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Reformed American Dreams

Welfare Mothers, Higher Education, and Activism


Sheila M. Katz


New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 2019

Paperback. ix+223 p. ISBN 978-0813594347. $28.95


Reviewed by Eileen Boris

University of California, Santa Barbara




This longitudinal study of poor single mothers on welfare began as ethnography but now reads as history. Sociologist Shelia M. Katz conducted her first interviews in 2005 with recipients of CalWORKs, California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program, who fought against caseworkers, the trauma of domestic violence, and the difficulties of attending college while caring for children. She undertook follow-up conversations in 2008 and in 2011, after the Great Recession. Published nearly a decade later, Reformed American Dreams explores the impact of education on such lives. It evokes a time when grassroots groups thought they could contain the fraying of the social safety net, before the challenges that even greater inequality poised in the season of COVID-19. Katz convincingly argues that “social structural inequalities and social policy failures” [9] rather than “individual deficiencies” have exacerbated the struggle against poverty.

An American Studies perspective comes garbed in social science and participatory research. Katz frames the everyday knowledge of grassroots activists and women on “welfare” around one of the field’s founding tropes, “the American Dream,” to expose its limits. She combines human capital theory with understanding of the structural detriments of poverty to explain that “women were striving to increase their human capital, make themselves less structurally vulnerable in society, and lift their families out of poverty, while fighting for structural change” [31]. To develop categories of analysis, she offers the visions and wisdom of poor mothers themselves, who in seeking to enhance their own employability through higher education had to confront changes in social assistance that put work first as a solution to poverty even if available jobs paid too little to make ends meet. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA) replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), adding time limits and restricting the counting of education as a “work” activity. California proved more lenient in this regard, but women still struggled with finishing school before their welfare eligibility ran out.

Attempting to navigate the mismatch between the rules of welfare and the workings of financial aid, while circumventing the reluctance of caseworkers to inform about available services, women came to critique ideologies of individual success and personal responsibility to survive and even flourish despite the stigmatization associated with the “welfare queen.” Katz’s interlocutors, a racially and ethnically diverse group of nearly 50 women, transform the meaning of success from individual achievement and material rewards to “collective dreams of engaged communities, social justice, and involvement in social change” [171]. Women called for basic needs for housing, food, education, and health care as a right. They recognized, as one explained, “the American Dream—it doesn’t exist . . . mostly it’s not even possible. But they want you to believe it so that you keep working in the place that you’re working in . . . Poverty and malnutrition are a matter of policy, not a matter of resources…” [144].

A college degree makes a difference, but so did leadership development and political education through grassroots social justice organizations like LIFETIME, Low-Income Families’ Empowerment through Education founded at the University of California, Berkeley by welfare recipients. LIFETIME offered information and support but also training to change policy. Members testified in Sacramento and demonstrated in Washington, D.C. It generated policy alternatives as well as survival guides. As one recalled her participation in LIFETIME, “it was just so empowering” [138]. Katz volunteered and later worked for this organization, which gave her entrée to the world of student mothers on welfare. LIFETIME leaders, Katz discovered, framed their narratives differently than other student mothers, speaking of rights over shame and moving beyond individual obstacles to social and political ones.

By listening to the women, Katz crafts categories of analysis. She reconceptualizes barriers into pathways that “demonstrate the mix of opportunity and constraint inherent in the gendered institutions in which their lives are embedded” [35]. Interview transcripts graphically describe these pathways: domestic violence, unexpected pregnancy, substance abuse, unemployment, and “unmarried partners with a crisis of care” [56]. As other scholars have shown, poor women see little advantage to marrying their male partners when a combined income would jeopardize social assistance. She also parses various “survival narratives,” “personal ‘hidden transcripts’ and ‘inside ideas’,” deployed “to convince themselves to persevere” [89]. These women told themselves to deal with the real costs of combining higher education with motherhood while on welfare: mental stress, student debt, and time deficits, especially when it came to being there for children. Survival narratives include: failure is impossible, outsmarting the system, and one day at a time. The women learned time management, became savvy in finding resources, and relied on friends and family, especially for child care.

Education meant everything. Interviewees saw it as essential to bettering themselves in the labor market, providing what one called a “financial passport” [107]. Going to school turned them into role models for their children, whose own education improved as a result. They gained, as another one proclaimed, “knowledge that can never be taken away from me” [110]. They enhanced their self-esteem and felt they were in a position to help others. While their children were proud, not all partners or family were supportive, though many tried.

In documenting high expectations, Katz captures the aspirations of women before they hit the difficulties of an economic downturn that dashed the hopes of many. She considers “mothers who completed college while on welfare can be viewed as canaries in the coal mine of our urban labor markets” [149]. The difficulty of finding lasting jobs in their fields with benefits and decent wages anticipated the problems that an increasing number of workers have faced since 2011. Even those re-interviewed who were doing “OK” [156] (40% of them), were worried. Another group had cut their budgets but saw themselves “surviving” [159], but others remained stuck in poverty and a few were “going through hell” [161]. Most of these mothers proposed an inclusive American Dream. Katz, in turn, offers policy prescriptions based on this research that are standard left-liberal ones: access to affordable education, “universal health care, affordable housing, expanded public transportation networks, and implementing a living wage” [166]. She finds hope in the early opposition to the election of Donald J. Trump.

For those of us who mobilized against what we called in the 1990s “welfare deform,” as I did as part of the Women’s Committee of 100 for Welfare Justice, and continued to follow events, the early chapters covered familiar ground. Nonetheless, there is much to praise about this study. Katz eschews the notion that she as the researcher is giving voice to poor women; they already have a voice. Their authority supersedes the academic experts that Katz cites throughout. The most powerful sections are block quotations from the interviews. Despite the plethora of social science research on welfare reform, Katz has illuminated the significance of higher education and the safety net, both of which require progressive reform least they collapse under the weight of a greater depression. We could do worse than learn from student mothers on welfare.



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