This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
by Shannon J. Prince
With the recession imperiling the nation’s well-being, poverty is on everyone’s mind regardless of their political orientation. Yet too often the poor are cast as ignorant and impotent pawns needing either a kick in the pants or a magical cocktail of resources and programs. The dialogue typically stalls around what “we” must do for or to “them” as though the poor lack ingenuity and agency.
In this commentary I identify four ideas that can be used to battle poverty: ending marriage penalties, deregulating selected industries, creating tax-funded social programs run by the poor, and creating community gardens. These four ideas are based around two central beliefs. The first is that people should not be punished by having their fight to escape poverty retarded when they choose to marry or profit from their personal knowledge. The second principle is that creative projects such as tax-funded, poor people-led social programs and community gardens help the poor to martial their efforts to fight the penury in their environments. While these two principles and the policies I propose based upon them may seem disparate, they are united by one central idea – that the poor themselves are resources. The minds and spirits of the poor can be marshaled in the fight against the poverty. If their family structures aren’t undermined, if their personal knowledge isn’t penalized, and if their labor and ideas are supported and nurtured, poor people can use themselves as weapons against poverty. Part 1 of this commentary focuses on marriage penalties and deregulation.
The first policy change we should make is to stop the government from dictating to the poor how to organize their homes. Uncle Sam has no more right to break up families than slave-owners did. Currently, poor women receiving government aid face being further impoverished if they choose to marry because the additional income of their husbands often makes them ineligible for government aid. For example, as former Mayor Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis pointed out, “In my state, a mother qualifies for welfare only if she does not marry her children’s father, and a teen-age mother qualifies only if she leaves home.” Furthermore, public policy consultant Wendell Cox gives the following example of h
“For example: the typical single mother on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families receives a combined welfare package of various means-tested aid benefits worth about $14,000 per year. Suppose this typical single mother receives welfare benefits worth $14,000 per year while the father of her children has a low wage job paying $18,000 per year. If the mother and father remain unmarried, they will have a combined income of $32,000 ($14,000 from welfare and $18,000 from earnings.) However, if the couple marries, the father’s earnings will be counted against the mother’s welfare eligibility. Overall, welfare benefits will be nearly eliminated and the couple’s combined income will fall substantially.”
According to the Center for Marriage and Families, “marriage penalties” can lower a family’s income by twenty percent. The Center goes on to say that many poor parents either secretly cohabit or live near each other as they are unable to marry without punishment. It is unacceptable for the welfare system to tyrannically regulate women’s lives by penalizing them for certain choices they make such as marrying their children’s fathers. This system undermines impoverished families, which are disproportionately families of color, forcing men to sneak to see their children and treating would-be wives like slaves sold to a different plantation.
Cox also points out anti-marriage discrimination in public housing policy. He notes:
“In the case of subsidized housing, the typical single mother receives a subsidy worth about $5,000 per year; if she marries a male with earnings the value of the rent subsidy will be reduced. The more the male earnings the greater the loss of housing aid, and, if she marries a male with earnings around $18,000 per year (a typical sum for unmarried fathers), the housing subsidy will be completely eliminated. Thus, in general, low income couples can maximize their welfare income by remaining unmarried.”
Cox suggests that this could be remedied by not lowering women’s benefits if when one thousand dollars of her husband’s income is ignored she is still eligible for public housing and by making exceptions for men with criminal records (who are normally excluded from subsidized housing) if they are married to and supporting the children of women who live in subsidized housing. I agree. In the Victorian era Dickens lamented how husbands and wives were separated from each other when they entered poor houses. Victorian aid was frequently contemptuous and based on the belief that the poor had no family bonds one need respect – they were like puppies who could be separated at the will of those more powerful. It’s the twenty-first century now, and it’s time to take a stand and affirm that marriage is a right, not a luxury.
In addition to not undermining the family structures of the poor, anti-poverty policy should not undermine the efforts of the poor to profit from their skills and talents either. The problem often isn’t that the poor aren’t pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but rather when they do so they are told they don’t have the appropriate credentials. The deregulation of some industries could help poor people to use self employment to become more financially stable. For example, many poor black women braid hair as a way of making money. However, as the National Center for Public Policy Research points out, many states have threatened these women with arrest because they don’t have cosmetology licenses; licenses that often demand taking courses that cost around $10,000, and frequently don’t even cover hair braiding in their curriculum. Several states have exempted hair braiders from needing to have cosmetology licenses after black women asserted that by using a traditional skill they were keeping themselves off welfare.
Furthermore, as noted in this September, 2006 AP article, the law punishes African immigrants who don’t speak the English necessary to get a license and only possess the knowledge of hair braiding as a marketable skill. More and more black women are using individual and class law suits to change the laws of their states. State laws requiring the licensing of hair braiders must be revoked.
One concern about industry deregulation, however, is quality control. I do not feel that all industries should be deregulated; however, I do think that we should, whenever possible, avoid regulating industries that have shown themselves capable of functioning ethically and monitoring their own quality levels independent of regulation. We know that since time immemorial black women have braided hair in open air and in kitchens and on front porches without licensing, to no societal ill effect. Wall Street corporate leaders may need someone looking over their shoulders, but black women don’t need supervision to braid. In their case, I think it would be unjust and unnecessary to require government regulation of their industry. Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent those believing that quality control can only be managed by the regulation of industry from going to a hair braider with a cosmetology license. Deregulation may not make small scale entrepreneurs become the next Sheila Johnson, but it can fight poverty by opening up avenues for people to profit from skills they possess.
Next, Part 2 – Social programs run by the poor and community gardens.
Ms. Prince is a Presidential Scholar, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and Senior Fellow at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH. She can contacted at Shannon.J.Prince@Dartmouth.EDU
This article was originally posted at Black Agenda Report on December 10, 2008 and is re-posted here with permission of BAR editors and the author.