On June 15, 2016, California Gov. Jerry Brown and the California legislature agreed to end the cap on support for families in need, most of them single mothers and their children. It took 20 years for California to reject a program based on the Clinton-era attack on “welfare as we knew it.” The 1996 Clinton law replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with short-term temporary federal assistance. It also added work requirements for recipients.
Because of the stereotype that poor women on welfare would make money by having more children, the California StateWorks program banned women from receiving additional aid should they get pregnant and have another child. It reminded me of the time not so long ago when poor black women in southwest Alabama were required to get “spayed” — the term used by white caseworkers – in order to receive any public support (Hunt and Scheper 1969).
It is a time for both celebration and for reflection.
The welfare system as I recall it in my childhood was a blend of surveillance and care. The welfare recipients I knew as a child in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were mostly white, recent immigrants, poor and working class. The scourges then were factory layoffs, alcoholism, domestic abuse and child neglect, the constant companion of urban poverty. The welfare lady figured in my imaginary as an Avenging Angel who swooped down on disorganized households and carried away their children. But she was also the Lady Bountiful who brought milk and oranges to our school.
I adored my first grade teacher, Mrs. Weinrib, a dashing, worldly, 40-some-year-old woman who wore a brilliant slash of cardinal-red lipstick across her lips and no scarf covering her thick auburn hair, who knew how butterflies emerged from cocoons and who was too progressive for the “progressive method” of reading.
Among us were children whose parents were educated, others were skilled workers and craftsmen, and factory workers. Some were children of "D.P.s," displaced persons, traumatized by World War II and its aftermath. It wasn’t polite to probe people’s backgrounds, but we sensed that some of our classmates — those who carried an air of adult melancholy — had family histories we didn’t want to know about.
We knew that life was something of a lottery and that a great deal depended on chance. Those of us living in Brooklyn — some in steamy, blackened tenements, some in 19th century three-story red brick buildings that housed families one to a floor — were the lucky ones.
Mrs. Weinrib taught us to stand up very straight, and not lean on the desk next to us when we recited the pledge of allegiance every morning. Public speaking was important, and she often reminded us to “speak up, loud and clearly, please.” After each morning break, the tiny half-pint cartons of free milk were distributed with a cookie. Then came the best part, once the tray of cookies were cleared away.
“All right, class, who is ready to make a pledge today?”
A dozen eager hands would fly up in the air, and one by one our beloved teacher called us up to the front of the class.
“Edna Geraghty? What do you pledge?”
“Mrs. Weinrib, [holding her hand up high with the coins displayed] I give three cents for welfare.”
“Very good, Edna. Marsha Steinberg, What do you give?”
”Mrs. Weinrib, I give five cents to welfare.”
“A nickel, excellent. And you, Nancy Scheper?”
With my heart beating, I made my way a to the front of the class, aware that my cotton socks were sliding, as usual, into the heel of my shoes. But proud as all get-out I remember saying loud and clear:
“Mrs. Weinrib, I give two cents for welfare”.
It was 1950 and public welfare was still seen by Americans and certainly by our first grade teacher, as a public good. She taught us that welfare belonged to all of us and that it was important to be on the giving side, remembering that one day we might need to be on the receiving side. Supporting welfare was like donating blood: It was honorable to give, and no shame to receive. Welfare, Mrs Weinrib taught us in that first grade classroom, was keeping America strong by giving a hand to new immigrants and to hyphenated Americans in New York City. Welfare was as American as apple fritters and latkes, or so Mrs.Weinrib taught us in her first grade class.
Hunger and shame
In the spring of 1968 in Wilcox County, Alabama, I accompanied a small team of CBS reporters and a country doctor, Raymond Wheeler, taking them into the shacks of black tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were experiencing considerable want and hunger. I was then working with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and a civil rights lawyer, Donald Jelinek, preparing for a class action suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not applying pressure on white officials in poor black counties of southwest Alabama to accept and administer federal food programs.
The CBS team came to Alabama to film a segment of its documentary Hunger in America. We brought the crew to some of the poorest households our civil rights group had encountered. One was a shack in Green County where a 13-year-old boy was home taking care of his little brothers and sisters. Dr. Wheeler, a North Carolina physician who championed the rights of poor and black people, accompanied the CBS film team to interview some of the young people, one of whom was Charles. The following dialogue was captured by the filmmakers:
“Do you eat breakfast before school?”
“Yeah, sometimes, sir. Sometimes I have peas.”
“And when you get to school, do you eat?”
“Isn’t there any food there?”
“Why don’t you have it?”
“I don’t have the money to buy it. I don’t have the 25 cents.”
“What do you do while the other children are eating?”
“I just sit there on the side” [here he turns his face away from the camera]
Wheeler continues, relentlessly:
“How do you feel when you see the other children eating?”
“I feels ashamed.” [his voice breaks]
Dr. Wheeler incredulously:
"You feel ashamed?"
“Yas, suh” [now he is crying]
"Why are you ashamed?
After the documentary was aired, hundreds of letters with small checks arrived at our “Freedom House” in Selma, Alabama. I answered them all. No child, concerned Americans agreed, should feel ashamed because they had nothing to eat. And no child should sit by empty-handed while his schoolmates ate lunch.
The documentary led to congressional action and Charles got his school lunch free, as did thousands of other poor kids like him. When Governor Mario Cuomo gave his memorable nominating keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, in a give and take with the media afterwards, Cuomo recalled that very scene from the CBS film Hunger in America. Though he did not recall the boy’s name, he evoked the burning sense of misplaced shame in that one hungry American child.
For shame, America was Cuomo’s message.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor and Chair of the Doctoral Program in Medical Anthropology at UC Berkeley. She is the author and co-editor of several books bearing on mothers, reproduction and “the small wars and invisible genocides” against “dangerous and endangered” children. Scheper-Hughes was a member of President Clinton’s Academic Advisory Panel in his National Campaign on Youth Violence (1999).
Crossposted from Anthropology Today. Part 2 will follow next week.