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Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and Their Children in the Other America

Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and Their Children in the Other America

by Valerie Polakow, Polakow

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One out of five children, and one out of two single mothers, lives in destitution in America today. The feminization and "infantilization" of poverty have made the United States one of the most dangerous democracies for poor mothers and their children to inhabit. Why then, Valerie Polakow asks, is poverty seen as a private issue, and how can public policy fail to take


One out of five children, and one out of two single mothers, lives in destitution in America today. The feminization and "infantilization" of poverty have made the United States one of the most dangerous democracies for poor mothers and their children to inhabit. Why then, Valerie Polakow asks, is poverty seen as a private issue, and how can public policy fail to take responsibility for the consequences of our politics of distribution? Written by a committed child advocate, Lives on the Edge draws on social, historical, feminist, and public policy perspectives to develop an informed, wide-ranging critique of American educational and social policy. Stark, penetrating, and unflinching in its first-hand portraits of single mothers in America today, this work challenges basic myths about justice and democracy.

Editorial Reviews

Mary Carroll
Like the work of Kozol, Katz, and Hacker, "Lives on the Edge" is an angry book, a passionate analysis of and attack upon the "feminization" and "infantilization" of poverty in the U.S. Polakow first addresses historical notions of the undeserving poor and traces the "discourse of otherness" by which Western culture has justified discrimination against and lack of concern for single mothers and their children (as well as other groups defined by distinctions of race, class, gender, and age). Then she offers portraits of particular mothers and children, based on interviews and classroom observations in Michigan between 1989 and 1991. In her demand for universal health care, affordable housing, child allowances and maternity/parental leave, a national child-care system, and a pedagogy of equity--programs viewed as entitlements in every other industrialized nation--Polakow insists that "constructed inequity" in the U.S. "has been made by public policy and can be "unmade" by public policy." Polakow's book is particularly valuable for its insights into the consequences of discriminatory labor and housing markets, inadequate child-care resources, punitive welfare "reforms," and "children at risk" pedagogy for the 20 percent of U.S. children and 50 percent of single mothers that she describes as "stand[ing] alone on the margins of democracy."

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University of Chicago Press
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Lives on the Edge

Single Mothers and Their Children in the Other America

By Valerie Polakow

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-67184-0


Childhood Revisited

One day a serf boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general's favourite hound. "Why is my favourite dog lame?" He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog's paw. "So you did it." The general looked the child up and down. "Take him." He was taken — taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It's a gloomy cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry ... "Make him run," commands the general. "Run! Run!" shout the dog-boys. The boy runs ... "At him!" yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov

DOSTOYEVSKY CHRONICLES THE SUFFERING of children — both of the poor and the privileged — as Ivan Karamazov questions the absurdity of a universe in which children are the victims of adult power and brutality, of the ideals of a civilization run amok. "And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price," he tells his brother Alyosha. But childhood has always been a historical space of suffering and abuse, and the formation of an obedient and docile child has taken many forms. The body of the child has become the site where the most intimate social practices have been linked to the apparatus of parental and state power. The poorer the child, the more dramatic that child's vulnerability.

Lloyd DeMause has argued that "the history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken," and that the further back in history we delve, the worse the levels of abandonment, brutality, abuse, and terror. Boswell's panoramic study of the abandonment of children from late antiquity to the Renaissance reveals how widespread the practice was among parents of all social classes. It was the poor who were driven to abandon their infants most frequently, for many were illegitimate, and during the medieval period, infant deformity — a particular cause for abandonment — was viewed by the church as a visible consequence of parental incontinence. While our ways of seeing childhood have changed — from its apparent placelessness in the medieval consciousness, to a Puritan and, later, Evangelical "break the will if you would not damn the child" orientation, to a seemingly progressive management-and-compliance perspective in the twentieth century — the conquest of the body and the domestication of the mind have remained dominant themes in the developing concept of childhood. Childhood, however, is not and never has been a timeless developmental essence that stands above history and class and culture and religion; rather it is a social product, rooted in diverse ways of seeing self, family, motherhood and fatherhood, and one's place in the social order.

In trying to trace the historical sensibilities of parents and other adults toward children, we return to the question of the meaning of childhood. What images of childhood prevailed in centuries past? Was there an idea of childhood as a distinctive phase of development? Philippe Ariès's seminal work Centuries of Childhood takes a sociohistorical view of both childhood and family life, as Ariès questions the notion of any constructed social space for childhood in the medieval world. Drawing on demographic evidence, he argues that high infant mortality rates deadened parental sensibilities toward their children, leaving children vulnerable to abandonment. Ariès claims that there was no distinctive "idea" of childhood. Early infancy was recognized, only to be followed by a period of miniature adulthood, in which adults and children shared the same world — a world in which sexual play with young children was common, documented particularly among the nobility. As late as the seventeenth century, a distinctive terrain of psychological and developmental space had not yet been charted. J. H. Plumb supports this view, seeing children as "victims of time," of place, of the brutality and indifference that characterized human relations in the premodern world. Prior to the Enlightenment, which marked a shift in such sensibilities, it was rare to see children depicted as children in either literature or art.

In the premodern world, both the young and adults tended to live without privacy, without personal space. People lived before the eyes of others, in boundaryless public spaces. Most peasant households in the Middle Ages shared not only the same room, but also the same large, makeshift bed, to which visiting strangers would be invited. Even in the houses of the nobility, and later of the rich merchants, where diverse members of the household were accommodated, private space as a demarcation of the boundaries between self and other did not exist. People ate, slept, labored, and danced in general- purpose rooms. As Ariès writes, "It is easy to imagine the promiscuity which reigned in those rooms where nobody could be alone ..., where several couples and several groups of boys and girls slept together (not to speak of the servants, of whom at least some must have slept beside their masters, setting up beds which were still collapsible in the room ...)." Robert Darnton, too, describes how "whole families crowded into one or two beds and surrounded themselves with livestock to keep warm." Martine Segalen points out that adults and children shared a common world and that because there was no distinctive spatial demarcation of the self, there was also no distinctive social space for childhood in either the medieval or the Renaissance periods.

Both women and children were properties of men. Under a patriarchal structure in which fathers and husbands maintained exclusive economic and legal authority, the nonboundary spatial configurations symbolized ownership of the body space of both children and their mothers. The lives of numerous female saints illustrate their choice of virginity as an act of freedom — an escape from male control of the body. St. Augustine, one of the most authoritative of medieval theologians, claimed that "the innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies, rather than any quality of soul." He demanded the suppression of concupiscence, thereby justifying brutal punishment of the body of the child. "If left to do what he [the child] wants," St. Augustine maintained, "there is no crime he will not plunge into."

The conquest and subjection of the body of the child have formed part of what Alice Miller describes as a "poisonous pedagogy" that masquerades under the guise of "For your own good." Physical abuse is steeped in a long history of legitimated power and control through the subjugation of the body — forms of "biopower," which Foucault argues are part of a disciplinary technology of regulation aimed at creating "docile bodies." Sulzer, an eighteenth-century German pedagogue, put it this way: "One of the advantages of these early years is that then force and compulsion can be used. Over the years, children forget everything that happened to them in early childhood. If their wills can be broken at this time, they will never remember afterwards that they had a will." This legacy of a "poisonous pedagogy," which can be traced to the Puritans in colonial America, later found strong support in the Evangelical movement. Susanna Wesley stern mother of John (the leader of the Evangelical Revival and founder of the Methodist Church), advised him to "break the will, if you would not damn the child ... make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it." John and Elizabeth Newson argue that the Evangelical movement, despite its minority status, cast a moral net over pedagogy; conquering the will of children as early as possible was deemed a necessary foundation for a religious education. This deity-centered pedagogy saw the subjugation of the body as the pathway to the proper formation of mind.

While the discourse changed in the early part of the twentieth century to one of development and compliance, the conquest of the body and the domestication of the mind have remained critical pedagogical imperatives for a child's early years. Thus, although the construction of childhood has taken many forms, the body of the child has remained the site of subjugation, where the most invasive practices have become linked to parental, pedagogical, and state power, concealing and legitimating continuing violence against the young. And in the microworld of the child, Dostoyevsky continues to remind us, benevolence and malevolence rest in the power structure of the adult world. "I've collected a great, great deal about Russian children," Ivan tells his brother Alyosha. "You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense."

As we turn toward the twentieth century, we do not witness a progressive humanization in attitudes toward children, as anticipated by DeMause. Current statistics indicate that both sexual and physical abuse are widespread experiences of childhood; it is reported that 22 percent of American adults have been victims of child sexual abuse. Yet the taboo on probing interfamily abuse and violence is strong. Questions about the physical punishment of children are not often asked, Philip Greven points out, for it is a legitimated and rationalized violence which in turn "reveals the power of the taboo against our acknowledgment of the childhood sufferings experienced by so many people, generation after generation." In exploring what he terms the apocalyptic impulse in American Protestantism, Greven questions the impact of physical punishment on both private and public aspects of American culture. He suggests that "physical punishment of children appears to be one of the subjects in America that are still profoundly disturbing, because they are too deeply rooted in our individual and our collective psyches to be confronted directly." Physical punishment is still widely used as a legitimate form of parental discipline and is permitted within public schools in many states as an acceptable method of control. It is estimated that every year twenty thousand children receive injuries from corporal punishment in school that are serious enough to require medical attention. Yet assaults on children are determined abusive only when severe bodily harm results.

The construct of childhood and the disciplinary technology that have prevailed from medieval to modern times reveal patterns of power, control, brutality, and indifference to the sensibilities of children despite a growing discourse about childhood as a separate state to be nurtured. Clearly, childhood for some has been a pleasant idyll, a playful and joyous landscape painted on a Dylan Thomas canvas, "green and carefree famous among the barns/About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home," where parents cherished their children and where to grow up was an invitation to self-formation, to begin, in Merleau-Ponty's words, "a new personal history." But the invitation to self-formation, to the discovery of an open future, was not granted to many children in ages past, nor in our time. There have of course been competing discourses in our Western history that have urged a pedagogy of compassion and gentleness, such as we see in a Tolstoy or a Froebel; but as we begin to deconstruct the central themes of childhood history, we find not light but pervasive shade. The progressivist myth of childhood improving with each successive century is disputed by historians such as J. H. Plumb and John Demos; and in particular by Philip Greven, who demonstrates how the discourse of concealment has operated with such efficiency and continued the ongoing assault on young lives. Educational and theological discourses too have played a vital role in eclipsing patterns of abuse. We must confront the knowledge revealed by a deconstructed childhood in order to see how easily brutality toward children has been rationalized. Powerlessness and silence are willing collaborators with those who exploit the vulnerable and voiceless among us.

While the dark side of childhood remains dark for all children who have endured the violence of a poisonous pedagogy — poor and privileged alike — it is the experiences of children who have lived on the edges of the dark side that are the focus of this discussion. Their young lives have been largely eclipsed in the pages of development and the romantic, post-Rousseau images of the discovery of childhood, as a separate state to be nurtured and tended, a garden of blossoming growth. Those romantic sensibilities have avoided the scorched ground on which poor children lived out a stunted other childhood, bounded by the horizons of class and ousted from the garden of privilege.

The Other Childhood: Child Labor in Britain and America

"It is good when it happens," say the children,
"that we die before our time" ...
"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
to drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And underneath our heavy eyelids drooping
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark, underground;
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The Cry of the Children

Child labor is an enduring symbol of the harshness and brutality of the Industrial Revolution; from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's impassioned "Cry of the Children" to Engels's Childhood in the Potteries, in which he reports, "Many of the children are pale. Their eyes are inflamed and they often go blind for weeks at a time. They suffer also from violent nausea, vomiting, coughs, colds and rheumatism."

In 1835, fifty-six thousand children under the age of thirteen were employed in British textile factories. If we add to that the thousands of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, we see that children accounted for over 20 percent of the work force in the textile factories. Several thousand more children labored in workshops and in the metal, machinery, and pottery industries. Paul Mantoux shows that child labor in England was an integral part of the British economy, for which the early lives of poor children were sacrificed. Since adult male workers found the discipline of the textile factory intolerable, women and children had to be hired to fill the labor pool. Many of the children, eagerly supplied by parishes, were pauper apprentices; sometimes their only payment was food or lodging.

Regular bargains, beneficial to both parties if not to the children, who were dealt with as mere merchandise, were entered into between the spinners on the one hand and the Poor Law authorities on the other. Lots of fifty, eighty or a hundred children were supplied and sent like cattle to the factory, where they remained imprisoned for many years to come. Certain parishes drove even better bargains and stipulated that the buyer should take idiots in the proportion of one to every twenty children sent.

These pauper children — among the weavers in the North and the Southwest of England, children as young as four years old were sent to work as soon as they were deemed capable of obedience and attention — were bound over as apprentices for at least seven years and often until they were twenty-one. Their small sizes and their delicate fingers were well suited for certain processes. As Mantoux notes, "their weakness made them docile, and they were more easily reduced to a state of passive obedience than grown men." They were also cheap; their wage varied between a third and a sixth of an adult wage. Accidents at the factories were common and discipline was brutal; children were whipped, many so exhausted that they would fall asleep at the machines, and the "tale never ended of fingers cut off and limbs crushed in the wheels."

While the opposition to child labor that emerged in England appeared to focus on children's well-being, it frequently was part of a discourse that involved either the "social question" of a large population of "morally unfit" pauper children or the economic necessity for children in the labor force, particularly the textile industry under early industrial capitalism. The factory movement, for example, campaigned not so much against child labor as for its regulation, and this formed part of a general effort by primarily adult male workers to secure better wages and working hours. It was the Romantics — Wordsworth, Coleridge and others — who saw in industrialization the blight of civilization, and promoted an idyll of a playful childhood in the English country air, such as we read in Wordsworth's The Prelude (book 1):

Oh, many a time have I, a five year's child,
In a small mill-race severed from his stream,
Made one long bathing of a summer day;
Basked in the sun, and plunged and basked again ...


Excerpted from Lives on the Edge by Valerie Polakow. Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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