For the past four years, the debate about “welfare” has targeted women. Politicians fingered poor women as the main source of the nation’s problems, and reporters followed, creating vivid, misleading images of lazy mothers-of-dozens draining to the dregs the nation’s coffers. The pictures skewed the facts, inflating the proportion of AFDC receivers who are African-American, immigrant, urban and young.
But the scapegoating worked. By the time the Senate passed the 1996 welfare bill, it was so acceptable to starve and impoverish women that even those editorial writers who opposed the president’s signing of the bill generally did so on other grounds.
Editors across the country voiced concern about the effects that ending guaranteed federal income supports would have on some people. The New York Times‘ editors (7/18/96) worried that the House bill would “push a million children into poverty, victimize legal immigrants and leave no ironclad Federal safety net underneath families that search for but cannot find work.” The Boston Globe mused that President Clinton “cannot in conscience send many thousands of Americans and legal immigrants—including large numbers of children—into poverty.” “Neither governors nor Congress is likely to tolerate more malnourished or neglected children,” wrote Time (7/29/96).
Neglecting and malnourishing women was apparently fine—for the nation, and for the press. If readers hadn’t already jumped to that conclusion, the Washington Post (7/18/96) made it for them: “The central issue in reforming [welfare] has been the same for years. How do you increase the pressure on welfare mothers to go to work while continuing to support their children if they fail?” It’s not quite acceptable to starve the little children. Yet.
But 90 percent of the adults the president and Congress cut off welfare are women: single female heads of households; women born outside the U.S.; women whose partnerships aren’t recognized as “marriage”; poor women convicted of even a single drug crime. “Families” don’t look for and fail to find work, single parents do, and in the case of AFDC receivers, the vast majority of those are women. Children surviving on an average AFDC grant plus food stamps ($7,968 a year for a family of three) aren’t being pushed into poverty—they’re there already. (The poverty line is $12,320.) And they’re not suffering alone. Their moms typically feed them first and eat what’s left.
Though feminists and others have fought for years for editors to use less sexist language, like “parent” instead of “mother,” the welfare debate was no time to start. “Gender-neutral language is supposed to be a more accurate use of language, not used to obscure bias,” columnist Rita Henley Jensen, a former welfare recipient, wrote in a letter to the New York Times (7/25/96).
Beneath the snow of talk about “families” and “children” and “immigrants” are as many as 75 percent of welfare mothers who have been victims of assault by a relative or so-called “friend.” Fifty percent of homeless women are estimated to be fleeing men who’ve battered them (according to the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund). If they leave violent homes without being able to support their children, then they’re berated as “bad parents.” If they turned to welfare (when there was welfare), they were portrayed as “welfare queens.”
To many poor women in domestic danger, the shame of poverty looks more frightening than the terror of their next beating. The Congress and president just made the poverty a whole lot worse. Relentless media scapegoating made the shame worse, too. Domestic violence survivors and other experts know that what makes or breaks a woman’s will to escape attack is her own sense of worth. But coverage of the welfare debate sent one message echoing loud. Like political undesirables after a coup d’etat, poor women can simply disappear. Journalism like that has consequences.