Book Reviews

No Way Out

How our hollowed-out welfare system punishes working-class moms and their kids.

By Sarah Jaffe

Tagged InequalityJobsLaborWelfareWomen

Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty by Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson • The New Press • 2022 • 256 pages • $28

Sometimes it seems like all of U.S. politics operates in the shadow of welfare reform. Certainly labor policy does, as well as any discussion of poverty, parenting, child care, and the family. Any conversation about gender or race in the United States will get there eventually. And when we’re talking about the intersection of any of these issues, welfare reform is or should be the first thing we discuss.

Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty by Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson is a book about the long-term aftermath of welfare reform. Freeman and Dodson, both sociologists, spent ten years researching the working and living conditions of mothers in the low-wage job market, in collaboration with organizations aiming to improve those conditions. The resulting book is a comprehensive look at the struggles of working-class women with children, based on 250 interviews from across the United States, as well as complementary policy analyses.

The picture is bleak. Nearly three decades after Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, working moms are living in impossible circumstances and somehow making do. They are juggling multiple jobs, cobbling together child care, and navigating a minefield of means testing in order to get a pittance in government aid—the United States ranks thirty-fifth in public spending on families out of the 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Despite all this, these women are also attempting to attend college, apprentice in the trades, or just find better work while also tending to the needs of their children. But too often the competing demands of work, children, school, and constant government intervention in their lives make that impossible.

Is this what bipartisan policy aimed to achieve? Often it seems that the answer is yes. Ronald Reagan, certainly, when ranting about “welfare queens,” didn’t particularly care what happened to those women as long as they were off the rolls. Clinton, in full “I feel your pain” mode, at least pretended to care about “empower[ing]” people “with the education, training and child care they need” to move out of poverty. But the name of the legislation that is commonly referred to as welfare reform, Freeman and Dodson note, begins with the words “Personal Responsibility,” as if what poor people lacked was gumption rather than money. Such assumptions were built on a mountain of racist rhetoric demonizing Black mothers as unwilling to work, in need of the “dignity” that only wage labor could bring.

Welfare reform certainly brought working-class women a lot more work, but Getting Me Cheap makes clear that there is very little dignity in it. Promised child care subsidies never materialized, women were penalized rather than assisted if they tried to attend college, and child benefits were capped after a certain number of children. Recipients describe what remains of welfare, whether Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or other tattered programs, to Freeman and Dodson as designed “to keep you down.”

Many of the women pushed off the welfare rolls had wanted to prioritize caring for their own children. The grand result of welfare reform was that many wound up caring for other peoples’ children, for low pay. Reformers never explain why the former never seemed to count as work. “I hated when people asked me, ‘What do you do for work?’” said Jesse, one of the authors’ interlocutors, who stayed home for two years to care for her young daughter. “It’s like that voice in my head saying I don’t do anything, but that’s not true.” Rather, Jesse and millions like her are working constantly to survive a system that sees as its foremost goal not helping them. As Freeman and Dodson write, “The gap caused by welfare reform is most often covered by the poor people themselves, stretching to survive.”

Today’s news reports are filled with handwringing about children, from panic about transgender kids playing sports to attempts to ban critical race theory in schools. If Americans really cared about kids, though, they’d start looking at the effects our low-wage economy has on them. The lowest-paid jobs are disproportionately worked by women, even more disproportionately women of color, many of whom are not just mothers but primary breadwinners.

Those jobs are particularly ill-suited to providing anything like stability for children. Employers increasingly ask workers to be “available 24/7” for minimum wage or just above it. And forget about any paid sick time—despite the likelihood of these jobs involving proximity to other people or their food. “You’d think that they’d get it” in health care, at least, that sick workers mean sicker patients, one mother remarked to Freeman and Dodson. Roughly four in ten kids, they write, have a parent who works nontraditional hours. But most day cares don’t cover those odd hours—and even if they do, guess who works in those day care centers, or runs those in-home care spaces? Irregular hours for parents spawn more irregular hours. Asked when they slept, moms tended to answer “not much.”

The workers Freeman and Dodson spoke with reported managers who were utterly inflexible when it came to giving them time to care for their kids. Sandra, who worked overnights in an Amazon warehouse, said her supervisor made the workers lock their phones away, so there was no way to reach her if her diabetic daughter had a crisis. Paula, who worked at a ShopRite, once hid her daughter in the bread racks when child care fell through. “My boss was mad, but I told him I didn’t have anywhere to put her, and he was really clear that I needed to be at work.” Pandemic conditions made everything worse, and low-wage work tends to be work that needs doing in person—those Amazon and ShopRite workers were the essential workers lauded in the press.

The narrative that abounded midpandemic, as stores and schools and child care centers reopened but workers were reluctant to return to public-facing, germ-spreading work, was a direct descendant of the welfare queen narrative. “Nobody wants to work anymore,” employers complained, but as one researcher told the authors, “It’s being framed as a problem for the workers, instead of…saying, ‘Well, why do we allow employers to exploit low-wage workers in that way?’”

If our society does not care for children nearly as much as it says it does, it cares still less for their parents. There was a brief pandemic moment of concern for moms, though it was mostly in order to scapegoat teachers for the same presumed unwillingness to work. But that moment seems to have passed, and certainly nothing has been done to change their conditions.

If the irregular scheduling and crappy pay aren’t enough to break these women down, there are the abuses on the job, too. Roughly half the home-care workers that Freeman and Dodson spoke with reported unwanted contact or sexual harassment but had nowhere to report it. Women who had attempted to exit low-wage work for jobs in the trades or the military reported hazing that they were simply expected to put up with. If they complained, they could expect more harassment, and less work.

Without public support, any help women can expect is privatized. Some might be lucky enough to have a boss who will let them bringi their kids to work (where, in the case of domestic and home-care workers, kids may end up working alongside their mothers). Others may have a parent or friend who helps with child care, provides a place to stay, or can navigate the bureaucracy of government programs. But that informal help is rarely guaranteed, as many of those parents and friends are also struggling to make ends meet.

This also gives even decent employers extra power over their staff. Domestic workers in particular often get requests for extra work couched as unpaid personal favors. Yet “part of the family” treatment is rarely extended to them: They can be dismissed at a moment’s notice, after years of real emotional attachment. Despite all their work stabilizing other people’s families, their own stability never seems to matter.

While the women profiled in Getting Me Cheap often rely on extended family and friends for support, the nuclear family is conspicuous for its absence. A few women refer to husbands or partners, mostly men also on the low-wage work treadmill, but for the most part the family structure we have been told is natural is nonexistent. The family, when stretched, has fallen apart, and there is almost no support available anywhere else. While this is not explicitly the authors’ subject, the real takeaway from the book is how absolutely inadequate the privatized system of childrearing we live under is, for parents and for children.

The material underpinnings of the modern family—the family wage, pioneered for men who worked in manufacturing and fought for by the labor movement, and a privatized welfare state provided through those jobs—are, for the most part, gone. The factory jobs that do still exist have been eroded in quality by the constant pressure on workers to make concessions or see their jobs outsourced, and the work that has filled in the gaps is often work done instead by women—caring and service labor, the kinds of jobs we read about in Getting Me Cheap. The assumption that women workers would be attached to a man making the family wage was part of the rationale that made those women cheap to employ in the first place, paired with the racism that said certain women were fit only for servant work.

And so, as Freeman and Dodson note, “Attention and emotional care of vulnerable people, while presumably so important to families, is the least valued work in the economy.” The more women are responsible for doing that work outside the home, the less support they get while in it. Welfare reform came with a side of marriage promotion, assuming that since single parents were poorer than married ones, the solution was to get them married. Yet this plan conveniently ignored the decline of good jobs for men and its direct connection to the lousy conditions for women. The women in this book did not have a choice about working while parenting; they are not turning up their noses at good men who would love to provide for them, no matter how much the incels say otherwise. The decline of the modern family is not moral, but economic.

The welfare rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s argued that welfare was in fact a form of payment for the work that mothers (and sometimes aunts and grandmothers) were already doing—the raising of their children. The women in Getting Me Cheap prioritize their children as intensely as any middle-class helicopter mom. Constantly shamed as bad mothers and therefore bad people, they tie themselves into knots trying to make up the care and the financial stability that would have been provided, for a relatively brief historical period, by a stay-at-home mom and a full-time employed dad.

This is not to romanticize the nuclear family—precisely the opposite. Family structures are shaped by material circumstances and sometimes by very direct interventions: Henry Ford’s family wage was available only to male workers who submitted to household inspection to prove that they were upholding Ford’s particular patriarchal ideal. Ford’s “sociological department” would make unannounced visits to ensure that workers’ wives kept their homes up to Ford standards, and would ask about spending and alcohol consumption, among other presumed moral issues. While Freeman and Dodson take pains not to normalize a family structure that is fading away for working-class people, they also show little interest in the desires and interests of their subjects outside of work and their kids. The men are missing, except for a few who pay something toward their kids’ upkeep and one mention of a woman’s partner who, she says, is “a good dad” but she still wants to “wait a while” for marriage. Also missing are partnerships that might not be heterosexual. That is particularly notable because the authors list the race of each interviewee when they are introduced yet leave their sexuality invisible. They unwittingly reinforce a stigma the welfare rights movement struggled against: Any sexual desire or personal life was seen as simply more reason to caricature mothers as profligate, in order to deny them support.

So without the nuclear family, who fills in the gaps? The answer is too often kids themselves. As the authors eloquently put it, children “step into adult roles because their parents do not earn enough to buy them a childhood.” Children subsidize those low wages by doing adult work, sometimes helping their parents on the job or more often filling in at home, looking after younger siblings and often their parents as well. Parents hide the work done by the children, because to admit to it is to provide one more piece of evidence that a mom is failing.

The working moms of Getting Me Cheap often grew up this way, funneled to low-wage work because of the responsibilities they took on as girls. One woman tells Freeman and Dodson “that she was raised to be ‘codependent, to be a caregiver’”; another thinks that “she needed more support and guidance and less responsibility for other people’s problems.” This gendered work trains girls in particular (though certainly not exclusively) to prioritize the needs of others. Many of the parents in the book spoke of such care with pride, but too much of it conditions workers to never demand better.

A few of the women profiled did find what the authors call “creative living arrangements,” living with roommates or extended families or in one case taking guardianship of elderly nursing home clients. One of the moms joined up with another single mother, forming a bond that lasted more than ten years; she said, “We raised each other’s kids together, which is also nice to feel like somebody else loves your children.”

If Getting Me Cheap shows us the consequences of welfare reform, it could also serve as an argument for the brief but hugely consequential pandemic-era child tax credit expansion. Now dead because Democrats couldn’t agree to renew it, the credit temporarily gave money to parents regardless of their income, thereby avoiding the traps so painfully described in this book.

The child tax credit is absent from the book, but it haunts every page. The pre-1996 welfare system was built in the time of a different family, and the simplicity of the child tax credit highlights the labyrinth of paperwork and gatekeepers created by means testing, which predated welfare reform and was made worse by it. Colette, one of the women profiled by Freeman and Dodson, referred to the system not as public assistance but “public control.”

Cutting out means testing would prevent the double bind that the mothers in this book face, losing their benefits if their income inches upward by just $20 or $30 a month. And it would also provide extra support for parents who might not be the very poorest of the poor but could still use a hand. In other words, universal programs build solidarities, while means testing creates divisions.

The biggest weakness of an otherwise very strong book is that Freeman and Dodson fall into an all-too-common trap of talking about working-class people to an imagined affluent audience. In the conclusion, they make this explicit; in other moments there is a more subtle condescension toward their subjects, as when they write that one woman “clearly understood the impact of family demands in determining the next stage of her life.”

They rightly criticize other research on gender equity for leaving working-class women out, but in their attempt to broaden the lens they wind up underscoring divisions that are not always so clear-cut. There are plenty of people with college degrees working in food service, and plenty of white-collar workers whose wages are lower than they might make at a Starbucks. But the authors address the reader implicitly as one of the well-off, suggesting, “Ask whether those [low-wage] workers have access to paid sick days—as much as you have.” I would just note that I still do not. What they describe as “affluent white culture”—ignoring the exploitation of workers, glossing over the people who help affluent people succeed—are really issues more appropriately chalked up to capitalism.

These assumptions leave their conclusion rather flimsy. They encourage their imagined affluent reader to “volunteer” (rather than organize) and include the warning that it may mean “you give up the front row seat.” When they do tell a story of working-class women who struck and won, at Stop & Shop stores in New England, they mostly tell it as transformative for the affluent women whose biggest sacrifice was not crossing a picket line. They close the book with an employer, whose story, however heartwarming, still includes her care worker having to work nights at a factory to get health insurance.

The authors end by challenging their readers to see low-income workers as people, but I would challenge writers to stop treating them merely as material. Imagine, perhaps, that your subjects, too, are capable of reading and of organizing to change the world.

Read more about InequalityJobsLaborWelfareWomen

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back (2021) and Necessary Trouble (2016), both from Bold Type Books.

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