Lawmakers Continue Long Tradition of Attacking Poor and Single Moms

dscn3799 Photo courtesy Stephanie Land

I’m a solo mom who has used welfare to survive, and I’m tired of having to defend my status.

I’ve raised my two children by myself. We became homeless after escaping domestic violence. I worked as a housecleaner, put myself through college, and now work as a writer.

I did all of this almost completely on my own. I have no close family. I needed government assistance on and off to make ends meet, including food stamps, housing assistance and short stints of cash assistance over the years. I’ve successfully used this help to get back to work, and I’m finally earning enough that this month will be our last “in the system.”

But too often, low-income mothers get caught in a legislative trap they cannot escape. Almost a third of families living in poverty are headed by women, and it’s become a competition to find ways to demonize and control them, most of them counter-productive.

At least 25 states regulate how families can spend cash or food assistance with punitive measures, and others are seriously contemplating it. In Kansas, families cannot spend their benefits to go to a swimming pool, arcade, or movie theater. The New York legislature is considering a bill that prohibits families from spending food stamps on cake, cookies and lobster. West Virginia just passed a similar bill. One of the co-sponsors, Senator Ron Stollings, said the bill was about ensuring the poor used their benefits wisely, saying “This is something that a lot of us have worked on for some time, trying to get highly nutritious foods and less Mountain Dew.” While over in Alabama, EBT benefits can be used to buy a gun. The state is considering changes to eligibility restrictions that could penalize recipients for owning cars — which only makes going back to work even more challenging. Things like buying alcohol or going to the nail salon may seem like extravagant expenditures for a single mother receiving assistance, but sometimes you want to celebrate a birthday or look nice for a job interview.

The thing is: single mothers should have the ability to make these decisions, just like anyone else.

Ironically, the one choice that a woman can make to stop the future poverty of themselves and an unwanted fetus is being systematically taken away by Republicans across the country.

Another choice – one I’ve made myself – turns out to be quite common: choosing to be a single mother rather than stay in an abusive relationship. According to studies, over half of the women receiving welfare reported that they had experienced physical abuse by an intimate male partner during their adult lives. Yet some Republicans also try to encourage mothers to stay married or get married, rather than providing resources for us to get by on our own.

“The truth is the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage,” Senator Marc Rubio declared on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

This faith in marriage willfully also ignores the fact that 69 percent of low-income families who receive federal benefits are married or partnered, a new report by the Center for American Progress shows. Yet legislators continue to subscribe to this wrong-headed idea that marriage will eliminate poverty.

Some legislators have taken the push for marriage so far that they’ve considered penalizing the children. Last month, Illinois lawmakers proposed a bill that would bar the state from issuing birth certificates or public assistance to children whose mother will not name the child’s father.

One of the bill’s original co-sponsors, State Representative Keith Wheeler, said that the intention of HB 6064 was to “provide for the long-term support of hard working single mothers by strengthening the legal responsibilities of fathers, while also improving the rights of fathers as well as grandparents who provide care for a child in place of a parent.”

But a quick read shows that it isn’t really about helping single mothers. It seems to be more about ensuring that their children will not be eligible for state aid. The bill has thankfully been tabled.

Demonizing poor families headed by single mothers only makes things worse. Every bill that limits access to government assistance produces unintended consequences, often detrimental to the success of a family. Legislators believe they can force millions of people out of poverty with laws that shame and humiliate, but what they are really doing is furthering the cycle of poverty to the next generation.

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.