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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