Tag Archives: children

Mothering and poverty and solidarity

One of the projects that has somewhat consumed me over the past several months is an analysis of the policy changes made–unilaterally, I might add–by the Department of Children and Families in Kansas, in the areas of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and childcare assistance, in particular.

Poverty, especially among women with children, is not new. A newspaper story from 1870 in New York (1870!) describes a woman who lost her job because she didn’t have childcare (in Framing Class). We should have figured this out by now.

Instead, doomed to repeat our history, Kansas is really distinguishing itself in the area of welfare ‘reform’.

Among the policy change highlights over the past few years of economic support policies in the state (I have to pull myself back from using sarcastic quotations in multiple places in each sentence here):

  • The most restrictive ‘child-under’ exemption in the country, requiring mothers to return to work only two months after giving birth
  • Childcare ineligibility for any parent working less than 28 hours/week, forcing many moms to turn down job offers, because they can’t report to work without financial support to pay for childcare
  • A sort of preemptive job search requirement, insisting on at least 20 hours per week of job search activity and at least 20 contacts with potential employers, before TANF applicants can even receive benefits (often, over a period of 7 weeks)
  • Significant increases in sanctions, including lifelong, whole-family bars for any fraud (meaning that a child could be denied benefits because, say, her mom’s boyfriend was found to have committed fraud when part of another family, even years before)
  • Recalculation of families’ incomes, resulting in the denial of SNAP benefits to thousands of Kansas citizen children (you’ve heard about this one before)
  • Return of federal grant dollars for SNAP outreach, because (seriously, they said this) the state isn’t ‘in the business of recruiting’ people to be on welfare
  • Institution of a 48-month time limit for TANF
  • Redesign of the Kansas Vision (SNAP) card, to be bright red and labeled “Food Assistance”

Significantly, few of these policy changes can be explained purely in economic terms. As I’ll outline more tomorrow, Kansas has TANF dollars left over and, indeed, some of these policies result in fewer federal dollars flowing into the state.

Instead, these policies are mostly about cutting poor mothers and children loose, insisting that they go it alone, in reckless denial of the very real consequences for children when their families lack the support they need to cope with economic and social realities. We’re approving only about 25% of TANF applications today, compared to almost 50% a few years ago.

I have no idea what a parent who is denied TANF does to survive.

There are tangible policy changes (including, in some cases, restorations) that would make a difference in these families’ lives, helping these mostly single mothers to provide for their children’s needs the way that they want–and we need–to.

I am glad that United Community Services, who commissioned this report, similarly to their investigation of the changes that resulted from the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF in 1996, gave me the chance to be part of the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of these findings.

But, here, I’m reacting not as an analyst, and not even as an advocate, but as a mom.

Because, while people often shake their heads when they find out that I have four children and multiple jobs, wondering aloud how I do it, the truth is that I have it really easy.

I don’t want to contemplate–because I can imagine–what it feels like to not have enough food for your children, or to worry that you’ll lose your housing, or, probably worst of all, to walk away leaving them in an unsafe place so that you can work.

I would bear the stigma of asking for benefits, willingly, just like so many low-income moms do, because our kids deserve help. I would bang my head against the constraints of a system that wasn’t designed to really work for me, because no pain could equal that of having to deny my children what they really need.

I feel, then, a solidarity with moms in poverty, albeit one limited by the obvious socioeconomic chasm that divides us.

I have never once envied the mom buying groceries with food stamps in front of me, as though she has something that should be mine. I have never once wondered why the mom with a young baby isn’t rushing back to her minimum wage job, because that sounds so obviously unappealing. I have never once thought that the proper ‘lesson’ to teach poor children is that they will pay if we don’t approve of their parents’ behavior.

What we have in common is a commitment to our children, no matter what.

And that’s who reacts, when I see charts like these:

caseload reductionCaseload reduction in Kansas’ TANF program: Translation–we’re kicking people off and denying others the chance to even get on

TANF to poverty ratioTANF-to-poverty ratio: Translation–fewer and fewer poor people can count on income supports

The mom in me.

“That’s not my experience…” You already know enough.

At the Kansas Coalition for School Readiness‘ advocacy day today, I met a young mother of two who made the trip to Topeka, on her own, to express her support for her children’s Early Head Start program. She listened to the presentation of the Coalition’s key policy issues–supporting the Governor’s recommendation for $51.5 million in Children’s Initiative Funds for FY2014 and FY2015 and restoring the Child and Dependent Care Credit. She soaked up the advice on how to approach legislator visits and how to begin a relationship with an elected official.

Then she got on a bus with dozens of advocates, most of whom were there as part of their official job duties, and headed to the state capitol building.

When I met her, in the capitol rotunda after her two legislative visits, she was somewhat shaken. The visits, in her opinion, hadn’t gone too well. The very new, pretty young, legislators with whom she met were very open about their disagreement with her position, and I don’t think that she was totally prepared for a policymaker’s only slightly tempered hostility.

She told me that one of the representatives had declared that he doesn’t support Head Start because it’s ‘just daycare’ and that parents should be the ones teaching their children everything they need to know. She asked me how a policymaker who, after all, isn’t a parent, could presume to be such an expert on parenting.

I asked her how she responded.

Hesitating, she said, “Well, I just told him that that’s not my experience. I kept my son home with me until he was ready for preschool, and then I enrolled him in Head Start so that he could get ready for Kindergarten. And I know that he is going to succeed in school because he got the preparation he needs. I can teach him a lot, but part of my responsibility as a parent is to select a good school for my child, too, and that’s what Head Start makes possible.”

And that’s what has stuck with me today. That, as parents and as advocates and as citizens, we can’t always sway the opinions of our policymakers. But we can share our experiences, and those cannot be refuted. We cannot be shaken, in sharing our own stories. We must not be deterred.

We don’t need to know every statistic. We can’t prepare for every eventuality. We can’t speak to every argument.

But we owe it to ourselves, to our children, to our clients, and to our policymakers–who depend on us for their legitimacy as elected officials, after all–to share, “In my experience…”

And when we got back to the hotel for lunch, and the speaker asked who was headed back to the capitol for more visits that afternoon, that young mom raised her hand.

Her children, I know, are lucky to have her in their lives. And so are those policymakers.

So are we.

Grown-ups need villages, too

"Happy Villages" quilt

By far, my absolute favorite part of teaching is when my students come up with insights that make me think about social work, or social justice, in a different way. In those moments, it goes beyond the “I’m learning just as much as you are” (which always sounds a little false to me, honestly, even though I certainly do learn every semester) to produce these real “lightbulbs” of understanding, for which I am always truly grateful.

One of those moments happened in a discussion board interaction with a student in my community and organizational theory class. She was reacting to a post about the social work profession as somewhat uniquely, among the helping profession, focused on the person-in-environment, and relating this to the axiom that “it takes a village to raise a child.” She made the point that it is truly a bit bizarre that we can see (although we certainly don’t always live it out in policy!) how children are affected by their environments, and how crafting healthy institutions that surround kids with supports is an essential element in raising strong youth, but yet, somehow, when these young people grow up, we reflexively attribute their challenges to personal failings, and look for their internal pathologies, as though, well, grown-ups don’t need villages too.

I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the supports on which I depend to raise my children these past few months: the grandparents whose presence in their lives is constant and nurturing, the neighbors whose friendship and presence sustain us during our days, the public spaces that provide us with a greater quality of life, the schools that are shaping their minds.

But my student’s post prompted my thinking about how our need for these kinds of supports–both formal and informal–certainly don’t end when we magically become adults, or restart only when we ourselves become parents. In truth, our entire lives are bracketed by a mutual interdependence on the environments in which we either thrive or struggle to survive. And social workers (and policymakers) misunderstand this at our collective peril.

Certainly, children’s futures are shaped by the context in which they grow up. And I think there’s a growing acceptance of that idea.

But adults’ todays and tomorrows are just as influenced by these environmental factors, and not just in a carryover sense from their own childhoods, but in a very real way as “grown-ups”: the availability of jobs, their access to health care and transportation, resources for mental health care, supportive social networks, physically strong community infrastructure.

We obviously have a long way to go in order to build “villages” that will surround our children with the opportunities they need to succeed…and the nets they need to catch them when they fall. And adults will carry the legacies of these disparities and inadequacies until we can get that right.

But then, as my student to wisely realizes, we need to apply that same understanding of shared responsibility and linked fates to how we work with other populations.

Including the grown-ups we hope those kids will become.

Giving every kid Sam’s chance at success

photo credit, Flickr Creative Commons

Seeing my kids learn and grow and change (too quickly, sometimes!) every day, makes me think a lot about kids, and what their lives are likely to be like, and what it takes to give them a really good chance.

My oldest son is exceptional. I know that. He’s not only extremely bright (there’s no way that I could parent him without Wikipedia, because I have to look things up multiple times each day to answer his questions), but he’s also very insightful. I hope every day that I will be able to help him find the best ways to use his talents, that I am up to the task of parenting him.

And, so, as I watch him take on the challenges of his world, I have a new measuring stick of sorts–a new criterion by which I evaluate how well we’re doing by our children:

Does every child have Sam’s chance?

Obviously, every child is born with varying levels of innate ability. But, as Malcolm Gladwell dissects in Outliers, the experiences of everyone from political leaders to professional hockey players to child geniuses to Asian math students to rock stars to billionaire software engineers show that no one really succeeds on the basis of his/her inborn talents alone, that all of us are highly dependent on the context in which we thrive (or not) to determine the course of our lives.

Which is wonderful news, really.

It means that we have, within our control as a collective, the power to shape much of the trajectory of our children’s futures. It means that determining who will succeed and who will not doesn’t mean getting better at measuring IQ at earlier ages, or looking at the success of one’s parents.

It means putting all of the elements in place to support each child, so that we take much of the ‘luck’ out of the equation.

Today, when I look at Sam’s peers, I’m worried. Rather than trying to level out the disparities, the environments in which kids grow up today magnify them dramatically. I talk with him, and learn with him, and I get angry that he starts off so much farther down the road than so many.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I know I’m not the only parent who thinks like this. I’d never claim to be Marian Wright Edelman, but I do apparently think like her, as she writes to her sons about her, “sometimes difficult, even frantic, efforts to balance my responsibilities to you, my own children, and to other people’s children with whom you must share schools and streets, the nation and world. Paradoxically, the more I worried about and wanted for you, the more I worried about the children of parents who have so much less.”

We know what helps kids succeed: good schools, with qualified teachers and quality materials and ample hours dedicated to study; safe communities, with recreational opportunities and hazard-free housing; a healthy foundation of nutrition and access to care; strong relationships with supportive adults.

Giving kids a fair start, then, like so many other social policy challenges today, isn’t so much a technical problem as it is a political one. The problem, of course, is that we’ve failed to commit ourselves to investing in these elements in the life of every child.

And maybe a big part of the “why” is that we fail to understand how much of a difference it could make. Maybe, as Gladwell asserts, it’s our personalization of success–our belief that it’s about you or I when it’s really all about we–that leads us to miss out on so many opportunities to make successes of so many. And, of course, we’re the losers then.

When only those kids who are naturally amazing enough or baldly lucky or unjustly privileged enough to push through all of the obstacles that could derail their success manage to make it, we lose the potential of all of those who could have, would have, if only we would have understood that it’s up to us to make sure that they did.

I love part of the introduction to Outliers:
“We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid? This is not a book about tall trees. It’s a book about forests” (p. 20).

Here’s to planting better forests.

I want Sam, and every four-year-old with whom he will share a world, to grow up in the shade.

Forgotten Victims: Immigrant Kids and ICE-cold Actions

He didn't let cameras in when he met with the New Bedford families, but we'll never forget

Saturday is International Children’s Day, so declared by the United Nations in 1954. And, so, it seemed like a good time to draw attention to the terrible consequences of harsh Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and other activities on children, both immigrants and U.S. citizens, who are caught up in our nation’s rush to criminalization.

The Urban Institute has released several reports on the impact of high-profile ICE raids on immigrant kids and on recommendations for how to protect families and children in the conduct of immigration enforcement (hint: it means not whisking away mommies and daddies!). And, while the specific cases referenced were not workplace raids, there has even been an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decision that U.S. deportation policies violate citizen children’s basic human rights.

This is one of those issues that, despite my years of work on immigrant rights and social justice, I didn’t really “get” until after I became a mom. I mean, did I always think that it was absolutely horrible, the way that a parent could leave for work in the morning and then never come home? Yes. Did I always cry when I heard the story about the woman who was frantic after being arrested on her way to take some food to her husband at work, because she had a baby at home who had never taken a bottle before? Absolutely.

But it wasn’t until my son was born that I could really begin to understand, at least a tiny bit, what some of these parents go through: cross the border illegally so my child had enough to eat? I’d do that. And if someone pulled me away from my child, treating me like a criminal for simply trying to provide a better life for him? It literally gives me nightmares; my stomach hurts when he cries when I have to drop him off at school.

And, so, this mom thinks that this has to stop. That we can’t talk about “workplace enforcement” anymore as though it was some benign policy, the most rational thing in the world, instead of what it really is: a decision to rip families apart and ruin children’s lives in an afternoon. And we can’t conclude that it’s anything other than what it really is: unconscionable.

Among the key findings of this longitudinal study examining how children fare in the aftermath of workplace raids that involved their parents:

  • Families fall apart–in some cases, children went to the parents’ country of origin, while in others they stayed in the U.S. with other family members.
  • Families suffer economically–these parents aren’t just caregivers, they’re wage-earners, too. Children suffer housing instability and food insecurity after parents are detained.
  • Children’s behavior and mental well-being are dramatically compromised–the study finds evidence of sleeping and eating changes, anger, frequent crying, clinging, and withdrawing. These deterioriations were even more pronounced, actually, in kids whose parents were arrested at home. All of these children are expressing their extreme distress in whatever way they know how, and we know that they, and we, will pay the price for years.
  • Communities and institutions, particularly schools, responded well, but their capacity is inadequate: immigrant children experienced a compassionate response in all of the communities studied in this report, which, to me, suggests the obvious: The American people abhor this kind of heavy-handed, indiscriminate enforcement and decry its effects on kids in their communities.

    Obviously, we need Congress to get the message that we need comprehensive immigration reform. These parents, and their children, wouldn’t be vulnerable to deportation and its collateral damages if they had the legal status that CIR would afford.

    In the meantime, ICE needs to operate under a regulatory mandate to focus, first, on removing criminals who also happen to be non-citizens, an enforcement strategy that is in all of our interests (and one that could use some additional attention; I know it’s easier to rack up arrests if you’re going after nursing moms rather than hardened criminals, but if you want to call yourself ICE, you’ve got to be tough, right?).

    And, second, we need an enforcement strategy that recognizes that these high-profile raids have all targeted the workers, not the employers, sending the message that we care more about, well, sending messages, than we do about getting employers to follow immigration law.

    If we’re going to try to enforce these broken laws, we’d better find out some higher-impact, more targeted ways to do it.

    And, above all, as the debate rages about immigration policy and how to proceed, we’ve got to agree on one core truth:

    First, we’ve got to get kids off the battlefield.