/ Chronic Poverty and the Struggle for Family Survival: The Rhetoric and Reality of Welfare "Reform"


Chronic child poverty and the increasing economic vulnerability of single mother families represent a child welfare crisis of growing magnitude in the United States. This article analyzes punitive public discourses and punitive public policies targeting single mother families. The new welfare law repealing federal guarantees of public assistance to poor children is discussed in relation to single mothers, their children, family homelessness, child care, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence.

Key words: child poverty, welfare, single mother families

    1. This article is a revised and shortened version of a longer paper titled "The shredded net: The end of welfare as we knew it" to be published in Sage Race Relations in Summer, 1997.return to text

    2. Valerie Polakow, Ph.D., is Professor, College of Education, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan, 48197.return to text

    Right now I'm at the stage where everything is piling, bills and all little things. Little things are things that do it. I can't find a baby-sitter right now 'cos I can't pay her—I try to go get help from welfare and they tell me I make too much ... it's one thing after another going on in my life. I gotta find a way to work, to go to school, to the laundromat, to get food—now my car broke down...No matter how hard you try you're always going to be two steps behind, because whoever the force is, doesn't want you to succeed.
    —Joey, a young single mother of two-year-old twins[3]
    I lived in public housing in Detroit, I stayed there for two years, and I know the debilitating factors that it takes just to survive. People have tried and tried and tried to find jobs; it's a vicious circle and after you get the door slammed in your face, you don't have the will to go out there and fight anymore...
    I got a little slip in my son's pocket saying I owed $900 in child care and saying don't bring my children back until that is paid...I couldn't do it so I tried to go back on welfare. It was either pay my rent or pay child care...so I called social services and asked them about getting my benefits again and my worker said I had to wait two months, so I stopped work in November and she said I wouldn't get any benefits until January. I asked my worker, "How'm I supposed to live? and she said, "It's not for me to tell you!"
    —Tanya, a single mother of two young children[4]

    Chronic Poverty and Single Mother Families

    In the United States, where chronic poverty has become an endemic feature of the landscape of the other America, the largest constituency of poor Americans is young children—and the younger in age the higher the risk. While 21% of children under 18 are classified as living in poverty, 25% of children under 6 and 27% under 3 years old live in poverty (Children's Defense Fund, 1996), with the majority residing in poor single mother households. It is clear that the increasing economic vulnerability of the single mother family represents a child welfare crisis of growing magnitude that has been further exacerbated by recent welfare repeal legislation. The failure of public policy to address the daily survival needs of economically vulnerable single mothers also threatens their children's basic physical, social, and developmental needs.

    The term, "feminization of poverty," has been widely used since the late 1970s to describe the particular plight of women who, as single mothers, are disproportionately poor and face an alarming array of obstacles which threaten their family stability (Ehrenreich & Piven, 1984; Goldberg & Kremen, 1990; Gordon, 1990; Pearce, 1978; Polakow, 1993, 1995); and by the late 1980s women and their children had become a significant majority of America's poor (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989). Unmet needs in housing, health care, and child care frequently coalesce to form a triple crisis confronting single mothers who, as both providers and nurturers of their children, cannot sustain family viability when they are low wage earners. Gender discrimination in the workplace and low wage service sector jobs providing few, if any, benefits mean that an unskilled employed single mother often lives well below the federal poverty line. In 1995-1996, a full-time minimum wage salary was $8,800 a year, $3,000 under the federal poverty line for a single mother family of three. The child care crisis compounds the situation with many low wage-earning mothers spending up to 50% of their income on child care. In Michigan, for example, costs for child care average over $4,600 per year (Kids Count, 1996).

    In 1995, 15.3 million children lived in poverty in the United States (Children's Defense Fund, 1996). Statistics (Children's Defense Fund, 1995, 1996) tell an ongoing story of chronic, sustained children's poverty, which is integrally linked to the economic vulnerability of their parents—frequently mothers alone, living on the edge:

    • Over 60% of poor children live in female-headed households with over half of those families subsisting on less than $6,000 a year.
    • Reports from the Food and Research Action Center indicate that 4 million children under 12 go hungry during part of each month.
    • 10 million children have no health insurance coverage, yet 61% of these children have working poor parents who are full-time employees.
    • The United States has a higher infant mortality rate than 18 other industrialized nations and a preschool death rate higher than 19 other nations.
    • One in four homeless persons is now a child younger than 18 years (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 1993), and over 50% of homeless families become homeless because the mother flees domestic violence (National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, 1994).

    Furthermore, at the present time the United States is the only country in the democratic industrialized world that provides no guarantee of health care for all pregnant mothers and their infants. Unlike our west and north European allies, we have no paid parental leave, no national child/family allowances, and no national subsidized child care system for infants and preschool children (Kamerman & Kahn, 1991; Polakow, 1993). Our own national early childhood intervention program, Headstart, provided access to only 36% of income eligible children last year (Children's Defense Fund, 1996).

    Despite the dismal record of the United States in failing to develop public policies that provide for the basic health, shelter, and daily living needs of its most vulnerable citizens—poor women and their children—female and child poverty is still cast as a "moral") problem, tied to public rhetoric about "family values") and "family breakdown") which in turn is used to rationalize further cuts in public assistance. The structural evidence—contingent low wage jobs, rising wage inequalities, falling benefits, corporate downsizing, racial and gender discrimination, and the growing number of job-poor, isolated, and destitute communities (Jennings, 1994; Wilson, 1996)—is ignored in favor of "blaming the victim" discourses that reduce poor women to caricatured public parasites or promiscuous sluts, living it up at taxpayer expense. Rarely are their grim survival struggles chronicled, or their children's traumatic lives examined, as part of the consequences of a trickle-down market economy that offers few protections to those who live in the other America (Polakow, 1994).

    During the 1995 House debates on the original welfare bill, ironically entitled the "Personal Responsibility Act," which was proposed as part of the Republican Contract with America, poor mothers receiving public assistance were publicly vilified by Republican lawmakers as "breeding mules," as "alligators," and as "monkeys." Earlier, House Ways and Means Chairman, Rep. Clay Shaw Jr., who shepherded welfare repeal legislation through the House, stated, "It may be like hitting a mule with a two by four but you've got to get their attention"(DeParle, 1994). When the bill reached the Senate, Senator Phil Gramm demanded, " We've got to get a provision that denies more and more cash benefits to women who have more and more babies while on welfare" (Toner, 1995).

    While social security for elderly Americans is still considered an earned entitlement, a social security system for children (who in turn must depend on their parents' benefits) forms part of a completely different discourse in the United States because the parents—specifically poor mothers of dependent children—are viewed as undeserving of government support. The discourse about poor mothers and their children is couched in "moral" and "personal responsibility" frames and, more recently, in terms of "productive work." Taking care of one's own children, however, is not viewed as productive work if one is poor; and having children when poor is perceived as both irresponsible and/or immoral. The anti-welfare and "underclass" punitive discourses that have targeted single mothers and pregnant teens have promoted a continuing public perception of poverty as a private and behavioral condition leading to proliferating racialized and sexualized fictions about them, so that the causes of family poverty are seen as rooted in failed and fallen women, failed children, and a failed work ethic—but not in the actual consequence of public policies that produce family poverty by omission and commission.

    The ravages of a market economy, the multiple burdens of sex and race discrimination, the lack of affordable and safe child care, the lack of safe and affordable family housing, the absence of universal health care, minimal or no child support from absent fathers, and the traumas of statutory rape, and domestic violence all coalesce to create a web of overwhelming obstacles that entrap poor single mothers in poverty, destitution, and homelessness. Hence a national family policy (or absence thereof) is a potent force in women's lives—either weaving a safety net to support family viability or shredding the net and destabilizing family existence. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, where family policies are strong, and where universal entitlements such as paid parental leave, health care, child care, absent parent child support, and housing subsidies are in place, chronic single mother and child poverty has largely been eliminated (Kamerman & Kahn, 1994; Polakow, in press). Yet despite the evidence of abysmal health, housing, and child care conditions for the poorest Americans, and despite the devastating consequences of chronic poverty and homelessness for families, the minimal safety net that did exist has now been dismantled. The new welfare repeal law that passed the House and Senate with bi-partisan support, was signed into law by President Clinton on August 22, 1996. In the following sections the impact of the new welfare law is discussed.


    The basic federal program that guaranteed government assistance to all poor children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—which was established as Title IVA of the Social Security Act of 1935—has now been eliminated.

    According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the impact of the new law is far-reaching, cutting 55 billion dollars of support to low-income programs; and it is clearly targeted at single mothers who depend on public assistance (see Super, Parrot, Steinmetz, & Mann, 1996). States will receive block grants of money, known as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) grants based on 1994 levels without regard to subsequent changes in the level of need in a state. These TANF grants will be disbursed to families in need on a first come, first served basis. Being a poor child no longer automatically qualifies you for assistance. If a single parent family becomes eligible for state assistance, mother and children will be limited to two years of support while the mother is forced to comply with work requirements in order to receive any such welfare benefits. After a maximum of two years (states may choose to provide less) all benefits will be cut and the mother will be forced to find employment. If no jobs are available and the two year limit is up, mother and children will be left with no safety net other than private charity. And there is a lifetime limit of five years on public assistance, with states given the option of choosing to set stricter limits. While hardship exemptions will be available to 20% of families, it is anticipated that during high periods of unemployment or during a recession, larger and larger pools of destitute families will emerge and become homeless.

    The Urban Institute estimates that the immediate effect of the new law will be to throw 1.1 million more children into poverty and predicts the further destituting of those already impoverished. Over the next six years it is anticipated that approximately 3 million more children will fall into poverty. In addition, there are sweeping cuts of services to legal immigrants, their children, and their aging parents, as well as cuts to thousands of disabled poor children who will lose their SSI payments due to far more stringent eligibility requirements. And food stamps will be cut $27.7 billion over the next 6 years, denied to all legal immigrants and to single unemployed adults after three months. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that in an average month one million jobless individuals unable to find work will be denied food stamps under this provision. While there are no funds for job creation in the new welfare law, there are not sufficient jobs available in poor urban and rural communities. As Wilson (1996) recently pointed out, the problem issue has never been welfare but, rather, the disappearance of work in isolated poor communities—and the problem has now reached catastrophic proportions for unskilled and uneducated poor Americans.

    During the House debates about the new welfare law, Michigan was consistently cited as a model of how states can implement welfare "reform." Governor John Engler was credited with reducing welfare dependency during his two terms in office. He did. In 1991 he eliminated general assistance for 83,000 single adults and cut AFDC benefits to mothers and children by 11%. He also decreased taxes and authorized spending 23 million to operate four new prisons (Berke, 1995; Polakow, 1995). An analysis of Engler's recent welfare experiments and welfare waivers raises additional concerns about shifting responsibility for welfare over to the states. While the Engler administration has been eulogized as one of the leading lights of welfare reform, because of the emphasis on work requirements as a condition for receiving aid, there is no plan in place to provide training for unskilled and uneducated recipients for jobs that pay viable family wages. Moreover, "Work First" requirements, which mandate that all recipients of public assistance work in paid or unpaid labor for a minimum of 20 hours per week, place further obstacles in the path of single mothers who wish to pursue higher education as their one route out of poverty.

    Prior to the passage of the new welfare law, Michigan had already allowed its public assistance grants to drop to a level 55% below the federal poverty line—even during the state's booming economy—and had drastically reduced state emergency assistance funding and shifted one quarter of the state's AFDC funds to other areas of the budget. The Michigan League for Human Services, a Lansing based advocacy group, warns that this dismantled social welfare safety net will "leave in its wake a legacy of increased poverty and deprivation which may take decades to reverse" (1996, p.1).


    The new legislation also eliminates three current child care programs—child care assistance for AFDC families in work or training programs; child care assistance for families making the transition from welfare to work; and the at-risk child care program for low income families—and replaces them with a single child care block grant. The new law repeals the entitlements of families to such assistance. While many claims have been made about the increase in child care funds under the new law, an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that these claims are, in fact, misleading—given the vast increase of funds needed to meet the expanded work requirements imposed on mothers of young children. The Center cites projections by the Congressional Budget Office which indicate that by 1999, child care funding will fall far short of what would be needed to fulfill the law's work requirements and to maintain current levels of child care assistance—which at present are vastly inadequate. The Center's researchers point out that "transforming open-ended entitlement programs to a block grant that caps the level of resources that states can draw upon for child care assistance does not represent a liberalization of child care funding" (Super, Parrot, Steinmetz, & Mann, 1996, p. 13).

    At present, there is an acute national crisis of quality, affordable child care for all American children whose parents are low wage earners. Recent national reports have documented widespread problems in each of the states investigated: unsafe, unsanitary centers, poor quality care, lack of regulation, chronic unavailability of infant care, and closed access to low-income families. A recent report, released by the GAO reviewing federally funded early childhood centers in different states across the nation, found severe health and safety violations in each of the states investigated and concluded that lack of regulation and monitoring was a critical cause (U. S. General Accounting Office, 1993). The Children's Defense Fund report (Ebb, 1994) also raised urgent concerns about the quality and availability of federally subsidized child care for AFDC families and working poor families. The level of care is particularly poor for toddlers and infants. Findings from the national Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study (Helburn, 1995) indicated that child care at most centers was rated as poor to mediocre and only 8% of the infant/toddler rooms received a rating of "good" quality, with 40% receiving a rating of less than minimal quality!

    Furthermore, in the absence of a nationally subsidized public child care system, private child care costs are prohibitive, not only for poor parents but for middle income families as well, frequently running $800 a month for high quality infant care. In Washtenaw County, Michigan, high quality full-time infant care has risen to $10,000 a year, 40% more than undergraduate tuition at the University of Michigan! Given the current crisis of unavailable and unaffordable child care, and the alarming quality of cheap child care, who will care for the infants and children of poor mothers who are being forced to work for their benefits? While the new welfare law creates work exemptions for mothers with children under one year old, states are permitted to choose even stricter requirements.

    In Michigan, for example, under Governor Engler's Work First Plan, work exemptions are only granted for mothers with infants under 12 weeks old! Sanctions for failure to participate in work programs range from 25% grant reductions to a complete cut-off of all benefits after one year. And these severe repercussions become even more alarming as we consider the large numbers of infants born to adolescents.


    During the 1990s there has been an onslaught of media and public policy rhetoric about teenage pregnancy, in which poor adolescent girls are depicted as promiscuous, having more and more babies "at taxpayer expense," and thereby contributing to the "breakdown of family values." One of the outcomes of this scapegoating of young girls has been a series of legislative attempts to deny aid to the babies of teen mothers. This denial of aid was mandated in the original Personal Responsibility Act of 1995 as part of the Republican Contract with America, and was followed by a public debate about the notorious orphanage proposals of Newt Gingrich. The new welfare law, while not as extreme as the original 1995 version, still has devastating consequences for teen mothers. States may now choose to deny or provide state assistance to teen parents and their babies, and mothers under 18 must stay in school and live at home (or with a guardian) in order to receive any aid. In cases of demonstrated violence or abuse, exemptions may be granted. But what about situations which are not demonstrable? Or documented?

    Consider the following stories of the desperate lives of adolescent girls; stories drawn from interviews[5] conducted with pregnant teens in Michigan:

    • One 17 year old, pregnant by her 25-year-old boyfriend, describes her already desperate situation: "So I ended up moving—me and the baby—into this apartment. I didn't have a stove or refrigerator. And they left me and I'm here alone—no family, no car, no job, no nothing, just me and the baby," as she struggles to survive on her meager welfare allotment, now slated for possible elimination.
    • Or consider the situation of 16-year-old Jamie: raped by her stepfather and terrorized by his threats if she tells; unable to obtain a Medicaid abortion; thrown out of her parents' house in which her mother is a battered spouse. Where will she turn in her isolated rural county as she now faces the specter of destitution and homelessness and of foster care for her baby?
    • Seventeen-year-old Debbie, who fled an abusive parental home, tells another harrowing story: The father of her child has threatened to kill her and the baby if she reveals his paternity, and she will be unable to obtain public assistance and Medicaid unless she does so. "And now I got nowhere to turn, and nowhere to go—and how will I graduate with all this stuff 'gainst me, and nobody there no more to help with the baby? And he keep threatening to kill us." Debbie has also lost child care and her only support system at the teen parent center, which has now closed due to funding cuts. She too would be denied all aid under the new welfare law as she has failed to document family violence and is afraid to report it.

    Furthermore, in view of the absence of contraceptive education in many of our public schools and the severe restrictions on access to abortions by all poor women and girls, it is not surprising that sexually active, poor teens become pregnant and that many give birth. According to the Children's Defense Fund (1995), 83% of teens who give birth are from economically disadvantaged households, only three fifths of teen mothers received early prenatal care, and one in ten received late or no prenatal care. Many of these adolescents face harsh and frightening futures, isolated and disempowered by their vulnerable status. African American teens experience a disproportionate share of poverty and are often further marginalized by lack of access to health care resources. Former Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders put it bluntly, "If you're poor and ignorant, you're a slave. Meaning that you're never going to get out of it...you can't control your life." The fact that so many poor teens in need of public health care and intensive counseling receive none at all is testimony to the fact that they and their newborn infants have become throw away casualties in a society that in Elder's words, "has a love affair with the fetus" (Dreifus, 1994).

    To be a poor, pregnant teenager in 1996 is to face an increasingly diminished future in which a victim-blaming discourse spikes the air waves and legislative chambers. However, the most startling piece of this vindictive discourse is left unsaid: the molestation, the rapes, and the predatory acts by adult men, 20 to 50 years old. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (1995), 67% of all pregnant teens have been impregnated by adult men 20 years and older (where the identity of the fathers is actually known). It is also adult men who are responsible for over 202,000 teen births a year, and as the Alan Guttmacher Institute (1994) reports, 74 % of all girls under 14 who have had sex were actual rape victims. Frequently rejected by their own families, often fleeing abusive home situations, they face increasing isolation and punitive sanctions if they fail to comply with the stay-in-school and live-at-home requirements of the new welfare law.


    All women, irrespective of their social class, are at risk when living in a relationship where domestic violence exists. Domestic violence is the largest cause of injury to women in the United States, where between two and four million women are assaulted annually by their partners (McClure, 1996; Strauss & Gelles, 1990). One of the primary reasons that women fail to leave abusive relationships is their economic dependence on their batterers and fears about family survival without economic support (National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, 1994). These fears translate into a particularly acute reality for poor women, and for women who have few outside networks and resources to draw upon. In 1990, during hearings on The Violence Against Women Act, the Senate Judiciary Committee noted that 50% of all homeless women and children in the United States had become homeless because of domestic violence (U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, 1990). Bassuk's (1996) recent study of a community in Massachusetts suggested that the reality may in fact be even higher. Two thirds of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical violence by adult intimate partners (Bassuk, 1996).

    When women and their children flee violence, their family viability is always threatened physically and psychologically. However, when domestic violence precipitates a fall into destitution and homelessness, the need for strong public assistance measures becomes even more urgent. In considering the impact of the new welfare law on domestic violence victims (see Davies, 1996), it is clear that several disturbing consequences may ensue: Reduced welfare assistance and restrictive eligibility requirements may mean that more mothers will be forced to stay with their batterers—or return there—because public assistance is terminated. In the case of immigrant women, there will no longer be any form of public assistance available, unless states choose to continue their benefits. Furthermore, if women participate in mandatory workfare programs, as they are already required to do in Michigan, the abusive partner may continue to stalk and terrorize—making many women unable to comply with job or work requirements. The requirement that women disclose the paternity of their child in order to receive time-limited benefits, also places at risk mothers who are threatened by the fathers if they name names! Punitive sanctions which reduce monthly welfare payments if the mother does not participate in a work program are already in force in Michigan, where recipients are punished by a 25% grant reduction for each month of non-compliance. Although "good cause" exceptions exist, they are difficult to prove and document; hence many women continue to fall through the cracks.

    The long-term psychological trauma for all family violence survivors clearly impacts a mother's ability to become economically self sufficient. When coupled with a destitute existence, long waiting lists for subsidized housing, and lack of affordable child care, the recently shredded welfare safety net presages ominous life consequences.

    As we consider the composite national impact of the new welfare law, which specifically targets poor single mothers, it is clear that they are confronting a world of squalor, of deadly dangers, and of diminished rights to a future. And whenever we punish and scapegoat poor single mothers, their children are the ultimate victims—for the vast majority of welfare recipients are children. The grim consequences will be a further impoverishment of our nation's youngest members, under the Orwellian doublespeak of "welfare reform." As Marion Wright Edelman recently stated: "The elimination of the national guarantee to protect children is a moral outrage...a massive betrayal that places the lives of many of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens in grave danger" ("Need for state advocacy," 1996, p.1).

    If ever there was a time to fight against the public destituting of poor single mothers and their children, that time is now. Advocacy on behalf of poor families must involve an unmasking of "welfare reform" rhetoric; and visibility must be given to the daily desperate struggles of survival by millions of poor families. For if the public record is to be changed, the documentation of family life in the other America must be presented as the grotesque caricature of "ending welfare as we know it."


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      1. Excerpt from a series of interviews the author conducted in Michigan in 1991/1992. All names in all excerpts have been changed to protect confidentiality.return to text

      2. Excerpt from an interview the author conducted which was reported in The Nation, May 1, 1995.return to text

      3. Excerpts from interviews with Michigan teenagers conducted between 1991 and 1995.return to text