The Common Good
July-August 1997

Transforming Grace

by Tom Montgomery-Fate | July-August 1997

Resilience and courage in the face of welfare cuts

Since the 1994 congressional election and the simultaneous reintroduction of family values ideology, a growing intolerance of the welfare system and welfare recipientsùmore specifically, of its stereotypic icons: poor women of color and their childrenùhas been evident. The Clinton administration has contributed to this ideology, while often attempting to camouflage it. The presidentÆs ôwelfare to workö mantra and his increased focus on volunteer programs are not without merit, but both are also certainly designed to distract us from a cold reality: As AmericaÆs socioeconomic safety net is cut away, millions of urban children and their mothers are falling hard.

The statistics are sobering. One in five American children lives below the poverty line. One in eight is hungry. More than 50 percent of all food stamp recipients are children. Every day 30 American children are wounded by gunfire, and 13 die. According to the United Nations, the United States has the highest child poverty rate of all First World nations.

Renny Golden confronts this evolving tragedy head on in her latest book, Disposable Children: America’s Welfare System. Her incisive sociopolitical critique of the welfare system offers profound insights into understanding the plight of America’s children. The book deftly untangles the labyrinthine welfare bureaucracy for lay readers by carefully balancing academic and narrative voices. Golden offers statistics, history, and a concise "wide angle" analysis. But consistently interwoven within this larger context are the compelling, often wrenching, close ups, the personal narratives of those who are still trying to find their way out of the maze.

"These voices imbue this research with an ethical claim and urgency that objective critical analysis lacks. These narratives interrogate us," Golden writes in the introduction. The stories also powerfully dismantle the "welfare mother" and other prevalent stereotypes. And in their brutal honesty they often reveal not only the complexity of the root problem(s), but possible ways to respond—to do more than survive. Listen to Melinda.

I watched my father beat my Mom. All by life I’ve felt guilty because I wish I could have helped my mother when he was beating her.

When I was 12 years old, he (biological father) sexually molested me 9 or 10 times. When I told Mama, she didn’t believe me...kept calling me a liar.

I was 16 and my baby was 5 when my father kicked me out of the house at 2 a.m. I had no place to go. I stayed with my grandmother for two weeks, but I needed a place to stay, so I called the DCFS (Department for Children and Family Services). They said there was nothing I could do because I was still under Mama’s custody. So they sent me back home. My father jumped on me and hit the baby. Finally, DCFS brought me into the system....

I feel it’s a blessing I have this baby. God has given me a chanced to start my life over. I don’t shun no babies away. I don’t believe in no abortions. I believe in taking care of my responsibilities. You know I would never do my daughter the way I was treated. And I would never take a man over my child; my baby comes first.

IN THE FOREWORD, Jonathan Kozol says, "without the venom and forensic fireworks that often characterize discussions of this question, Golden gently draws us into the real lives of children." Like Kozol, much of Golden’s writing is an attempt to enable marginalized voices and stories to be heard by a wider audience, thus reminding readers that vulnerability is not weakness and that silence does not imply nothing to say. Melinda, like many of the children and adolescents Golden interviewed, has learned to tell her story. She has refused to be objectified, to be merely a case in the system.

Though they are structured quite differently, many of the themes in Kozol’s book Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation parallel those in Disposable Children. Kozol’s searing narrative of a South Bronx neighborhood, Mott Haven, is like much of his work—a sensitive, evocative chronicle of suffering and social injustice that asks middle-class readers to live vicariously in the world of the poor for a few hours. There is much hope in what this powerful book may do to such readers, but it seems there is less hope (as perceived by Kozol) in the actual lives of the residents in Mott Haven. Though the children and families he describes and interviews are miraculously resilient and often courageous in their survival, there is little mention of creative solutions to the enormous socioeconomic and institutional problems they encounter.

Herein lies one of the strengths of Disposable Children. Golden recognizes that the "grace" she finds in the often desperate lives of the people she interviews is not only "amazing" but transforming; and she pays attention to how that transformation takes place. Tragedy does not have the last word.

In the final chapters, she analyzes the consequences of continuing to view welfare as a service delivery system and offers alternative models: "The way to heal troubled families, and therefore protect children from harm, is to heal the wounded and fractured community." Drawing from the research of the family support movement and from community and youth development initiatives, Golden offers concrete examples of innovative community-directed efforts to build the support necessary to prevent family and social breakdown even within deindustrialized urban wastelands. This approach leaves readers angry and frustrated by a cruel, unjust system, but it also challenges us to become a part of the solution.

TOM MONTGOMERY-FATE, associate professor of English at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is the author of Beyond the White Noise (to be released by Chalice Press in August).

Disposable Children: America's Welfare System. Renny Golden. Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1997.

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