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Subject to Debate

Women have been unfairly blamed for a lot of things over the years. But poverty? Women cause poverty? That is the emerging bipartisan consensus, subscribed to by players as far apart as Charles Murray and Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton, National Review and The New York Times.

Katha Pollitt

Women have been unfairly blamed for a lot of things over the years--the Fall of Man (sic), their own rapes and beatings, autistic children. Male journalists are particularly ingenious at the game of cherchez la femme: Kenneth Woodward, religion reporter for Newsweek, blames women for the impending collapse of the Church of England (selfish ordination-seekers driving traditionalists to Rome); Murray Kempton playfully suggests that Mafia dons are merely small-time grifters trying to support their layaboutmarrying daughters. And, as is well known, behind every serial killer is a bad mother--just ask Jeffrey Dahmer's father, who in his recent memoir points out that Mrs. Dahmer was a reluctant breast-feeder.

But poverty? Women cause poverty? That is the emerging bipartisan consensus, subscribed to by players as far apart as Charles Murray and Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton, National Review and The New York Times. All agree that unwed mothers, particularly teenagers and, to a lesser extent, divorced moms, are the driving force behind poverty, crime and a host of other ills. If mothers got married and stayed married, children would be provided for, the economy would flourish, crime would go down and your taxes too. "Welfare dependency" would vanish, replaced, as God and nature planned, by husband-dependency.

Opinions differ over how to accomplish this goal. Mickey Kaus wants to force welfare moms into state-funded low-wage employment and, if they balk, put their children in orphanages. Charles Murray wants to skip the preliminaries and get right to the orphanage part. More than thirty states are conducting punitive welfare "experiments": refusing increases for children conceived on welfare, cutting grants to women whose kids skip school, stopping payments after two years (or, if Governor Weld has his way in Massachusetts, sixty days!). Bill Clinton's campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it" has unleashed forces he cannot control: What defenders claim started out as a way to market poverty spending to resistant suburban voters has become a competition over how to prevent the poor and "illegitimate" from being born in the first place. And since this is America, land of family values and pro-life, this end must be achieved in a way that combines the minimum of money and the maximum of social control. Forcing welfare recipients to use Norplant, as many state legislatures are now considering, has an appeal that, say, simply making all birth control free and accessible does not. As for abortion, forget it. Even as the nation contemplates the mass warehousing of poor toddlers, a New York court ruled 6-to-0 in Hope v. Perales that a program that funds all medical care for poor pregnant women above the Medicaid line need not pay for even medically necessary abortions. Feminists for Life, who argue that banning abortion will force the government to support women and children, phone home: We are moving toward a system that will force poor pregnant women to give birth and will then take their babies away.

To say that unwed mothers cause poverty is like saying hungry people cause famine, or sick people cause disease. Out-ofwedlock births do not explain why Donna Karan has her clothes produced in Hong Kong, or why $100 sneakers are made by Malaysian women paid 16 cents an hour. Nor do the sex lives of the poor explain why corporations nationwide are laying off thousands of white-collar workers, or why one out of five college graduates are working at jobs that require no college degree. Imagine for a moment that every teenage girl in West Virginia got married before getting pregnant. How would that create jobs or raise wages? Marriage might benefit individuals (or not), but it can't bring back the coal industry. Family values didn't save the family farm, and they won't save the millions of people who have been rendered superfluous by the New World Economic Order.

It would be closer to the truth to say that poverty causes early and unplanned childbearing. Across the income spectrum, after all--and to an extent that would horrify their parents if they knew about it--young people are having sex and young girls are getting pregnant. Strangely enough, however, you don't find many 15-year-olds dropping out of the Dalton School to have babies. Girls with bright futures--college, jobs, travel--have abortions. It's the ones who have nothing to postpone who become mothers. What none of the men who have dominated the welfare discussion betray any sign of understanding is that babies are the centuries-old way that women have put meaning, love, pleasure, hope and self-respect into their lives.

Unlike some on the left, I don't think teenage motherhood is a great idea, either for mothers or for children, and whether or not marriage is involved. But if impoverishing women were a deterrent, it surely would have worked by now: Those supposedly lavish welfare payments are barely two-thirds what they were twenty years ago. Even the orphanage idea has a long history of failure behind it--which didn't prevent Daniel Patrick Moynihan from reminiscing affectionately about the infamous turn-of-the-century "orphan trains" on Charlie Rose a few months ago.

Orphanages for children, and for their mothers, "workfare," jail, the street, the church-basement cot--all in the name of values. Where's William Blake when you need him? ***

Dept. of Contradictions: Among the workplaces hosting Take Our Daughters to Work Day was the N.Y.C. Fire Department, which has not hired a single female firefighter since 1982 (when a federal judge forced it to admit forty-two women) and which has since compiled a record of sexual harassment, intimidation and discrimination. Will someone please explain to me how it boosts young girls' self-esteem and expands their horizons to visit an enterprise that has successfully resisted hiring women for more than a decade?

This article is reprinted with permission from the May 30, 1994 issue of The Nation magazine. (c) 1994 The Nation Company, Inc.

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Last modified 2005-02-15 11:13 AM

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