It can be hard to remember a mere six months ago, but that was when we were talking about the hard work mothers perform in the home and how valuable it is. A recap: Democratic surrogate Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney, who is a stay-at-home mother, has never worked a day in her life. In the blink of an eye, both sides jumped on the moment to declare their undying fealty to mothers and their awe at the hard work women perform in the home. Romney even went so far as to say that Ann’s job was “harder” and “more important” than his own, be it running the state of Massachusetts or the Olympics. (Although he never explained why he didn’t simply trade places with her.)
Someone watching this debate couldn’t be blamed for coming away with the impression that this country has put motherhood on a gold-plated pedestal. But it turns out that pedestal is contingent on certain factors—class being chief among them. A Pennsylvania House bill proposed last week sought to limit the amount of TANF assistance—formally known as welfare support—that low-income women receive based on how many children they give birth to while covered. In other words: the more children a woman on welfare has, the fewer benefits she receives.
The good news is that three sponsors of the bill have since backed away from it, claiming to not have read it closely enough. The bad news is that Pennsylvania was simply following a trend. At my request, Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law Center calculated that as of July 2010, seventeen states had “family cap” policies that limit the amount of TANF assistance available to mothers who have children while receiving benefits. When Ann Romney stays at home to raise her five boys, financed by her family’s wealth and income, we revere her as the pinnacle of womanhood and a hardworking American. When a poor mother has five boys, we punish her by denying her the benefits she needs to keep them healthy and happy.
Unfortunately the horror doesn’t stop there. What about a woman who is raped and then bears her rapist’s child while on TANF? Should she have her benefits decreased? Pennsylvania, in its magnanimity, granted that this woman shouldn’t be docked. She just has to give the state a signed statement that she was a victim of rape or incest and that she reported the crime and the identity of her offender to law enforcement. (Never mind that over half of all rapes are never reported given the stigma and ordeal victims are put though.) She also has to sign a statement affirming that she understands that “false reports to law enforcement authorities are punishable by law” and that lets her know the state will report “evidence of false statements or fraud” to the correct department. As summarized by Jake Blumgart: “State Reps to Poor Women: Prove You Were Raped or Lose TANF Assistance.”
Once again, Pennsylvania is sadly not alone. Many states require parents to cooperate with child support enforcement to receive childcare assistance, often to establish paternity and provide accurate information. Last month, the Children, Youth and Families Department of New Mexico decided to pull a Todd Aiken and considered an amendment to this policy that would exempt victims of “forcible rape” from having to file child support claims against the absent parent. And even worse, a bunch of states already use this language. According to Entmacher, at least four states list forcible rape as one potential reason for an exemption: Colorado, Idaho, Maryland and Rhode Island, with varying levels of detail about how a woman should go about proving that her rape is “legitimate.”
In the motherhood hierarchy, then, women who don’t need welfare support rank highest, followed by mothers who can “prove” that their rape is rape rape. Tough luck for low-income women who were date raped, raped when drugged or simply had a wanted child. Our message to them is that they’re not really mothers. They’re just moochers.
For more news and analysis on inequality in the US, check out Greg Kaufmann's blog, This Week in Poverty.