Mothering Isn’t a Two-Year Job : The time limit on benefits in the Clinton plan amounts to cruel punishment for being a needy mother.

<i> Bea Olvera Stotzer is president of New Economics for Women, dedicated to creating poverty solutions through the prism of women's experience. She works for the City of Los Angeles</i>

When I was growing up, my family was on welfare. I vividly remember my mother’s sense of obligation and shame for having to accept such a “handout.” She expected us to repay it by getting a good education and being good, productive citizens.

My mother had no choice. Here was a woman whose husband had left her with six children, two of them suffering from muscular dystrophy, another from a severe speech impediment. I would often be pulled out of school to go to the welfare office and interpret for my mother. Social workers gave advice and helped her cope with her tremendous responsibility of raising these children in a new country. Back then, in the late 1960s, we were told that the welfare system was intended to help and strengthen families during time of need.

For my mother, it represented the only security she had to keep us from the streets, homeless and starving. We were on welfare for years. If it had been pulled out from under us after two years, we would never have survived. Period.


That’s why the President’s proposed two-year limit on benefits is so cruel. Now as then, the burden of caring for children is with the mother. While our situation was arduous then, it is worse for millions of poor women and children today.

The difference is the anger and cynicism that now accompany welfare. It is no longer a promise of support but a blight on someone’s record, an indictment: guilty of being poor and, in most people’s minds, of being a cheat, leeching off government instead of going to work. Now comes the punishment in the new, so-called tough stance: two years and you’re out.

Admittedly, there are some who may have welfare dependency, but that’s because this country has never found solutions to poverty by investing in the self-esteem of women. Let’s turn the equation around. Instead of viewing these women as a burden, let’s think of them as an investment.

If we looked at girls and women as a vital resource for contributing to the economy, and motherhood as legitimate, important work, then we might actually want to invest in them. If we make that intellectual leap, the questions of what to do in reforming welfare become very different.

This new equation would recognize first that men be held equally responsible for their children. If you are a father and you leave, the expectation that your wife will take care of your children is usually an economic impossibility. Until fathers are held equally responsible, the new so-called reforms are simply reconfiguring the welfare problem, not solving it.

If reform valued, rather than punished, women and their children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children would not tell mothers they have two years to get a job. Instead, we would ask the recipients to set their own goals and objectives, to set a time for when they think they will be able to get off welfare. With those goals in place, we would create the support services to ensure they achieve those goals: child care, literacy programs, parenting programs, training and access to the services they need.


Here in Los Angeles, there is a program that works. When New Economics for Women, a local nonprofit organization, built Casa Loma, a 110-unit affordable-housing building in the Pico-Union neighborhood, it was with the conviction that our tenants would need a variety of support programs to be self-sufficient. So, at Casa Loma we provide child care and educational programs that give mothers the freedom to go to classes, work part-time and still be with their children.

This program also has shown us the pitfalls of a blanket two-year welfare limit. One of our model tenants recently took a job. She was thrilled to get it, and with it, a chance for independence. But even with all of Casa Loma’s support systems, the burden of leaving her youngest, a 2-year-old with a disability, was too much for her, and she left her job.

Superficially, she seems to be the stereotypical welfare mother: works one day, quits, goes back on welfare and repeats the cycle. New Economics for Women doesn’t see her that way. We understand her concern as a mother. We continue to work with her, knowing that when her child reaches school age, she will have different choices. She will work when she is secure that her children are not as dependent on her. It will take her longer than two years.

That’s what my mother was allowed to do. We were on welfare for as long as it took her to raise us, educate us and be assured that we were self-sufficient. Without her loving presence, I have no idea where I would be today.

I am eternally grateful to the United States and the state of California for believing in me, in my mother and in helping my brothers and sisters when we so desperately needed it. I would like to believe that as a law-abiding wife, mother and tax-paying civil servant, I am paying back the debt I owe.

I am not alone. Millions of us have passed through the system at one point or another. Millions of us are now self-sufficient and successful.


Instead of unleashing our anger and anxiety on the most vulnerable mothers, we should resolve that in this country, all mothers are valued equally and all have the option: to work outside the home or not.

I agree that the system needs reform, but to shatter the very concept of motherhood without understanding the consequences is not the essence of good reform. It is merely pandering for political gain.