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Even Tougher Love for Welfare Moms

June 11, 2002|BRUCE FULLER

It's a tortured twist of conservative values, but President Bush seems eager to shrink the role of motherhood in America, pushing aggressively to mandate 40-hour workweeks for the 14 million women expected to enter the family welfare system over the next decade.

House Republicans concurred last month that even mothers with infants should work or attend training five days a week. The share of mothers required to meet the new work mandate would double under the president's proposals, which the Senate will begin debating this month.

What's radical about Bush's initiative is that few middle-class women work this much outside the home. Two in every five of the nation's 11 million mothers with preschool-age children don't work at all for wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average American worker, man or woman, toils less than 34 hours each week.

The president's plan would alter childhood as we know it. Who will watch after the 1.2 million additional youngsters under 5 who would be forced into 40 hours of child care each week? Few middle-class children that age put in such a grueling week; the average American child under 5 spends the equivalent of about three days a week in day care.

More than 7 million older children already return from school each afternoon to empty households, according to the Census Bureau.

Recent evaluations of state welfare-to-work experiments have revealed negative repercussions for teenagers as their mothers toil more and supervise their children less, including poorer school performance, more acts of delinquency and greater incidence of substance abuse.

The administration is opposed to new spending on child-care options, even to support working-poor parents who stay off the dole. Bush has cut the child-care block grant to states in real dollars. What would markedly advance children's growth and school readiness is expanded access to child-care centers, according to a recent study of welfare families by UC Berkeley and Stanford researchers. But Bush prefers vouchers that largely reimburse baby-sitters or relatives for their services.

A fresh poll, commissioned by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, which advocates the rights of disadvantaged children, details how most voters believe that a paycheck trumps a welfare check, yet they endorse strengthened work supports, like child care. A majority of women--56% compared with 44% of men--would boost welfare spending by one-sixth above current levels.

A political risk for Bush is how governors would react if told that they must find jobs for an additional 800,000 women within a stalled economy and with no support from Washington. California's budget analyst estimated that state taxpayers would have to pony up $2.2 billion to implement Bush's work proposals.

Senate moderates will be exploring a middle ground, such as a more realistic work standard, effective training options and quality child care. The goal should be to advance women's work opportunities while strengthening their parenting role, a balance pursued by all working mothers.

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Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, is coauthor of "Through My Own Eyes: Single Mothers and the Cultures of Poverty" (Harvard University Press, 2001).

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