You’ve probably heard the name Shanesha Taylor at this point. She’s the Arizona mother who was arrested for leaving her children in the car while she went to a job interview. Her story went viral thanks likely to a truly heart-wrenching, tear-stained mugshot. Taylor, who was homeless, says her babysitter flaked on her and she didn’t know what else to do while she went to a job interview for a position that would have significantly improved her family’s financial situation.
You may also have heard the name Debra Harrell. She’s the South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a park alone while she worked her shifts at McDonalds. It’s the summer, so Harrell had had her daughter play on a laptop at her McDonalds location until the laptop was stolen from their home. Instead, she let her daughter go to the park with a cell phone for emergencies.
Neither of these are ideal situations for children. Being locked in a hot car can cause heat stroke, and thirty-eight children die from it every year. About 58,200 children are abducted by non-family members in a given year, many of them from parks. Considering there are about 74 million children in the country, both of these events are relatively rare, and neither Taylor’s nor Harrell’s children were actually harmed. But a slight danger remains.
Whose fault is it that these children were put in these situations to begin with? These weren’t mothers doing drugs or other dangerous activities and neglecting their children; they were both mothers trying to hold down jobs to provide for their children while stuck swirling in a Catch-22. Can’t work or interview without childcare, but can’t afford childcare without a job that pays enough to cover the ever-increasing cost. Taylor and Harrell are both holding up their end of the deal: don’t rely on public assistance, go out and get work to provide for your children. Our country has reneged on its end of that deal: we’ll help you pay for someone to watch your children if you go to work.
In the mid-1990s, President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law that changed welfare in America profoundly. One of the major changes welfare reform brought about was the work requirement. Now, even women with young children were required to be working, or looking for work, in order to receive benefits. In a radio address after signing the bill, Clinton promised that if poor people went to work, “we will protect the guarantees of health care, nutrition, and child care, all of which are critical to helping families move from welfare to work.”
We broke that promise. State and federal childcare spending last year fell to the lowest level since 2002. Much of the money available for childcare comes to states through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or today’s version of welfare, but TANF hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1996. It’s lost a third of its value since then. The money spent on childcare has declined from a high of $4 billion in 2000 to $2.6 billion in 2013. That means fewer and fewer children get subsidized care. The number of children served by subsidies is at the lowest level since 1998. In Taylor’s home state of Arizona, childcare spending has been axed by 40 percent, dropping 33,000 kids. In Harrell’s, it was cut by more than 30 percent, dropping 2,500 children.
We’ve also taken the rug out from under any mothers who might need assistance because they can’t find work or the work doesn’t pay enough. In 1996, welfare reached 72 percent of poor families with children. That had dropped to a mere 26 percent by 2012.
So when a homeless mother needs to go to a job interview or a mother making less than $8 an hour needs to go to work, what options have we given them? Few, if any.
(That doesn’t even to get into the fact that Harrell may wrestle with erratic schedules, finding out when she has to be at work a week ahead of time or less and making it challenging just to find childcare, let alone afford it. Or that Taylor may face a long time without another job interview in an economy with an unemployment rate for black women currently at 9 percent, compared to the overall 6.1 percent rate, and the next one may not pay enough to cover care.)
Both of these women are now out of jail. Taylor’s charges are likely to be dropped and she is also close to getting her children back, while Harrell’s case is pending but she’s been reunited with her daughter.
Yet both are still being punished. Taylor’s charges will only disappear if she completes not just parenting classes, but substance abuse classes despite drugs not playing any role in why her kids were left in the car. The message is that she is a “bad” mom because she tried to get a better job without a babysitter. Harrell has lost her job at McDonalds, which means she now has time to be with her daughter but no income to cover care if she tries to get interviews for another one. And in Harrell’s case, her neighbors were quick to cast blame on her, tsking her for daring to think she could leave her child in a public park because she might get “snatched.”
Low-income mothers of color are trying to fulfill their end of the bargain. But they face multiple roadblocks, many of which we’ve set up in front of them. No one should be surprised when they end up making choices we don’t think are best.