Peer Reviewed. Title: Women, Families, Work, and Poverty: A Cloudy Future. Journal Issue: UCLA Women's Law Journal, 6(2) Author: Handler, Joel F.

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Peer Reviewed Title: Women, Families, Work, and Poverty: A Cloudy Future Journal Issue: UCLA Women's Law Journal, 6(2) Author: Handler, Joel F. Publication Date: 1996 Permalink:
Peer Reviewed Title: Women, Families, Work, and Poverty: A Cloudy Future Journal Issue: UCLA Women's Law Journal, 6(2) Author: Handler, Joel F. Publication Date: 1996 Permalink: Local Identifier: uclalaw_wlj_17655 Abstract: [No abstract] Copyright Information: All rights reserved unless otherwise indicated. Contact the author or original publisher for any necessary permissions. escholarship is not the copyright owner for deposited works. Learn more at escholarship provides open access, scholarly publishing services to the University of California and delivers a dynamic research platform to scholars worldwide. WOMEN, FAMILIES, WORK, AND POVERTY: A CLOUDY FUTURE Joel F. Handler* INTRODUCIMON The dramatic entry of women into the paid labor force is both good news and bad news. Clearly, it is a great sign of progress that women are striving towards economic and social independence. Although impressive gains have been made, there is still a long way to go - in both the Third World and the more industrialized nations as well. But in part, the rise of women in the paid labor force is born of necessity due to changes in marriage, divorce, the rise of the single-mother family, and, I would add, changes in the labor market. It is the necessity side of the equation that I want to address. Despite the patriarchal norms of a prior age, poor women have always had to work in the paid labor force, and they have been stigmatized for that work.' Today, poor women still have to work, but because of deteriorating labor market conditions they are finding it increasingly difficult to escape poverty, let alone Editors' Note: It is the policy of the UCLA Women's Law Journal that authors must provide citations for each sentence that contains an idea which is not the author's own or that cannot be attributed to general knowledge. The author of this piece, however, employs an alternative citation style in which multiple ideas attributable to the same authority are only cited at the conclusion of the section in which the authority is discussed. Specific inquiries as to the sources of support for the author's conclusions should be directed to the author, Joel Handler, at the UCLA School of Law, 405 Hilgard Avenue, Los Angeles, California, * 1996 by Joel F. Handler, Richard C. Maxwell Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law. This paper is part of a larger project with Yeheskel Hasenfeld, under a grant from the Twentieth Century Foundation, tentatively titled Reform Work; Reform Welfare. Our approach is to reconceptualize Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) mothers as part of the working poor, and propose reforms of the low-wage labor market and poverty in contrast to current policy which focuses exclusively on the long-term welfare recipient. 1. JOEL F. HANDLER & YERESKEL HASNFELD, TmE MORAL CONsTRUCrION OF PoVERTY (1991); AUC KEssLER-HARRIS, OUT TO WORK: A HISTORY OF WAGE-EARNiNG WoMEN IN =ix UNTrED STATES (1982). UCLA WOMEN'S LAW JOURNAL [Vol. 6:375 achieve economic independence, and they are stigmatized for that failure as well. Within marriage, the role of women is changing. In fact, the most dramatic changes in women's labor force participation have occurred among married women with young children. Increasingly, the breadwinner-husband family is not only being replaced by the wife-contributor family - since 1980, most wives provide some earned income to the family - but also by the wife as coprovider, where the wife is providing a significant portion, if not half, of the family's income. 2 Again, there are positive sides to this development - marriage no longer has to be viewed as subordination for women. Except for the rich, the only subgroup doing better today are probably young married couples, and that is primarily due to the rise in the wife's earned income. Research on trends in delayed marriage, increasing nonmarriage, marital instability, and marital formation suggests that marriage is more likely to occur when both men's and women's economic prospects are good. '3 Economic viability for working people requires not only two earners, but also there is an increasing trend for three jobs per couple. 4 Married mothers, who still have the great bulk of child care responsibilities, are working longer hours in a poorly paid, gender-discriminatory labor market. Not surprisingly, these developments have important consequences for family life and child care, which will be discussed infra Parts III and V. Single mothers have special, acute problems which must be addressed - indeed, most of this paper will be devoted to single mothers not only in poverty, but also on welfare. 5 In part, this is a reflection of the available research - we know more detail about the day-to-day lives of welfare mothers than about working-poor mothers in general. But, as we shall see, the point is that welfare mothers are, for the most part, also working mothers. Contrary to the popular stereotype of the long-term dependent, most welfare mothers are often in and out of the paid labor market and use welfare in much the same manner as unem- 2. Aim~e Dechter & Pamela Smock, The Fading Breadwinner Role and the Economic Implications for Young Couples, University of Wisconsin-Madison Inst. for Research on Poverty, Discussion Paper (1994). 3. Id. at See infra part II. 5. By welfare, I mean the AFDC program. 1996] WOMEN, FAMILIES, WORK, AND POVERTY 377 ployment insurance. Their experiences shed important light on the issues that we are addressing. I also want to bring men back into the discussion. Men, of course, continue to play the central role in gender discrimination. But men are also a crucial part of the necessity side of the equation. Changing labor market conditions have dramatically eroded the economic position of working men, and this, in turn, has dramatically affected the lives of women. 6 We are familiar with William Julius Wilson's thesis: one of the important reasons for the extraordinary rise of unmarried African American women is the incredibly smal pool of men who can support a family. 7 The lack of steady, decent employment among African American males is truly staggering. 8 Not only are most African American women facing parenthood on their own, but there are numerous accounts of how they and their children - as well as other poor families - are victims of crime and abuse from predatory men, reflecting the rage and despair of the inner cities. It is undeniable that women in the paid labor force, especially poor women, have special, unique problems. Nevertheless, while these problems have to be addressed, I argue that long-lasting, effective solutions must apply to women and men - all the working poor. In this article, I turn first to poverty - its extent and its effects on family life. Here, we learn that, while causality is not well understood, most of the harms that poor families are suffering are related to poverty. We also learn that while many people in poverty are on welfare, most poor people are working. Moreover, they often work long hours but still remain poor. Why is this so? There are no single answers to the questions of why some people work and others do not, and why some get ahead and others remain mired in poverty. Many people suffer from various kinds of personal or individual deficits - physical, mental, human capital. However, in this article, I discuss three 6. LAwRENCE MISHEL & GARY BURTLESS, REcENr WAGE TRENus: THm IM- PLICATIONS FOR LOW WAGE WoRK Rs (1995). 7. Wn.LAM WLSON, Tim TRULY DISADVANTAGED (1987). 8. In 1993, the male unemployment rate for African American high school dropouts was 42.1% and for graduates, 21.3%. For whites, the comparable figures were 18.3% and 10.8%. JARED BERNSTEiN & LAWRENCE MISHEL, TRENDs IN THE LOw-WAGE LABOR MARKET AND WEFARE REFORM: THn CONsrRANTs ON MAK- ING WoRK PAY, tbl. 4 (1994) (Available from Economic Policy Institute, 1660 L. St., NW, Ste. 1200, Wash. DC Many Economic Policy Institute publications are available on-line at UCLA WOMEN'S LAW JOURNAL [Vol. 6:375 major structural barriers that are particularly relevant to single mothers trying to achieve self-sufficiency: the low-wage labor market, the lack of health care, and the lack of adequate child care. These barriers might be less devastating to single mothers if they could count on financial support from fathers of their children. So why don't fathers support their children? A good question. I discuss the issue of child support to counter the argument that increased enforcement will ameliorate the poverty conditions of single mothers. The conclusion of the article is that if we are serious about the issues of family poverty and the healthy development of our children, then we should stop focusing on the largely symbolic issues of welfare reform 9 and start talking about the politics of redistribution. I. POVERTY: EXTENT AND EFFEcrs There are many reasons to be concerned about the barriers that women face in trying to become self-sufficient through paid labor - independence, self-worth, citizenship. Here, I am concerned about the ability of women and their children to live a decent life, a life with a reasonable level of material comfort, a life where children can be nurtured and given a decent chance to become successful adults. All of these goals are at risk for families in poverty. First, I discuss the extent of poverty; then, I turn to its effects on families. Poverty is extensive, and it is growing. In 1993, the official poverty line for a family of four was $14,763. Using this threshold, there were nearly forty million people - about fifteen percent of the population - in poverty in that year. 10 Of the 40 million people in poverty, 14.5 million of them were children. Approximately twenty-two percent of all children are living in poverty. Moreover, in 1989, fourteen million Americans (thirtyeight percent of the poor) reported incomes of less than one-half of the poverty line. The severity of poverty today rivals the figures for the 1950s. 11 Welfare is often used interchangeably with poverty, but the AFDC welfare population is approximately 9. JOEL F. HANDLER, THE POVERTY OF WELFARE REFORM (1995). 10. BuREAu OF LABOR STATISTICS, U.S. DEP'T OF LABOR, REPORT No. 896, A PROFILE OF THE WORKING POOR 1 (1993). 11. Sheldon H. Danziger & Daniel H. Weinberg, The Historical Record: Trends in Family Income Inequality and Poverty, in CONFRONTING POVERTY: PRESCRIP- TIONS FOR CHANGE 33 (Sheldon H. Danziger et al. eds., 1994) [hereinafter CON- FRONTING POVERTY]. 1996] WOMEN, FAMILIES, WORK, AND POVERTY million (1993) - of which about 9 million are children - which is considerably less than the poverty population. 12 The federal poverty line is considered low by most Americans. There are an additional 30 million Americans at 150% of the poverty line, which is approximately $21,000 for a family of four. At this income level, families have barely enough to get by - and certainly nothing at all for what many of us take for granted, such as meals out, vacations, and so forth. 13 There is a serious question as to how accurately the official poverty line reflects reality. The official poverty line, adopted in the 1960s, consisted of the cost of a minimum adequate diet (the Economy Food Plan, the least expensive food plan adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1961), multiplied by three. Cash income, before taxes, determined a family's poverty status. 14 The thresholds were updated annually for price inflation. The Committee on National Statistics of the National Research Council (National Academy of Sciences) has recently proposed a new measure.' 5 The panel recommended that the poverty threshold be based on basic needs - food, clothing, and shelter, with a small amount added for additional needs - and that nondiscretionary expenses should be deducted from income, including out-of-pocket medical expenditures and insurance pre- 12. HousE Comm. ON WAYS & MEANS, 103D CONG., 1ST S-SS., OVERVIEW OF ErTrrmEMENT PROGRAMS, 1993 GREEN BOOK, BACKGROUND MATERIALS AND DATA ON PROGRAMS WITHIN THE JURISDIcrION OF THE Comm. 615 [hereinafter 1993 GREEN BOOK]. 13. Danziger & Weinberg, supra note 11, at The Poverty Measure: A Brief History, 17 Focus (U. of Wisconsin-Madison Inst. for Res. on Poverty), Summer 1995, at In Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, The Institute for Research on Poverty suggests that the present measure is outmoded primarily because it is based on gross income alone; thus, it fails to take account of the fact that tax payments and other nondiscretionary expenses can put families below the poverty line. It also fails to include in-kind assistance which can put families above the poverty line. Some of the more specific reasons for proposing revisions of the official measure were (1) child care costs due to the increasing participation of women in the labor force; (2) differences in medical costs that families incurred because of the differences in health status and insurance; and (3) differences in disposable income because of the increase in the payroll tax and the growth of Food Stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Other reasons included the need for regional variation, family size adjustments in view of the changing demographic and family characteristics, and changing concepts of what constitutes minimum needs - for example, food expenditures are now a lower proportion of a family's budget and housing costs are a higher proportion. Measuring Poverty, A New Approach, in Focus, supra note 14, at 4. See generally MEASURING POVERTY: A Nnw APPROACH (Constance F. Citro & Robert T. Michael eds., 1995). 380 UCLA WOMEN'S LAW JOURNAL [Vol. 6:375 miums, income and payroll taxes, actual child care expenses up to a cap for working parents, an allowance for other work-related expenses, and child support payments to another family. At the same time, in-kind resources, such as food stamps, subsidized housing, school lunches, and home energy assistance would be included. Rather than a specific poverty line, the panel recommended a range. For a family of four (two adults, two children) the range would be from $13,700 to $15,900 (1992 dollars). 16 Under the new recommendations, the number of people in poverty would be about the same. However, the composition of the poverty population would change - about twenty percent would be new. That is, 7.4 million would be added, and about the same number would move above the poverty line. 17 The most important change, for our purposes, would be the higher proportions of poverty rates for families with one or more workers. The new definition includes 3.6 million more people living in families where the primary worker was a full-time worker. While the number of poor children would remain the same, there would be more poor children living in two-parent families. The poverty rate of children in single-parent families would remain disproportionately high. The number of poor families without health insurance would increase; in fact, the largest marginal increase in the number of poor (5.3 million) would come from deducting out-of-pocket medical expenses. Conversely, if the 1996 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit takes effect, 2.4 million people would cross over the poverty line.' 8 Whether or not the official poverty line is revised, there is little doubt that poverty is growing, both in numbers and severity. Many reasons are offered, but the two most important are 16. Id. at 6. There were many other recommendations by the panel - variations for differences in family composition, age of children, cost-of-living adjustments, regional variations in housing costs, and so forth. While some of the recommendations of the panel are controversial (calculating health care expenditures), there is general agreement on others - for example, deducting taxes and work expenditures and adding in-kind expenditures that support consumption. See id. 17. David M. Betson, Consequences of the Panel's Recommendations, 17 Focus, supra note 14, at 11. The report did not calculate the composition of people receiving assistance that would move above the poverty line. It is hard to believe that many of those to move above the poverty line would be AFDC recipients. Benefits vary by state, but the national average including foodstamps is between seventy percent and eighty percent below the poverty line. In some very high-benefit states - for example, Alaska - there would be some AFDC recipients no longer considered in poverty. 18. Id. at 12. 1996] WOMEN, FAMILIES, WORK, AND POVERTY 381 changes in family formation and the rise in income inequality following two decades of slow economic growth, declining real wages, and the spread of low-wage work. 19 While low income is not the exclusive cause of family problems, the fact remains that poverty is the most powerful predictor of the harmful behavioral consequences -that are most commonly ascribed to welfare families. 20 McLanahan and Sandefur state: Low income or income loss is the single most important factor in accounting for the lower achievement of children in single-parent families. It accounts for half of the difference in educational achievement, weak labor force attachment, and early childbearing. '21 Not surprisingly, parents in these families suffer more emotionally and are more anxious about their children's future than more well-off parents. Poor families are more likely to disintegrate and become single-parent households, and single parents, in turn, are less likely to engage in good parenting practices. Even allowing for the problems of official reporting, the highest incidence of child neglect and abuse and the most severe injuries to children occur in the poorest families. Economic instability and hardship and social stress among adults is related to marital conflict, harsh and inconsistent punishment, rejection, and noninvolvement. Brain dysfunctions, caused either by exposure to lead, injuries from abuse, or mothers' substance abuse - all highly correlated with poverty - interfere with language and cognition development, resulting in learning and social problems at school. Early school failure, in turn, is one of the strongest predictors of adolescent problems including violent behavior. It is not surprising that children growing up in poor families are more likely to suffer from poor physical and mental health problems, do poorly at school, and compromise successful development by early sex, pregnancy, substance abuse, delinquency, and crime. 2 Education is a crucial determinate of future employment, and low income (incomes less than 150% of the poverty line) 19. Introduction to UNEVN TIDES: RISING INEQUALIY IN AMERICA (Sheldon H. Danziger & Peter Gottschalk eds., 1993). 20. ROBERT H. HAvEMAN & BARBARA L. WOLFE, SUCCEEDING GENERA- TIONS: ON THE EFFEcrs OF INvEsTmENTS IN CHILDREN 3 (1994). 21. SARA McLANAHAN & GARY SANDEFUR, GROWING Up WITH A SINGLE PARENT 154 (1994). 22. NATIONAL REs. COUNCIL, COMM. ON BEHAVIoRAL & Soc. Sci. & ED., LOSING GENERATIONs: ADOLESCENTS IN I-IGH-RISK SETrINGS 2-11 (1993) [hereinafter LOSING GENERATiONS]. UCLA WOMEN'S LAW JOURNAL [Vol. 6:375 seriously affects educational achievement. Poor children attend schools of inferior quality. Their parents cannot afford afterschool enrichment activities and are less likely to be involved with their schooling. Thus, poor children have lower expectations and are less likely to invest in themselves. 23 Not surprisingly, low income is the strongest predictor of school dropout rates, regardless of race.2 4 As will be discussed, people without a high school degree or its equivalent are severely disadvantaged in an already difficult job market. Because there is such a high correlation between poverty and single-parent households, it is hard to separate out the effects. It's a case of double jeopardy for both the parents and the children. As Bronfenbrenner says, [b]ecause many single-parent f
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