Campus & Community

Should social policy reward marriage?

5 min read

Mink claims policy penalizes single mothers

Close to 200 people, most of them women, gathered in a tastefully appointed meeting room at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies on April 8. They came to hear a talk called “From Welfare to Wedlock: Should Social Policy Promote Marriage and Fatherhood?” While outside the French doors daylight savings time graced a terrace with muted light, Gwendolyn Mink, professor of Women’s Studies from Smith College, delivered troubling news for poor single mothers in 21st century America, and exhorted the crowd to help reverse what she views as an oppressive trend.

“We’re at a critical juncture in welfare policy,” said Mink, whose books include “Welfare’s End” and “The Wages of Motherhood.” The historic moment arises because the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is up for reauthorization this spring. Enacted in 1996, TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which had distributed welfare benefits since the 1930s. Many feminists and advocates for the poor are raising concerns about TANF policies, policies that Congress is now debating. By July, the TANF reauthorization process will be finished. Among activists working to influence the outcome of this process are Mink and her mother, Congresswoman Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii).

The younger Mink’s speech was part of a lecture series organized by the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies, based at Harvard and including a number of area universities.

Welfare policy under TANF, said Mink, “promotes the idea of government as matchmaker, a notion that does not resonate with the American people.” In fact, she said, 79 percent of Americans think the government should not be involved in the marital decisions of its citizens. Yet the notion that government can and should play a role in promoting marriage “bewitches policymakers of all stripes.”

Among the TANF rules Mink discussed are those that single out unmarried mothers for punitive measures. “Government strikes the most severe blows to mothers who are unmarried and poor,” she said. For example, single mothers who apply for aid under TANF must reveal the identity of the biological father and help the government find the father for purposes of collecting child support. If they refuse to cooperate, the women’s welfare benefits are reduced. Such a rule, said Mink, strips mothers of their right to decide whether to participate in a financially dependent relationship with the father. “Within the TANF system,” said Mink, “the government defines and pursues paternity and determines its obligation. It pushes mothers in the direction of men or marriage.

“TANF teaches that the only path out of poverty is to get married or have a marriagelike financial relationship with the biological father,” Mink continued. Under TANF, she said, the government “withholds economic security from mothers and their children unless women go into patriarchal relationships.”

TANF has enjoyed bipartisan support since the late 1990s, but Mink and her mother are advocating for a policy shift. To that end, Patsy Mink has introduced a bill, HR 3113. The bill would, said Gwendolyn Mink, “undo the rights abuses in the TANF system.” Among the TANF rules the bill would alter are those concerning who is eligible for child care and the kinds of work activities considered legitimate and therefore eligible for benefits.

For example, HR 3113 would amend TANF to make paternity establishment and child support enforcement voluntary. It would also change TANF to include, as valid work activities, currently excluded pursuits such as education and job training. Changes would also include treatment for domestic and sexual violence, mental health problems, and substance abuse. In addition, HR 3113 would restore the child-care benefit for TANF families when the parent enters the labor market — a benefit that in the late ’90s was repealed for single mothers who, at the same time, were required to work at a job in order to receive other TANF benefits.

“To be poor and unmarried in the United States today is to be unworthy of full citizenship,” Mink warned. “Welfare once contributed to poor women’s rights — now it impedes them. It’s very important to make your voice heard.” Faxing letters to members of Congress, said Mink, “costs less than a postage stamp,” and is the best communication method because regular mail does not reach Capitol Hill since the anthrax attacks.

Laura Roskos, coordinator of the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies, commented on the speaker series that included Mink’s talk. “Our series this year,” Roskos said, “has shown us that no woman can be secure in the belief that she’s better off than the women who have the fewest choices.” Just as the rights of poor single mothers have been eroded by government policies like TANF, Roskos said, so can the rights of all women be weakened “if you pick away at the human rights bundle.” Raising her head and smiling, she added, “It’s good to see these issues coming to the surface now.”