Board of Contributors: 'Welfare moms' also deserve respect and dignity | January 28, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 28, 2011

Board of Contributors: 'Welfare moms' also deserve respect and dignity

by Elizabeth Lee

I read a newspaper article in the 1970s, when I was in my teens, about a single "welfare mom" raising two teenagers.

Did the article portray her as irresponsible, lazy, or otherwise deficient? No. It portrayed her as a hardworking, devoted and highly creative divorcee who chose to prioritize her kids' needs for her time over pursuing a career outside the home. The article was a multiple-page spread with photos showing the enriching activities she and her kids did together in their home.

She was presented with respect and dignity as a positive role model for other parents.

This was before creation of the "welfare to work" and education programs for welfare recipients in the Clinton era of welfare reform — programs that provided hope and help for thousands but which now face elimination due to the disaster of our economy.

Fast-forward two decades, and that same mother might have been shamed in today's social climate. Stigmatized. The point of the article might be to study what is wrong with her rather than what is right.

I know there are parents who parent poorly, or not at all, but it really upsets me when people criticize mothers in broad, sweeping, over-generalized ways. There is the argument over whether mothers should parent full-time or work full- or part-time outside the home.

Or whether they should be legally married, or at least partnered, rather than choose single motherhood. Or whether they should have a male partner or if a female one is just as good, how much money they should make, or how old or well educated they should be.

Mothers are easy targets for criticism.

Sure, ideally mothers are married or partnered, well-educated, have good finances and support and are at least in their mid-20s. But a perfect world and reality don't always match. Birth control fails or is overlooked, women and girls get raped, they use bad judgment with relationships, couples break up, or the mothers-to-be lose their jobs.

And if one of those moms uses public assistance to support her family she is subject to being judged by social-service personnel, family, friends or anyone else she happens to meet.

The government pays lots of working people, such as postal workers, police, firefighters, politicians, librarians, subsidized day-care workers, schoolteachers and foster-care parents. The last three groups, plus nannies, are paid to look after other peoples' children, which is still considered "work" as long as they are not looking after their own children — which isn't "work." They are all just as dependent on the money they're paid as are welfare mothers, even though the money paid to the former group is considered "earned" and the money paid to the latter isn't.

When I got pregnant with my son I was in a relationship with the father. I planned on being a "working mother," and felt judgmental toward mothers who weren't. What was wrong with them that they didn't want a life of their own, separate from their children, I wondered?

Then my partner and I broke up when I was five months along. I was working full-time as a substance-abuse counselor, and when my son was born I took maternity leave. My employer refused to give me back my job. Tired and stressed, my confidence shattered, I went on public assistance. With multiple disabilities, getting another job wasn't as easy for me as for other people.

My mother told me I should be ashamed of myself. I lost two friends, one of whom said she couldn't abide my accepting welfare. Another acquaintance told me I was irresponsible.

Yet those months with my son were some of the most magical of my life. Getting the chance to watch him grow and develop, say his first words, learn how to crawl, are blessings that nothing can take away. And I was working harder than I'd ever worked in my life. I later found a part-time counseling internship, experience I needed to get my marriage-and-family-therapist license. It was non-paying, as many internships are, so I stayed on welfare.

I joined a single-mother's support group. The husband of one mother left her and their three children. She was working as a secretary, but since she didn't earn enough money to pay day care and her job didn't offer health insurance she went on welfare. When she walked into the social-services office she felt judged by the employees there.

"You can think whatever you want to think about me," she imagined saying to them, "but I will do whatever it takes to look after my children, and this is what I have to do to take care of them.

Another mother was raped and robbed by a stranger with a gun outside her apartment building. When police discovered she was on welfare they closed her case and threatened to investigate her instead for welfare fraud, even though her money earned was within the legal limit.

Other mothers went on welfare after leaving husbands who abused them or their children.

I know it's easy to think, "I would never have ended up in those situations. I would have known better." Not until you find yourself in any of those situations, however, can you really understand.

Nowhere is it written in stone that it is wrong for a mother to accept public assistance. That notion only exists in some people's minds and is promoted by politicians and the media.

For us to have a compassionate society we need to recognize child rising, or "women's' work," as real work — work that is worthy of pay, and, like the mother whom I read about as a teenager, is bestowed with dignity and respect.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed marriage-and-family therapist and writer and lives with her husband, two children and dog in Palo Alto. She can be e-mailed at