Too Poor to Parent

Low-income women — and black women in particular — have their children taken away far more often than white women. Black children are twice as likely as white children to enter foster care.

The reason for this disparity? Study after study reviewed by Stanford University law professor Dorothy Roberts in her book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books/Perseus, 2002) concludes that poverty is the leading cause of children landing in foster care. One study, for example, showed that poor families are up to 22 times more likely to be involved in the child-welfare system than wealthier families. And nationwide, blacks are four times more likely than other groups to live in poverty.

But when state child-welfare workers come to remove children from black mothers’ homes, they rarely cite poverty as the factor putting a child at risk. Instead, these mothers are told that they neglected their children by failing to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, education or medical care. The failure is always personal, and these mothers and children are almost always made to suffer individually for the consequences of one of the United States’ most pressing social problems.

This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine, and the author is Gaylynn Burroughs, an attorney at the Bronx Defenders who represents parents accused of child neglect. The point she makes in the above paragraph is crucial: These are national social problems, but instead of addressing them as such, we’re turning them in to individual failures and punishing individual women and children.

The comments at AlterNet are predictable — there was even one (now deleted) saying something to the effect of, “These people should be spayed and neutered.” Lots of commenters make the point that women shouldn’t have children until they’re financially stable, and the fact that a poor woman has a baby is automatic proof that she is a bad mother — because a “good mother” would not have a baby while poor. Others point out that having a child is poverty-inducing. That is certainly true — kids are expensive, and for women, having a child is a major risk factor for dropping below the poverty level.

But I’m not buying the line that being poor makes one unsuitable for parenthood. What does make one unsuitable is abuse or neglect — and those don’t depend on how much money you have.

Of course, it’s a problem if there’s not enough money to give your kids three square meals a day. But I’d suggest that it would be a whole lot better to increase welfare benefits or food stamps instead of taking the kids away. It’s a big problem if the kids can’t get medical care when they’re sick — of course, it’s also a problem that Mom and Dad can’t get medical care when they’re sick. There’s a pretty clear solution to that one, and again, it would be much better for everyone than to put the kids in foster care and hope the problem will go away. Obviously it’s problematic that kids from low-income families often have fewer opportunities when it comes to education and jobs — but that’s hardly the fault of their parents. These are structural and systematic problems, but it’s symptomatic of our society’s blind spots that we insist on blaming the mothers.

Family is not a privilege. Yes, in an ideal world every woman would be able to get out of poverty before she had babies; but not every woman is going to be able to escape poverty. And yes, in some situations women and girls have children which keep them in that cycle; but again, I’m not sure the problem is the kids as much as the lack of other options.

In another thread, someone mentioned the book Random Family. If you haven’t read it, check it out. One thing that blew my 20-year-old mind when I read that book back in a college journalism class was how all of my white-girl middle-class solutions don’t work across the board. Yes, contraception access is crucial — but it’s not going to stop a teenage girl who wants to get pregnant because for her, it’s the best option. Yes, it’s better for everyone to have health care, wholesome food, and a good education with every opportunity in the world available to them — but that isn’t reality, and until it is, we can’t be blaming individuals who are doing the best they can with all the odds stacked against them.

Black motherhood has long been demonized in this country, from slave owners viewing female slaves as simple cost-effective ways to create more slaves, to involuntary and coerced sterilizations, to ripping black children from their mothers under the guise of “protection.” Yes, it is abuse to starve your child, to neglect them, to beat them. It is not abuse if you’re too poor to pay to keep the lights on that month. And children are not objects of privilege that only the rich are entitled to.

Women who are good, loving moms but who can’t afford certain luxuries — or even certain basics — don’t deserve to suffer the burden of our societal failures.

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53 comments for “Too Poor to Parent

  1. Cynthia
    May 24, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I used to work for Child Protective Services. I definitely agree with everything you’re saying – this is a systemic problem, not an individual one. Low-income families need medical care, access to jobs, education – lots of things that those of us with privilege take for granted. Nearly all of my cases were a combination of poverty and drug use. Poverty in and of itself was not a criteria for child removal, only proven neglect which was often brought about by extreme poverty. It’s a vicious cycle. Often I had mothers who themselves had been raised in foster care. Until those changes can be brought about, however, there are still children at very serious risk. Foster care isn’t necessarily better in all cases, but what else can we do right now? That’s the problem I struggled with; what else can we do until we can bring about the changes so desperately needed? I realized very soon that there was precious little real help I could offer, especially since most mothers aren’t going to trust their case worker enough to tell them what they really need to know to help the most. I used to wake up with nightmares about my moms going back to jail, or getting back on meth, or having a child on my caseload injured or killed. It was too much for me to handle. There were certainly laws and regulations that I disagreed with, but being held legally responsible for someone else’s children is a huge burden. Most of my job consisted of trying to get aid for families – whether it was credit for utilities or a counselor or parent-aide in the home, something to prevent the children from being removed. But the funding is so tight and the options are few – and the caseworkers on the frontlines have no real decision-making power when it comes down to it. You’ll find as much politicking in social services as any other area of the government.

  2. May 24, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks for this–I am constantly getting into arguments with people about this stuff. I do have a question, though, and that’s because from my position I can’t yet wrap my mind around this: what’s an example of a situation in which getting pregnant is the best option for a teenage girl? I’m being totally serious–I can’t think of an example, and I just need some help on this one.

  3. May 24, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    what’s an example of a situation in which getting pregnant is the best option for a teenage girl? I’m being totally serious–I can’t think of an example, and I just need some help on this one.

    To be clear, I’m not saying that I think it’s the best option; but to a teenage girl evaluating her circumstances, it might be. Getting pregnant, for some girls, means elevated status in their communities. It means health care. It means your family and friends rally around you. It means you have something to take care of, to focus your energies on — something that has results. Amp wrote a post on this (how having children can be a rational choice for poor teens) a while back that I found really interesting, and that you may want to check out.

  4. May 24, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Random Family was a life-changing book for me. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

  5. harlemjd
    May 24, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Maven – if you want kids and you’re unlikely to move to higher socio-economic level (or think you are) because of lack of education, skills, whatever, then it makes sense to have kids young. you’re body is in better shape (assuming you’ve waited til your late teens) and your older female relatives (mother, aunts, grandmas) are still young enough to help out. Sure, in an ideal world, these girls would work hard, beat the odds, go to college, join the middle class, and have kids then. Some of them do. But when you’re still young and deciding whether to have kids now or wait and hope you’re more financially secure later, putting off kids til later may put you in an even worse situation if your financial situation never improves.

    to use a situation the media discusses more often, think of a single middle class woman trying to decide whether to have kids now or wait and hope she gets married. if she does, great, she’s raising her children in a better situation [assuming it’s a good marriage and he wants kids]. if she doesn’t, she would have been better off having kids back when she first thought about it.

    In both cases, having the kids right away might not be the best of all possible options, but it’s the known situation, and choosing that isn’t necessarily unwise.

  6. May 24, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I would recommend reading what Ariel Gore has to say about teen pregnancy on

    Thanks for this post. I find the harsh comments on topics of this variety on the internet shocking and sad. Birth control is not available, affordable, or infallible. More than half of pregnancies in the US are unplanned, so poor women should not be blamed more when it happens to them. Mothering while poor should be easier than it is in the United States. Investing in the most vulnerable of our population is not only humane, it pays off in the long run.

    My county, home to one of the largest cities in the country, is cutting funding to Healthy Start and school lunch programs next year because of tax cuts and other budget crises. Our nation has its priorities in the totally wring place.

  7. May 24, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Wring=wrong,of course. How Freudian! I’d like to wring some budget writing necks.

  8. May 24, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    And drug abuse itself is a sign of poverty. If you’re poor and living in that kind of misery, drugs offer a quick easy way of getting some relief. Yeah, it’s a trap, but shit, what do you have to lose? You’ve got nothing anyway. Rarely, in that thought process is the idea that one can lose one’s children taken into account.

    Of course, it’s a no win situation anyway. If a poor woman can even ACCESS abortion services, she’s a horrible person for doing that. If she has the child, she’s a horrible person for doing that. If she’s black, adoption is a) not really a culturally common thing from my understanding and b) not likely to be successful.

    There are thousands of black children in foster care, waiting for adoption. In Georgia, “special needs” children in foster care are defined as, among other things, a child of color over the age of one without there being any other mental/physical issues. By comparison, a white child isn’t considered special needs, apart from actual medical/mental issues, until age 5.

  9. May 24, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    I’m an example of teenage pregnancy (well nearly- I had my kid a week before my 20th birthday) making things better and not worse. I didn’t have money for college, but after having the Kid I did. We were decidedly out of poverty for a long time, until GWB became president actually.

    And drug use is certainly not only a problem of the poor, but they get punished for it more often. Since I have access to good quality mental health care and prescription drugs, when I am struggling I can go get a therapist and a anti-depressant rx. But if all you know and have access to is self-medicating, then that’s what you do to try to feel better.

    In the last post on this topic, the classism and the ableism was horrifying. I hope this thread doesn’t turn into another bout of the libertarian hate game.

  10. Lauren
    May 24, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    drug abuse itself is not a sign of poverty. i had the unusual and interesting experience of being raised by a family that was just a generation away from moderate wealth. my mother grew up in a home with live in help. after her parents divorced, the money stayed with her father. his daughters did not get money for college though he helped pay for me to attend a rather expensive girls school. NO that is not the plot of the gilmore girls but it was my favorite show for that reason. our life did not take place against the backdrop of a charming two story victorian home (we lived in a run down craftsman in a small southern town) and i did not attend yale. my mother worked strange jobs at strange hours so that i could attend a school 30 miles away and she was never able to finish her degree. we had a strict food budget. i lived in a homeless shelter for a while after high school because, though i had access to excellent education i was not that one in a million person lucky enough to be dis positionally suited to carry out the great american bootstrap myth. our lives were touch just as much by poverty as they were by some of the trappings of wealth (great education. nice gifts from grandparents). we had no money. my school friends did. they used drugs. LOTS OF THEM. the “good stuff” too. not a year went by when cocaine wasn’t found in some locker in every one of the best high schools in our town. pot smoking among high school students is almost universal. wealthy people have the resources to treat drug addiction for what it is, a health issue. the students at those high schools were not publicly humiliated or told that they were part of “high risk populations”. they were granted leaves of absence for treatment and if they brought drugs to campus again they were expelled. it almost never happened twice. parents had the resources to take time off work to participate fully in their treatment and they were able to pay for superior treatment facilities where the staff was not overtaxed. no, drug abuse is not a symptom of poverty. the complete distraction of lives by drug abuse in the absence of reasonable treatment options is a symptom of poverty. people not seeking treatment because they can’t afford t take 30 days off of “life” and then move to get away from their own personally created clique of “user” friends is a symptom of poverty. PEOPLE often turn to drug abuse in the face of personal problems. the wealthy have access to better treatment.

    suggesting that the poor “have nothing to loose” by using drugs in excess sounds sympathetic but it is incredibly damaging. they have much to loose. no middle class mother i’ve ever heard of has had her children taken away from her for one little bust. having a little weed on your person for personal use can be a nightmare for a married, middle class woman. the same thing for a black woman or any woman living under the poverty line is true hell. it is an invitation for protective services to enter your home and conduct an unconstitutional search, use the drug bust as the linchpin of an argument for why a child really shouldn’t be living in that dirty trailer, and remove the little darling until mommy can take time off of work to participate in treatment she may not need and be subject to repeated visits from people who search her home creating an atmosphere of insecurity and fear among the residents including the child when he or she is returned.

    a teenage girl may want to get pregnant for many reasons. first of all, she may be ready. she may have no wish to ascend the social ladder. there is nothing wrong with not wanting to be a middle class person and conduct your life int he midst of those specific mores. americans have such a large middle class that we tend to forget it is a culture unto itself. it is not ubiquitous and becoming a part of it is not a badge of moral excellence. some people honestly do just want to live their lives out with their families and have children young while their bodies are still able. still others may want to leave their homes. having my child young was my ticket to college and marriage. i qualified as an independent, used my fed fin. aid and am finishing a degree. i met my husband there. i will not have to “quit” my carrier to bear children. when i have a position with heavy responsibilities they will require less constant care. childbearing is not a privilege. it is a right. does it really matter why people choose to exercise their rights?

    child protective services does not work in the same way that poliece conduct criminal investigations. they can look through anything in a home without a warrant. turnign them away at the door or even asking them to return another day is viewed as an attempt to hide abuse. the caseworkers need only provide descriptions of not nesacarially quantifiable charachteristics of a home, parent, or family in order to move for the removal of a child or the continued presence of the state in the home. this leaves things very open to interpratation. everything is viewed therought he personal fileter of that one agent. there is not crime lab, there is no defense attny with access to personal experts. there is no choice but to give them what they want. their power is absolute. and yes, children are sometimes taken away simply for being poor or because of other inapropriate reasons.

    the shelter i lived in was a converted hotel where the mothers took turns with upkeep and cooking. i was terribly disappointed with the daycare facility after a while so i sent my son to stay with relatives. i picked him up every weekend and when i didn’t have work he spent whole weeks with me. i saved up all my money and food stamp balance to pay for deposits and to stock a fridge. he spent almost a year there. when i wanted him back they threatened CPS. when he was injured in their care i grew a spine and demanded him back. CPS decided he should stay with them. their allegation: neglect. i had secured better child care, gone to see him every chance i got, secured an apartment within walking distance of daycare, my place of employment, bus stops, college, a hospital, and a grocery store. apparently i had abandoned him and my parenting plan was not up to par. i didn’t own a car. what if it rained? their solution? take more welfare and take out a loan. buy a car and then he could come live with me full time. yes, my ability to parent rested solely upon my ability to buy a car. that was, until i used an old school connection and had a lawyer take my case pro bono. CPS left my life in under 6 weeks and my son came home with ME. my child was almost taken from me, specifically because i chose not to sink myself into debt and to spend money on nutritious foods and a better daycare facility rather than the luxury of a car and its upkeep.

  11. Lauren
    May 24, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    and i am a libertarian. we get punished for taking as a little welfare as possible. note the car thing. we’re not all totally lacking compassion. i volunteer and donate. i just found that “the system” helled me back. i hope that the help i provide does the opposite for people.

  12. May 24, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    RedQueen, I am poor and so was describing what I see around me. Poverty is miserable. All day, all the time. And there are people who are worse off than me. If getting a hit will make a person forget that misery for just a little while, it might be worth it. Your point about self-medicating is quite accurate. The question is what is the disease? Poverty itself, in my opinion.

    And as for ableism, I was describing the definition–a fact, not opinion–of special needs used by the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services. If the working definition of special needs is horrifying to you, talk to them.

    By the way, good for you. I had my first child 7 months after my 20th birthday. I have never had the money for college and even if I did, I didn’t have the time, child care, transportation, support or technology to go let alone succeed at it. Sure as hell didn’t make it “better” in any way for me. College? HA! I was entirely too busy just trying to pay rent, food, utilities, medical care, child care and keeping my jalopy running so I could make it back to work so I keep on doing the rest. It hasn’t gotten better in the 16 yrs between then and now. As a matter of fact, we’re eating red beans and rice for dinner tonight and tomorrow? I have no idea. Or Monday. Or Tuesday. Wednesday is payday.

    Know what would be nice? If working class people and those who cannot find work would be able to live at a level that allows for such things instead of it being a never-ending trap, a hamster furiously running on a wheel just to stay in the same place. But as a country, we don’t seem to have a problem with watching people starve in the streets if we can find a way to make it their fault.

  13. Mercurial Georgia
    May 24, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    Re: Access to Birth Control

    …birth control is expensive, and could fail. …and apparently because I’m in my early twenties, doctors likely won’t let me tied my tubes. I was watching Dark Waters on the Space channel yesterday, and the ghost wasn’t remotely scary for me, because I was too scared I’ll end up in the same situation as the Single Mother, in a craptastic apartment she can’t move out of, stuck still having to communicate with crappy ex because of the child… DO NOT WANT

  14. May 24, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Of course there is drug use throughout the socio-economic spectrum. Of course there are those in all areas that don’t use. Hell, I’m one of them. (And it’s a whole lot of truth that and white middle class and up get rehab while poor whites, and people of color get jail time and kids in foster care.)

    But I also don’t get judgmental about those who do.

    Perhaps the difference is generational poverty, if one comes from a family where things were once better, there is some hope that things will be better again.

    For the rest of us, there is no hope that things will get better. Day in, day out, year after year, life will be what it is now with no hope of change whatsoever. Why would someone believe that? Because the past shows that no matter what they do, they end up exactly where they always were. The situation is systemic. There is an entire group of people, millions, who live with no hope.

  15. Angel
    May 24, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    I am also poor. I come from a family background of generational poverty (to give you an idea, my grandparents try to survive on $400 a month, my parents have had two houses foreclosed on them, have declared bankruptcy and are still going to the food shelf).

    I am going to college as a first-generation college student and mostly trying to live off whatever is left over from student loans/scholarships and my job as a barista at Starbucks (talk about class disparity! it’s in my face every single day!) While I’m very privileged to have such opportunity, it is very hard to not know if you will ever have the sorts of things others do, like a family, a house, a comfortable income after graduating with all the debt.

    So many people that I encounter at work and at school seem to think that poor people are just lazy and choose not to do anything with their lives. But it’s so much harder than people think. Trying to get ahead isn’t just something that you go ahead and decide to do. Big things like reliable transportation, meals for when you are away from home, having a cell phone and internet access…and little things like clothes for job interviews and networking, haircuts so that you don’t look sloppy….so many things that add up that the majority of people take for granted are required just to participate in the “real world”.

    It’s especially hard to go to school and deal with customers who are so accustomed to their higher standard of living that sometimes I feel it’s necessary to fake membership in their world because I’m tired of feeling out of place or pitied when I tell people how I live at home. Being poor trying to make it into middle class is all about pretending. But at the end of the day, I come home and take off my used knockoff discount “dress clothes”, try to finish all of my work after an 18 hour day, often go to bed hungry and when I say “bed” I mean a pile of blankets and clothes on my floor because I’m still trying to save up for a bed.

    It’s fucking hard and quite embarrassing. None of my friends/acquaintances have seen where I live or know quite how bad it is. I just hope after graduating I can land up job so that I can have the opportunities to raise a family and maybe have a home someday, even a very small one would do. I get so resentful at times, because it does seem like kids are a privilege. I understand why women would have children even though they are poor. But for me, I don’t want to feel like I denied my children opportunities. It’s so hard to break through class barriers and I would rather fight that uphill battle so that they don’t have to (this doesn’t mean I’m going to spoil them, but they will have someone who can guide and provide advice).

  16. michelle
    May 24, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Especially with all the movies recently about babies making everything alright, I think some young mothers wander into parenthood thinking it’ll be like the movies. I think it is dangerous to say: “your mom, grandmother, and family or even boyfriend’s family will help out.” That’s their life. They may not be willing, they may not be able.

    And what gives you the right to decide that they will be happy about needing to spend a whole lot of money on you when their retirement is not saved for and they thought they had you raised. It’s a feminist issue that women in a family are supposed to be thrilled by having to raise another child from a mother who is a child herself. But no one here has spoken for them. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But don’t count on it. Being responsible means not writing checks on another person’s life. Your first thoughts in being responsible shouldn’t be “and then this person will do this, and these people will help me and give me things…” What can you do?

    There is something to being a parent and part of it is financial responsibility. There’s a difference between passing troubles and digging a hole for yourself. How many young mothers have I seen that had a child young, then finds some man that dates them for a while, then they are pregnant again just as they were getting out of trouble. A lot. And we’re not supposed to lecture or talk about abortion, but soon, she’s overwhelmed and on her way to having a third child. It happens all the time, and denying that this is a problem and ultimately, down to the choices of the woman is still important to talk about. I work at a clinic, and I swear, we get it from the conservatives demonizing abortion and birth control and we get it from the left by their demonizing about talking about responsibility and consequences to the woman. You can talk about what societal “should” do or extended family “should” do as if you can make decisions for them, but then there’s what’s happening now and the consequences. Here and now.

  17. Elinor
    May 24, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    I’m volunteering at a resource centre for teen mothers and I’m told a lot of them are really terrified of the Children’s Aid Societies here. Because they’re young and a lot of them are on welfare, many of them are immigrant women and/or women of colour, and they are afraid they can’t put a foot wrong without having their babies taken away. They try to hide it when their children have accidents — not serious accidents, just the standard little bumps and scrapes that all small children get from time to time.

    On Aboriginal reserves here in Canada, social workers have been nicknamed “baby stealers.” I do think it’s pretty clear that poor women of colour are given far less of the benefit of the doubt than more privileged women.

    It’s a feminist issue that women in a family are supposed to be thrilled by having to raise another child from a mother who is a child herself. But no one here has spoken for them.

    Well, what is the nature of the feminist issue here? To me this seems to have a lot to do with the privatization of responsibility for care — the idea that families can and should be solely responsible for the well-being of their weaker members instead of relying on the community or the state to help. Along with that, the responsibilities are assigned in a gendered way, so it’s primarily women and not men who are asked to assume the burdens of caring for children, old people, etc.

    But I don’t see anyone here saying that poor young women always should or always will be able to rely on their families — just that they sometimes can.

    I don’t know, I just don’t imagine that the average woman is that ignorant about her own family.

  18. Lauren
    May 24, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    financial obligations are a part of parenting. i do think that teenage girls/women need to be informed and educated as to the financial reality of childrearing. my only problem is with other people imposing their values on others. each person has the right to decide what income bracket they’d like to be in when they have children. the fact of the matter is that there will always be poor people. i am right on the cusp, if you don’t consider the over 100 grand my husband and i carry in debt. i consider us quite privileged though as we will likely be able to pay that off within several years of graduation. i understand these privileges and that not everyone has them. many people who are born with little money will live that way throughout their lives. it is fantasy to suggest that every poor person ought to or can ascend to the middle class . it is cruel to demand it as a prerequisite for beginning to really enjoy life or to honor some of our most basic human drives like procreation and family building. that attitude, when taken to its logical conclusion, infantalizes those living in poverty. it punishes them for choosing to head their own families before they’ve completed the sometimes impossible task of “paying their dues”

    i will agree that it is irresponsible to “write checks on other people’s lives” but that is a personal failing and has nothing to do with poverty.

  19. Morgan
    May 24, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    i posted about this before, but i’m a social worker, in Brooklyn, and i work as a therapist with children who have been removed from their homes, and it isn’t all that clear-cut. as much as we feel for the parents and their circumstances, i can’t believe anyone who has actually worked with these children would see children’s services as too intrusive, in fact, many of us view children’s services as not doing enough due to limited funding and resources. of course women in poverty have hard lives (and it certainly affects woman of all racial/ethnic backgrounds), but the effects the abuse and neglect have on their children is irreversible. i work with two children who are 8, i met them at age 6, who may well become sociopaths, we are talking in and out of jails and mental institutions for the rest of their lives, possibly killing others if their violent streaks aren’t curbed (one child already tried to drown his brother at age 7). and the worst part is this is not just some extreme cases, this is common. poverty does force hard choices on mothers; many clients were left alone or with “nasty uncles” when they were abused so the mother could work. as i said, we feel for the mother, but the child is our primary ethical (and legal) responsibility. it is not that we are taking more children than are being abused, we are only getting a small minority of abused children; we are not doing enough. and don’t get me started about the mothers who take drugs. i worker with a mother whose child was in foster care who “smoked a little marijuana now and then”, i fought for her to get the kid back, he drowned in the bathtub while she was stoned. guess who could have lost her license (and livelihood) for that? guess what i have to live with for the rest of my life?

    i realize this may come across as defensive, but it’s frustrating that social workers in this capacity always get labeled as racist or classist for seeking the removal of these children when we are the people actually putting ourselves in hardcore debt for those MSWs and low salaries and overworking to try and change society. we do not do this because we get off on breaking apart poor families, we do it because we earnestly believe in the progressive politics bandied about on these blogs. some of us worry we will never make enough money to have children ourselves. it’s easy to attack children’s services from an ivory tower; it’s a lot harder to do the job. esp. when the attacks come from people who don’t deign to come to brooklyn.

  20. Solitary
    May 25, 2008 at 12:03 am

    I’m poor. There are some months when I get my bills paid by the skin of my teeth, some months when I don’t and some months when I come out ahead. There are a lot of things I would *love* to do but probably will never be able to simply because I cannot afford to. If I were to go into debt in order to do some of these things – buy a brand new car, build my dream home, travel the world, quit my job in order to write full time – most would consider me to be irresponsible and they would be right.

    Thankfully, I have no desire to have children, but I think going into debt in order to fulfill that desire is just as irresponsible as any of the ones I named. Right or wrong by y’all’s lights, I think it’s the height of irresponsibility to bring another person into the world that you cannot support to at least the most basic level of physical, emotional and fiscal well-being. I’m not talking video games, summer camp, college. I’m talking clean clothes, a safe place to sleep and enough food to eat.

    Yes, birth control can be hard to come by and abstinence should be a choice, not a demand, but humans have the capacity for thought and problem-solving, so I don’t see why it is an imposition to find a solution to the problem, instead of making the problem worse.

  21. Lala
    May 25, 2008 at 1:10 am

    I think the issue is more complicated than just poverty. Thats a factor. Being poor and being neglectful are not the same thing. I think the system is less tolerant of a lousy poor parent than a more affluent one. I’ve seen some abusive/bad parents and I am hesitant to give them a pass due to socio-income levels. I know great parents on the same level. I’m young, puerto rican, from the BX and a student and i know life is more complicated than cookie cutter answers.

  22. shah8
    May 25, 2008 at 6:08 am

    One thing I find amusing about these threads is how much some of the commenters don’t really realize that the expense of children is pretty damn high and growing…that the systemic processes that traditionally affect the poor and poorest women has been increasing affecting more and more prosporous women over the last few years.

  23. anonymous
    May 25, 2008 at 7:38 am

    I grew up a little poor- we mostly had food and were always able to get the lights turned back on the same day if they were turned off, etc.- but there was no $35 fee to join the school soccer team, or any “extras.” I don’t understand how people who grew up in similar or worse circumstances think that this is an okay way in which to raise children. While having children shouldn’t be for rich folks only, poor folks who have kids just really really hoping it will work out are really disadvantaging the kids.

    Why isn’t having a children a privilege? How can it be a right? This is a crappy world with a lot of arbitrary constructions that make it worse- I don’t get how people think that another creature would want to be created, simply to rent hir life out for wages to simply survive and get older. To have to assume a gender role or be vilified for not, to be subject to violence and domination.

    It just seems like the ultimate hubris on the part of future parents to create another life to have to exist in this world.

  24. May 25, 2008 at 8:18 am

    A lot of kids are abused or neglected. Huge numbers. But parents of higher socio-economic status are better at hiding it from the authorities.

    My husband’s alcoholic mother put out lit cigarettes on him. She hit him and locked him in closets for hours. She also emotionally abused him. But she was upper-middle-class, and a “functioning alcoholic” and very practiced liar, so no one noticed the pattern until he was fifteen and she called the cops on him when he threatened to hit her back. (She had stopped hitting him regularly four years earlier). And then the removal from the home was also extremely traumatic. There are no easy solutions, but one thing that I think we need to make sure to understand is that the poor are not the only ones who abuse or neglect their kids. I don’t even think they are disproportionately likely to do so, though they are disproportionately likely to get caught.

  25. May 25, 2008 at 9:38 am

    …and here we are again talking about “personal responsibility” when the discussion is systemic issues.

    You know, this has already been done elsewhere, not perfectly but certainly a helluva lot better than we have. Some societies have simply decided that they will not see a fellow citizen of their country live below a certain level, regardless of their “irresponsibility” or “laziness”. They have chosen to see the next generation of citizens of their particular country as important and worth investing in even if their parents don’t do things the way “responsible” people would. Some have chosen to see drug abuse as a medical issue. Some have chosen to see neglect as a lack of education, not a lack of morality.

    But here in America, we still believe in that stupid Horatio Alger myth, that poverty is a lack of ambition and a moral failing and negates any right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness–going even so far as to say there is no right to procreate which is THE most basic of rights.

    And it kills me, because from personal experience I can tell you that no one works harder with fewer rewards for doing so than the poor.

  26. Lala
    May 25, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Moving this out of the academic I can say I have not seen a person’s children taken because they were poor but I have seen people who were abusive and happened to be poor have their children taken. Now we can debate what “poor” means because I know many latino familias who lack in economic means but are strong families. When people start to judge who should and shouldn’t have children is waaaay too much.

  27. michelle
    May 25, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    “Well, what is the nature of the feminist issue here?”

    The nature of the feminist issue is that older women in the family are assumed to be happy and willing to raise more children and financially support more children that their children are having.

    It’s a stereotype of the happy fat grandmother. But not all grandmothers have been home makers who are glad to have their lives filled with raising grandchildren. Maybe, just maybe, they had opinions about how they wanted to spend their lives after raising their own children.

    Younger women should not be writing checks on their mothers and grandmother’s lives, though and THAT is the feminist issue. Somehow in the discussion of “oh, their moms and grandmothers will pitch in” the ACTUAL opinions of the moms and grandmothers are zeroed out in stereotype. They are disappeared from the discussion. Women should never be disappeared from the discussion.

    Older women face their own issues of career, health, and savings. They have their own minds and their own choices in how they want to spend their lives. Don’t stereotype. Don’t disappear them. And don’t write checks on their lives. They are women who deserve their own lives after they raise their own children and have the choice as to how much and how they will grandparent.

  28. Elinor
    May 25, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Younger women should not be writing checks on their mothers and grandmother’s lives, though and THAT is the feminist issue.

    I find this kind of puzzling. Who here is suggesting that younger women should do that? And what remedy do you suggest? Should poor women of childbearing age just not have children so as not to burden their older female relatives? How is that substantially different from telling poor women not to have children just because they’re poor?

  29. grumpy realist
    May 25, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    Well, Elinor, SOMEONE’S going to have to take care of the child. Talking of childbirth as “a right” ignores the fact that there’s 20 years of linkage/taking care of/financial responsibility/emotional responsibility/whatever that’s attached to that “right”; the burden of which has to be borne by someone, or a whole host of somebodies. You have a kid that you can’t take care of, someone has to clean up the mess for you. It’s just as irresponsible to say “oh, don’t worry, the government will take care of that”–why don’t the parents have any responsibility for the situation?

    Yeah, it can be picked over as classist, and sexist, and whatever-ist, but the fact is–we don’t have the support system nor the money for our economy to treat popping out kids to be a “right” at the same level as other so-called “human rights.”

  30. grumpy realist
    May 25, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    P.S. Oh, and usually the countries that do provide much higher support for single parents also have their own restrictions: you are expected to take your kid to the health clinics and you are expected to make sure your child goes to school and you are expected to help raise your child to be a productive member of society (read: pay taxes at some point.) And you are expected to be a good parent and not be a drug user yourself etc.

    We could do something equivalent in the US for support, but I doubt that the other restrictions would be acceptable….

  31. Elinor
    May 25, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    It’s just as irresponsible to say “oh, don’t worry, the government will take care of that”–why don’t the parents have any responsibility for the situation?

    Have we not been over this several times already? If you think governments shouldn’t pay to “take care of” things, why aren’t you out protesting the highway system? The military? The fire department?

    And as for the whine that I’m not assigning the parents any responsibility for the situation, whatever. I’m not saying people should have children they can’t care for, but “can’t care for” and “can’t pay for” are different things. And the idea that poor people are all “popping out kids” willy-nilly is offensive bull.

    Furthermore, the only way to really stop people from having children they “can’t care for” is to take a page from China’s book and force them to have abortions, or hark back to the eugenics movement and force them to get sterilized. I believe even you would consider that a human rights violation.

  32. michelle
    May 25, 2008 at 11:33 pm

    I work in a clinic that provides all sorts of services for women.

    It IS a feminist issue that mom and grandmom is expected so often to cover for the young woman who is a child herself (by age or maturity level) having a child. And sometimes, the child continues to have children one after another with no worries or concerns. Mom will take care of the kids. Mom will pay for much or all of the cost of the kids.

    When the young woman decides what she will do about an unplanned pregnancy, I hear “it’s okay, mom can take care of it …mom can do this…mom can do that.” Meanwhile, mom is no where in the room. This is what I mean by young women writing checks on another person’s life. Sometimes it sets up a cycle of each generation doing it again and again with resentment.

    Fundamentally, it’s the immature assumption: mom’s money is my money. Mom’s extra time is my time. Of course it is. Or is it? Has anyone considered mom’s desires for her money and time and life?

    Some moms would like nothing better than to give up her dreams of a different retirement to basically raise more kids. Others don’t want to raise kids and I don’t think they should have to.

    In fact, all extended female family members are expected to pitch in with a decision the young woman made in the unplanned pregnancy, and they are no where in the room. Sometimes, it is very clear to me that the young woman never considered the mom and the grandmom as having a life or desires of their own while listing out all the things they can do. “they can do this…they will do that…” Where’s their choice in this conversation about Choice?

    It is a feminist issue that the older mom is too often disappeared from the conversation here. Does a mom have the right to have her own life after raising her kids to “adulthood?” That question is often disappeared from a conversation on this subject. That shows how far we have to go to recognize feminism throughout a woman’s life.

  33. Alexandra Lynch
    May 26, 2008 at 3:06 am

    A woman I’m friends with ran into this. Older smaller house, her two same-sex kids have to (OMG!) share a bedroom! She didn’t have them in Little League because they’d had a bad experience with it taking over family life, and they wanted to spend Saturdays doing something as a family besides taking the boys to and from soccer games/practices….non-worship of sports! They weren’t church-goers, either, though not hostile to the kids occasionally going with Grandma. These all contributed, but the big thing was that neither she nor her husband could afford health insurance, and they made too much for the state to pick up the tab. (And when I say that, I mean she told me the alternative was to not pay utilities and the gas to get to work and buy health insurance, or cover utilities and gas and “go naked”.) They’re white, so I don’t think race is an issue, but I definitely think class was.

  34. kiki
    May 26, 2008 at 5:40 am

    Yeah, it can be picked over as classist, and sexist, and whatever-ist, but the fact is–we don’t have the support system nor the money for our economy to treat popping out kids to be a “right” at the same level as other so-called “human rights.”
    you are expected to take your kid to the health clinics and you are expected to make sure your child goes to school and you are expected to help raise your child to be a productive member of society (read: pay taxes at some point.)

    We would have plenty of support system and money if we hadn’t squandered it on this ridiculous war. The government is more than willing to spend and overspend on this type of tripe while the infrastructure of this damn country rots and children go to bed hungry. And before you lay it all at the feet of the parents, no man (or woman) is an island and we live in a society that requires interdependence. If your house was on fire you’d call the fire department since you lack the resources to put it out alone. If you are having a heart attack you call an ambulance, since no one expects you to save yourself. Neither of those things make you a lesser person. Neither does accepting food stamps to feed your kids since your job doesn’t pay a living wage.
    As for expectations about taking your kids to clinics and school, let me assure you that the vast majority of poor parents would love nothing more than to have access to health and dental care and be given the time off of their jobs to actually take the child to a clinic. White collar types can take time off for a doctor’s appointment but blue collar and hourly wage earners are not given that right. If you have to leave work to take your child to the clinic your wages are docked and that cuts into groceries and rent you’re already having a hard time managing. If you have to take off time for another child you risk losing your damn job. If you’re sick you self medicate and muddle through, even if your illness is serious. My mother lost all her teeth by fifty since she could barely take the time off of work to sit all day at the once a MONTH dental clinic that was first come first serve for us kids. I saw a dentist maybe twice my whole childhood and her never once, not cause she didn’t care but because she had no other option. If she took off half a day for a doctor’s appointment we ate plain white rice at the end of the month. As for schooling, look around at the state of our schools. Broken, no working bathrooms, holes in the ceiling, outdated books, burned out teachers. Just today I was reading a piece by Thomas Friedman about the 300 families that were hoping to get 90 spaces in a new school in Baltimore. You don’t think people care about school and schooling? I think it’s dangerous when white middle class people get it into their heads that poor people and people of color don’t want the same things they do…we do it’s just outta reach. Decent schools, enough food, safe shelter, medical and dental care, see the game on Saturday, be somebodies friend…
    I read an interesting article that in homogeneous societies people aren’t opposed to welfare since they see it as benefiting people like themselves, while in more pluralistic societies people are against state help since they see it as benefiting an undeserving other.

  35. MizDarwin
    May 26, 2008 at 7:58 am

    Kiki–do you have a reference for that article? I’d like to read it.

  36. kiki
    May 26, 2008 at 9:20 am

  37. kiki
    May 26, 2008 at 9:22 am

    ACK! Okay I don’t know what happened with that link. Geez. First it didn’t post then it went haywire. Lo siento.

  38. grumpy realist
    May 26, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Well, I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at: even in countries that have a lot more support for child-bearing there is always a quid-pro-quo attached, either explicitly or implicitly.

    Sort of like in Japan and the national health service. You get a lot of cheap health care when you need it, but in return you’re expected to take care of yourself and not present a burden on the system more than you can help (and you WILL be subjected to a lot of nagging about diet, lowering salt in your diet, etc.) And society reinforces this.

    What I’m saying is that I doubt we could ever develop a culture that thinks of responsible behavior as a “good citizen” necessitating a quid-pro-quo in exchange for getting support from the government. We’ve enshrined “rights!” and “freedom!” so much that even suggesting that anything from the government carries with it the responsibility to carry out sensible behavior brings a load of abuse down on it from both sides. The people on the right hate “the government bailing out those shiftless twits who can’t keep their legs closed” and the people on the left say “but it is a feminist RIGHT to have children!”

    My own feeling is that it’s a two-way street. The government should help out much more than it does (and yes, cutting back on our silly war will help as well as increasing taxes), but at the same time people who receive such aid should act carefully and prudently, and not get themselves into further sticky situations. Be a good citizen, pay your taxes, and raise children who will be good citizens as well. TANSTAAFL.

  39. heyhey
    May 26, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    I thought about the alarming frequency with which child services separates children of color from their households when I read that the kids from that fdls evangelical sect were being given back to their families. Talk about a double standard.

  40. May 26, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    One of the worst stories I’ve seen happened locally, when Los Angeles County DCFS workers took community activist Debra Reid‘s children away and alleged that she was exaggerating the severity of her son’s asthma.

    He died of an asthma attack four months after being placed in a foster home.

    The reason social workers were so determined to take Reid’s children away? She was a pain in the ass who was constantly demanding medical attention for her son and constantly argued with doctors about his treatment. So apparently if you’re poor, being a strong advocate for your children is just as bad as neglecting them, at least as far as DCFS is concerned.

  41. Dianna
    May 26, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    I absolutely agree with that commenter that wrote that it is a feminist issue that grandmothers are assumed to be thrilled to give up their lives to raise another generation. It’s assumed too often by young mothers who feel their mothers just don’t have the right to a life and time of their own after raising them.

  42. heyhey
    May 26, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    A word about Random Family: I was completely taken aback when I read that book in college. I grew up in upper Manhattan and I was horrified that peopole whould read that book and think every Hispanic person from Washington Heights or the South Bronx was like the family in Leblanc’s book. It was just embarassing, I wanted to buy every single copy of it and hide them. Growing up in the mostly immigrant, Hispanic, and working class neighborhood, I never once met a whole family where all the women were unwed teenage mothers with an 8th grade education, and were all the men had criminal backgrounds, as is the family featured in this book. I could never explain how Ms. Leblanc apparently inserted herslef in those people’s lives as a silent observer for the better part of a decade, saying and doing nothing when those people needed it the most. It always rattles and angers me when people cite Random Family as some cultural milestone that enlightened them about the true life of the urban poor. We don’t know what happened to the folks featured in that book, but we know that Ms Leblanc’s book has been forever enshrined in the annals of Racial and Cultural studies literature along with “Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” and “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. If that’s not exploitation, I don’t know what is. What has happened with the prominence and fame of this book is that a horribly dysfunctional family who are probably the worst case scenario of all worst case scenarios when it comes to poor urban families, is presented as just another “random family.” I have yet to meet one person of color who grew up in the areas where Random Family takes place who is not terribly mortified and offended by that book. It certainly has done a lot to take away the dignity and identity of the proverbial poor urban youth, who are depicted as perpetual victims, existing outside of normal society, simple pawns in the never ending cycle of poverty, young motherhood, and crime. Citing that book in discussions of matters of class in America always tells me that, like many priviledged white folks before them and to come, the person citing the book thinks that they have now been introduced to the horrible inhumane realities of those poor brown folk, and will now feel pleased with herself because she knows how the other half lives.

  43. heyhey
    May 26, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Lastly, I just read the text at the very bottom of your website and noticed that your website features the WordPress “Mandingo” theme. Bravo there!!!!!

  44. Elinor
    May 26, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Sort of like in Japan and the national health service. You get a lot of cheap health care when you need it, but in return you’re expected to take care of yourself and not present a burden on the system more than you can help (and you WILL be subjected to a lot of nagging about diet, lowering salt in your diet, etc.) And society reinforces this.

    And Americans aren’t subject to nagging? I know Canadians are. Anyway, what’s your actual evidence on this point?

  45. May 26, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    I have absolutely nothing of worth to say, other than: Thank you for posting this. As a poor single mother in the U.S. I can attest personally to how much prejudice – both individual and systemic – there is against POVERTY in this country. Not against the state of being impoverished but about the impoverished individuals themselves.

    It has made me conclude that Sociology ought be a required class for EVERY college freshman…

  46. MizDarwin
    May 27, 2008 at 7:43 am

    Kiki–Thank you! I’m working on a project about diversity & this will be very useful to me.

  47. May 28, 2008 at 2:00 am

    Lastly, I just read the text at the very bottom of your website and noticed that your website features the WordPress “Mandingo” theme. Bravo there!!!!!

    It’s Mandigo theme, not Mandingo. Sorry to ruin your righteousness.

  48. ck
    May 29, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Has anyone read Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin? I haven’t, but it looks like it applies directly to this post. I’m wondering if anyone has read it/ if it is any good.

  49. toomuchcoffeelady
    September 26, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    You say “family is not a privelege”, implying you think it is a right. So then I assume you would also support government mandated insurance coverage for fertility treatments for those of us “demons” who apparently have screwed ourselves out of the “window of opportunity” by waiting till our 20s to try for children, right? Or do you propose that those of us who have squandered our teens to mid twenties going to college/establishing careers/getting married/buying homes, just keep working to pay the welfare that encourages teenage pregnancy? Why would anyone in their right mind get a job when they can get paid to be a SAHM straight out of 9th grade?

    I’m also just curious to know how you could imply that getting pregnant as a teenager would EVER be the “best option” for anyone in this day and age?

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