For Crying Out Loud: Women's Poverty in the United States
April 26, 2000
For Crying Out Loud: Women's Poverty in the United States (Diane Dujon and Ann Withorn, South End Press, 1996, $22) "The whole system is set up to not to treat you as an individual, but as one of a mass. How can you feel any self-esteem when you're cattle? You're basically herded through the system and they have this gate you're supposed to go through and end up here; that's what they're projecting for you, but that may not be where you want to go." -- Janice, welfare motherIf you've watched the nightly network news at all during the last 10 years, you probably think you have a good idea of who the typical welfare recipient is -- female, black and the mother of too many kids to feed and handle, right? Certainly, the mass media and politicians in this country have done a lot during the past decade to shape our beliefs and images of welfare recipients, and they've largely succeeded, particularly when it comes to female welfare recipients, or "welfare queens" as the popular stereotype is commonly known. For Crying Out Loud: Women's Poverty in the United States, originally published in 1986 and updated and re-released in 1996, is a series of essays compiled and edited by Diane Dujon and Ann Withorn in an attempt to challenge welfare myths and fallacies -- including the most sacred ones that even so-called liberals are willing to embrace. The authors fulfill their mission not only by breaking down welfare mother fictions but -- in addition to dissecting the whole economic system that makes welfare necessary -- by superseding them with a new image of the welfare mom as strong, courageous and smart as well. Dujon and Withorn achieve this milestone by combining first-person narratives with more academic -- yet remarkably readable -- essays jam-packed with statistics and stories that debunk nearly every welfare myth. "I feel fortunate to have been on welfare because I learned how to survive by using my wits ..." writes Dujon, "I learned how to prioritize and set my own agenda. I also got to know my daughter in a way that would have been impossible if I had worked full-time ... I also grew spiritually while on welfare, I learned to rely on God when humankind was neither human nor kind." As President Clinton's welfare reform heads for its big coming-out party, there's no better time to give voice to the millions of women who've lived on welfare. For Crying Out Loud 's most important function is that of reconstructing the image of the typical female welfare recipient. You might be shocked to learn, for example, that less than 6 percent of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) recipients are under the age of 20, or that the number of African-American women on welfare is roughly equal to the number of Caucasian women. Although you and I -- the average citizen -- are responsible for casting a skeptical eye on statistics, you can feel free to slap a fair portion of the blame on the mass media. It's done a great job of skewing our concept of women on welfare through omission and framing. In one For Crying Out Loud essay -- called "Media Lies" by Laura Flanders with Janine Jackson and Dan Shadoan -- the authors point out that during a three-month period from December 1994 to February 1995, 77 percent of all sources used by the major media outlets (including the network news and the New York Times) were male, and 59 percent were government officials. For example, Clay Shaw (the Florida Republicans who chairs the House subcommittee that drafted the "Personal Responsibility Act" passed by Congress in 1996), appeared as a major media source 37 times, making him the "single most quoted media source on welfare in the period." To give you an idea of how his omnipresence might have influenced audiences, let it be known that Shaw views welfare as "pampering the poor." The contributors to For Crying Out Loud don't have the luxury of mass media outlets to disseminate their messages. They don't have the so-called "credibility" factor afforded to impressive-sounding politicos and think tank heads. What they do have, however, is just as important, if not more so: the voices of women across the nation who've lived through -- or are still living on -- welfare. The women, those who were either interviewed or wrote their own essays for this book, are thoughtful and thought-provoking, articulate and mellifluous. Even the most staunch supporter of welfare reform should have a hard time walking away from For Crying Out Loud without having his or her views of women on welfare at least seriously challenged, if not transformed. "Welfare reform in a vacuum can only solve a small part of the problem," write Randy Albeida and Chris Tilly in "It's a Family Affair." "To deal with poverty among single-mother families, to break the connection between gender and poverty, requires changing the world of work, socializing the costs of raising children and providing low-wage supports." Indeed, no small task.