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Why are conservatives forcing mothers from their kids?

The Week logo The Week 5/17/2018 Matthew Walther
President Donald Trump and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. © AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster President Donald Trump and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.

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What would happen, I wonder, if all the Republican state senators in the country woke up to find that all their wildest dreams had come true? What if one day all the scroungers, the drug addicts, the unwed, unfit, lazy, entitled, stupid, backward, ineducable, non-adapting, unwilling-to-move, non-contracepting poor people were denied food and medicine and housing because they decided that they had better things to do than contribute to the continued flourishing of the Safeway Gas Rewards program in exchange for the hourly sum of $7.25 (minus payroll taxes)? Would the destitute disappear into a sewer, leaving only the fungal detritus of their sloth behind them to be disposed of by qualified, i.e., free-market, medical waste professionals? Or just die? Who knows.

Until then, thanks to a decision made in January by the Trump administration allowing states to authorize work requirements for men and women who receive Medicaid benefits, we are going to continue having a very boring conversation about so-called "welfare reform." GOP legislators in a number of states are taking the president — who in 2016 had campaigned, as one is never tired of pointing out, very explicitly on leaving alone entitlements and the social safety net — up on his offer and considering various schemes for what amounts to phasing out President Obama's expansion of Medicaid. In my glorious home state, they are even thinking of applying a version of the get-a-job-or-die-loser rule only to residents of urban counties like Wayne (Detroit) and Genesee (Flint) — though some analysts believe that, whatever the intentions of the theorists, in practice the misery engendered by the bill will be of equal-opportunity variety. Bravo.

It's not like we haven't been here before. The absurdly named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA for wonks) pushed relentlessly by House Republicans and signed into law by President Clinton, who had promised during his first campaign to "end welfare as we have come to know it," is the ur-text. Conceived by fanatics operating under a series of false assumptions, hashed out in a series of secret meetings, publicly promoted with bad faith arguments and crudely racist tropes ("welfare queens," i.e., people's moms), it was also disastrous in its consequences, especially for women and children.

It is grimly amusing to point out that its proponents readily admit this. They got nearly everything they could have hoped for from the legislation and are only too happy to observe that after 1996 a staggeringly large number of mothers who had once been able to look after their children with the assistance of the government were forced into the workplace. By the year 2000, 75 percent of single mothers were employed. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution testified in 2006, "The pattern is clear: earnings up, welfare down. This is the very definition of reducing welfare dependency."

No doubt he is right about the pattern and the definition. The question is why in and of itself reducing welfare "dependency" is a good thing. This is an especially important question for social conservatives. In what universe is it a better thing for a woman to leave her children in the care of strangers in order to fulfill an abstract obligation to stock shelves at a pharmaceutical retail chain or flip burgers at a fast-food restaurant? Is the idea that mothers who are not married have less of a duty, or do we just assume that they won't mind having their kids taken away because they in fact love them less?

It is worth pointing out that opportunistic liberal critics of welfare reform tend to miss this point as well. "Young children did no worse when their mothers got jobs in terms of either cognitive abilities or socialization skills. But unless the mothers' incomes rose, they did no better either," Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times of the Clinton-era welfare reform. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your brain on the dismal science. Could there be a better example of missing the point? Suppose that some graph showed that elementary school students who in early childhood had been forced into day-care centers in order to allow their mothers to work meaningless nine-to-fives had done 5 percent better on some nonsensical state-administered examination. Would that justify such a cruel and capricious policy? Is "the economy" really more important than the family to both sides here?

It is not the business of politicians in Washington or journalists in New York to decide on the basis of one or more statistical metrics whether the time women have with their children at home is being valuably spent. The right to raise one's children without being pressed into the service of GDP should be considered absolute.

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