It is fair to say that the Nation, having come out every week for almost 130 years now, is the country’s longest-lived and most consistent voice of the Left. Therefore on opening a new issue one might, depending on one’s outlook, expect to be soothed or stirred to passion, illuminated or infuriated. The one thing one does not usually experience is surprise. A striking exception is the column called “Subject to Debate” in the May 30, 1994 issue. The column’s author is the much-prized poet and radical feminist ideologue Katha Pollitt, and on this occasion her subject is welfare mothers.
Pollitt begins by pointing out that women have been unfairly blamed for many things, beginning with the banishment from Eden and on down to the serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer (whose father, says Pollitt, accused Dahmer’s mother of being a reluctant breast-feeder). And now women are being subjected by virtually everyone to the most unfair accusation of all: that they are the cause of poverty.
That women are responsible for poverty, Pollitt informs us, is now a matter of wide and bipartisan consensus, subscribed to by people otherwise as disparate in attitude as Charles Murray and Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton, the editors of National Review and the editorialists of the New York Times. All these people agree that unwed mothers, particularly teenagers, are the driving force behind poverty and crime. “If,” as she sums up this consensus, “mothers got married and stayed married, children would be provided for, the economy would flourish, crime would go down and your taxes, too.”
About how to achieve this blissful state Pollitt finds no consensus. Mickey Kaus, she explains, wants to force welfare moms to take low-paid, state-funded jobs, and, if they balk, put their children in orphanages. Charles Murray, on the other hand, “wants to skip the preliminaries and get right to the orphanage part.”
In addition, more than 30 states are engaged in instituting punitive welfare reforms, which involve such policies as refusing any further grants for children conceived by women on welfare—all of which are intended in one way or another to prevent more welfare babies from being born. “And since this is America, land of family values and pro-life, this end must be achieved in a way that combines the minimum of money and the maximum of social control.”
For instance, Pollitt contends, forcing welfare recipients to use Norplant has an appeal (“social control”) that simply making birth control free and accessible does not—as, to say the least, government-funded abortions for poor pregnant women above the Medicaid line also do not. We are, then, as Pollitt (evidently having forgotten about Norplant) sees it, “moving toward a system that will force poor pregnant women to give birth and will then take their babies away.”
But whether we do actually reach this point or not, the idea behind proposals to make good on President Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” is, in Pollitt’s view, a noxious one. To say that unwed mothers cause poverty “is like saying hungry people cause famine or sick people cause disease.”
The illegitimacy rate, she argues, does not explain why so many American businesses have moved their factories to places like Malaysia, where women are paid sixteen cents an hour; nor why corporations are laying off thousands of white-collar workers; nor why one out of five college graduates is working at a job that requires no degree. “Imagine for a moment that every teenage girl in West Virginia got married before getting pregnant. How would that create jobs or raise wages . . . or bring back the coal industry?”
In Pollitt’s opinion, it would be closer to the truth to put the case the other way around: that poverty creates early and unplanned child-bearing. After all, kids all across the income spectrum are having sex and getting pregnant. The difference is that girls with bright futures—“college, jobs, travel”—have abortions, while the ones who have nothing to postpone become mothers. “What none of the men who have dominated the welfare discussion betray any sign of understanding is that babies are the centuries-old way that women have put meaning, love, pleasure, hope, and self-respect into their lives.”
In response to the view that these young mothers would be better off if they could get married and stay married, Pollitt can only muster a sneer: “‘Welfare dependency’ would vanish,” she writes, “replaced, as God and nature planned, by husband-dependency.”
And so to her conclusion about where the present consensus is leading us: “Orphanages for children, and for their mothers, ‘work-fare,’ jail, the street, the church-basement cot—all in the name of values.”
What is one to make of this? On the practical side, Pollitt seems to have little more to advocate than free birth control and free abortions. This, of course, is neither a novel nor a surprising bit of advocacy, especially for someone on the Left. Nor is it surprising that Pollitt should grossly caricature a position with which she is taking issue: to wit, characterizing a belief in the need for welfare reform as the belief that women are to blame for poverty. Caricature is a time-honored tradition of radical argumentation.
What is surprising is that Pollitt herself has nothing, not one word, to say about welfare, though it is ostensibly a key object of her concern. Since she foresees that reform will lead to dire consequences for welfare mothers—in addition to losing their children, they will be left with nothing but jail, prostitution, and/or homelessness—does she mean by implication to defend the system as it is? Her economic “analysis”—in which, no doubt as the result of a certain unmanageable passion about corporations, she lumps together welfare poverty with white-collar underemployment and unemployment—would suggest that she favors high trade barriers (what then of her poor sisters in the third world?). But this conclusion she does not explicitly draw.
Most surprising of all, she has nothing whatever to say about the children, beyond suggesting that placing them in orphanages would be an injustice to their mothers. Yet it surely cannot have escaped her notice that it is the children who are the real source of the current sense of crisis about the welfare system, with their absconded fathers running a close second.
Clearly, Pollitt’s main (or perhaps only) interest in welfare and poverty is to exonerate women from any blame for society’s troubles. Ardent feminist though she may be, in a time when gunplay with assault weapons among children has become an ordinary everyday occurrence—as have the deaths of babies and young children from neglect and abuse—to concentrate on the question of whether women are or are not at fault seems . . . well, a trifle light-minded, to say the least.
There ought by now to be some way to get the minds of privileged women off themselves. A woman who can suggest of, say, a sixteen-year-old pregnant girl, blessed or lucky enough to find a young man to marry her and be a father to her baby, that she is merely exchanging one “dependency” for another is someone who, for all her intellectual and political pretensions, has rarely, if ever, looked beyond the end of her own well-cared-for nose.
From time immemorial poets have been granted a license, which, to be sure, not all of them have taken, to be deliberately foolish—narrenfreiheit, it was once called, the freedom of fools. But as Katha Pollitt so well illustrates, even this special dispensation is capable of being abused.