Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

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Hailed as a great success, welfare reform resulted in a dramatic decline in the welfare rolls--from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 2.1 million in 2001. But what does this "success" look like to the welfare mothers and welfare caseworkers who experienced it? In Flat Broke, With Children, Sharon Hays tells us the story of welfare reform from inside the welfare office and inside the lives of welfare mothers, describing the challenges that welfare recipients face in managing their work, their families, and the rules and regulations of welfare reform. Welfare reform, experienced on the ground, is not a rosy picture. The majority of adult welfare clients are mothers--over 90 percent--and the time limits imposed by welfare reform throw millions of these mostly unmarried, desperate women into the labor market, where they must accept low wages, the most menial work, the poorest hours, with no benefits, and little flexibility. Hays provides a vivid portrait of their lives--debunking many of the stereotypes we have of welfare recipients--but she also steps back to explore what welfare reform reveals about the meaning of work and family life in our society. In particular, she argues that an inherent contradiction lies at the heart of welfare policy, which emphasizes traditional family values even as its ethic of "personal responsibility" requires women to work and leave their children in childcare or at home alone all day long. Hays devoted three years to visiting welfare clients and two welfare offices, one in a medium-sized town in the Southeast, another in a large, metropolitan area in the West. Drawing on this hands-on research, Flat Broke, With Children is the first book to explore theimpact of recent welfare reform on motherhood, marriage, and work in women's lives, and the first book to offer us a portrait of how welfare reform plays out in thousands of local welfare offices and in millions of homes across the nation.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Simply the best original work on welfare reform to date. Based on interviews with dozens of welfare recipients in two cities, it explains how 'reformed' welfare really works on the ground--and what it does to the lives of poor families. Painful as it often is to read, Flat Broke belongs at the top of the to-do list for anyone involved in the welfare debate, on any side."--Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America

"A compelling study of the American system of welfare reform. Sharon Hays' engaging book is replete with insights on the impact of welfare reform on the procedures of welfare offices and on the lives of mothers and children who receive public assistance. I rank it among the best studies of poverty and welfare in the last two decades."--William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University

"With President Bush pushing for more hours in the required workweek, the timing couldn't be better for 'Flat Broke With Children'; Hays's detailed, judicious survey of the reforms punctures mythology on all sides of the debate.... Indeed, the strength of 'Flat Broke' is its blending of an academic's statistics and analysis with the techniques and eye for detail of a journalist."--Boston Globe

"A balanced portrait of the most controversial of all public programs. Thoughful and well researched."--Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While welfare reform in the mid-1990s meant new employees and equipment for some welfare offices and perks like interview clothing for some welfare recipients, it also meant harsh guidelines aimed at punishing welfare recipients who did not follow strict protocols. In Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, Sharon Hays, using her research from two towns, focuses on single mothers who have at least occasionally relied on welfare for support. She finds that they are often pushed into dead-end employment with no career stability, while the government's emphasis on "family values" encourages them to marry men who can support them. These mixed messages, put forth via a rigid bureaucracy, pull welfare recipients and well-intentioned case workers in multiple directions. Hayes's subjects tell stories of the extreme poverty, broken families, sexual abuse, homelessness, and the lengths to which they go in attempts to juggle multiple part-time low-paying jobs, but they do not portray themselves as victims.
Library Journal
This very readable, important, and stimulating work deals with the consequences of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. To determine the act's impact, Hays (sociology & women's studies, Univ. of Virginia) spent three years interviewing case workers and welfare clients (overwhelmingly single women with children) in "Sunbelt City," a metropolitan area in the West, and "Arbordale," a medium-sized Southeastern town. Hays delves into the lives, thoughts, and hopes of these women, who are strongly committed to their family's well-being and seek both functional and financial independence. Initially, case workers welcomed the act because it included programs aimed at preparing their clients to survive without government support. Later, their approval was tempered, though the number of welfare recipients dropped significantly and former welfare mothers found employment. As Hays recognizes, along with other observers (see, e.g., Lost Ground, edited by Randy Albelda and Ann Withorn), welfare reform policies have resulted in shrinking case loads but have failed to address the growing costs to society of the long-term poverty and social problems associated with being "flat broke." Highly recommended for public, academic, and professional attention.-Suzanne W. Wood, SUNY Coll. of Technology, Alfred Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996) now examines the cultural significance of welfare reform. Hays (Sociology and Women's Studies/Univ. of Virginia) spent five years following the implementation of the 1996 welfare reform law in two locations, the first in a medium-sized southeast town, the second in a large Sunbelt city. Assuming that a nation's laws reflect a nation's values, she attempts to analyze what welfare reform says about work and family life in American society today. The author posits that there are two contradictory lines of rhetoric within the new policy: one goal of reform is to provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes rather than in foster care; another is to end needy parents' dependence on government benefits by promoting work. For single-parent families, these goals cannot be reconciled. Hays is careful to point out the new reforms' benefits: income supplements for women with children, childcare subsidies, bus vouchers, and job training. But she wonders what will happen to the least skilled workers, the disabled, and their children when their benefits run out. Hays portrays the varied faces of welfare today. Elena, a 40-year-old mother of three, left an abusive husband and was doing well until a severe car accident rendered her temporarily disabled; she went through her savings and insurance and has been on welfare for six months. Christine, 24, has been unable to work since she had a massive stroke just six weeks after giving birth to her daughter, now 8. By contrast, 23-year-old Nadia has four children by multiple fathers and seems to lack any sort of work ethic; her past employment is limitedto four months at a fast-food restaurant ("they don't pay you nothing") and two days as a hotel housekeeper ("too much bending over"). In showing both "deserving" and "undeserving" recipients, Hays presents a balanced portrait of the most controversial of all public programs. Thoughtful and well researched.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195132885
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/28/2003
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 9.44 (w) x 6.44 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharon Hays is Barbra Streisand Professor in Contemporary Gender Studies and Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California. The author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, she has been interviewed for publications such as The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Parenting, Working Mother Magazine, and U.S. News and World Report.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Money and Morality 3
Ch. 2 Enforcing the Work Ethic 33
Ch. 3 Promoting Family Values 63
Ch. 4 Fear, Hope, and Resignation in the Welfare Office 95
Ch. 5 Pyramids of Inequality 121
Ch. 6 Invisibility and Inclusion 139
Ch. 7 Cultures of Poverty 179
Ch. 8 The "Success" of Welfare Reform 215
Notes 241
References 263
Index 281
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2003


    The information was to the point and real for anyone that doubts the welfare experience.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2005


    Though I found the writing a little too academic at times (this will make a good and interesting course book), Hays succeeds in putting human faces on a part of the population whom many would prefer to ignore. I would have liked more 'in their own words' interviews. Seeing the view from both the caseworkers and recipients was enlightening.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted March 26, 2013

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    Posted January 13, 2012

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    Posted April 2, 2009

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