Re-examining Stereotypes of Poverty

California's Welfare Moms Fall into Several Categories and Fit No One Description, Says Berrick in Her Book "Faces of Poverty"

by Patricia McBroom

Mothers on welfare are dramatically different in reality from the stereotype being promoted by policy makers, according to a Berkeley study of some 400 California women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Only a handful of these women fit the classic picture of a poorly trained, school drop-out with many children.

Most recipients cover a range so broad--from the well-educated, divorced mother down on her luck to women who are emotionally disturbed--that any effort to treat them as one group is bound to fail, the study has found.

Moreover, two thirds of the women need short-term assistance and leave the welfare rolls by their own accord.

This picture has emerged gradually through interviews with 400 California mothers in the state's workfare program called GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence). These interviews were then supplemented with in-depth, ethnographic detail on the lives of five individuals chosen to be characteristic of the total group.

The combined approach has brought into focus a new image of welfare, published this month as a book, "Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare," by Jill Duerr Berrick, director of the Child Welfare Research Center in Berkeley's School of Social Welfare.

Berrick, who spent many months getting to know each of the five families, illustrates the harmfulness of reforming welfare without knowing who the women are that receive it.

In place of one welfare "type," the researcher has found five kinds of groups with different profiles and outcomes. The first two groups--representing two thirds of women who enter welfare in a given year in California--are people who need income assistance only temporarily. Because they have job skills and work experience, they are able to work their way back into the labor market usually in two years or less. The other three groups--about 30 to 40 percent of the total--include teenaged mothers (6 percent); the emotionally-psychologically impaired (15-18 percent) and the persistently poor, underskilled women whose lives are hobbled by multiple disadvantages (10-15 percent).

"I was very surprised when these women did not fit into our preconceived boxes," said Berrick. "As the true picture came to light, we found this enormous diversity in the population."

There is Ana, a hard-working Latina who lost everything in one bad year. "I had my own business and I did terrible at it. I got pregnant first, had the baby, after the baby I hurt my back a year later. Then, I had a fire in the kitchen. My baby got burnt and I got burnt. So, it was like one thing after another and I lost all my money," says Ana.

Welfare provided the safety net that caught Ana and allowed her to put her life back in order. She views the program with a mixture of gratitude and deep shame.

Sandy was a member of the working poor without health insurance for her child when she went on welfare. With a low-paying, no-benefits job in a department store and a man who abandoned the family, Sandy took assistance because her child needed a doctor. To keep the health care, she had to stay on welfare; to stay on welfare, she had to quit work. After three years of assistance, Sandy is working full time with a marginal income ($17,000 per year) just high enough to cover child care and health insurance.

Women like this represent about 60 to 70 percent of the women each year who walk through the door in California asking for help, said Berrick. Rather than social services, they need financial help for a period of time, along with opportunities for work, childcare and health insurance.

Cora, the last of the five portraits in the book, is one of the 10 to 20 percent of welfare people who are "dependent" on the system, in the sense that she has been on AFDC all of her adult life and has virtually no experience at working in the market economy. Now in her late 40s, the mother of six children, a resident of public housing in one of the worst urban areas in California, Cora grew up in rural Oklahoma forced to work in the cotton fields instead of going to school.

As a young woman in an urban ghetto, Cora went on welfare with her first child. Her abusive husband would not support them. Cora's life is dominated by her children's illnesses. The first two sons have hemophilia. A daughter is a crack baby. Two younger sons have a genetic disorder that causes tumors. All require many visits to the doctor.

Cora has worked for a wage only once, cooking hamburgers for $4.10 per hour. There is little chance she could ever make enough money to pay for health insurance and child care.

Sometimes Cora prays at night that God will let her live long enough to see her children old enough to take care of themselves, but Berrick's prediction is pessimistic. "It is unlikely that any of them will be able to take care of themselves. Cora and her children and perhaps her grandchildren will probably be cared for by the state for most of the years of all of their lives."

This troubled 30 to 40 percent of the welfare population needs social services that they are not now getting on AFDC, said Berrick. She estimates that with significant help for the women and especially their children, about half of the difficult cases could end their dependency, leaving a small group who will always need welfare.

She emphasized that society needs to "recognize and live with the costs of dealing with poverty. We could cut them all off and see an increase in poverty not witnessed for several decades. But what we gain by acting responsibly is the knowledge that their children are being raised in a healthy and supportive environment."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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