “Good, I can work this year.” And then there were years when her grades dropped and I start getting calls home. She seemed to be having problems and needed me, so I would come home and be with her...because I was it, as far as taking care of her. A one-man band. And there were no after school programs then either, you have to remember.
Um, I mean we always lived in poverty, whether I was working or not, because I could never make enough for what we needed. And when I got DSS, they only gave me maybe $500 a month. And rent was $400. And out of that $100 dollars had to come utilities, clothing, transportation, soap, shampoo, all of it. And the food stamps...I got by on them by eating a lot of peanut butter and that sort of thing. But if you talk to anybody who's ever had food stamp benefits, they’ll tell you they never last the whole month. I stretched mine to the 3rd week, which was more or less miraculous. But at least I could be there for my daughter. You know, get her through whatever she was dealing with cause otherwise, well; I don’t know where she’d be right now.
Madeline is currently raising two children, ages 5 and 7. The last grade she completed in school was the 10th grade. I asked her about her experience with TANF and other forms of state assistance.
In order for me to get any cash assistance, I have to do 30 hours of work related job training. So they send me to this company Ameritrust. And the government pays Ameritrust to train me. It’s a six-week program and at the end of the six weeks they say, “We would love to hire you, but you don’t have your high school diploma”. So what am I gonna do? Cause only 10 out of my 30 hours can be GED prep and Ameritrust is the one giving me the prep, so you know its not real solid education, so I’m never gonna get my GED. And it doesn’t matter anyway, ‘cause even if I did, none of my required hours can be college courses like computer classes or anything really to be, you know, competitive. It all has to be very specific training for one job that I can’t get for real anyway.
And I get Care-For-Kids (CT state child-care assistance), but no decent daycare center will take my kids, because they would only be part-time and the daycare wants full-time kids, so they can make enough money.
When I asked Madeline what she does do about childcare after school, she answered:
I just scramble and try to get family or friends to help. Maybe my mother can do one day, my aunt can do another. I can do aftercare at the school, but I don’t like to do that much because they are not watching my kids enough. My son comes home with bruises and says he’s getting bullied and the staff doesn’t do anything about it.
The drastic difference between Vera’s story and Madeline’s, has made me decide to set my play in 2046--fifty years after our government made it official that motherhood was not work. If this is where we are 12 years after “welfare reform”, where will we be in another 32 years?