The Gestapo of Welfare Reform


 

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 (Children’s 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 they’re
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 Reader’s 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 wouldn’t 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 one’s
possessions proves the effectiveness of
one’s 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 houses—does that mean that all
those parents in history that didn’t 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
viewers—everyone on American TV is rich,
therefore, everyone in America is rich, or at
least middle class.

What’s 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.