It’s been 11 years since Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva merged a variety of the country’s public assistance programs into Bolsa Familia, the system of monthly payouts made to struggling parents. This program might account for the country’s rising middle class, but it also has one compelling side effect — it doles out money directly to women, and has brought about many instances of individual empowerment.
“Our research shows that the money empowers women… They are less dependent on their husbands, more likely to share in decision-making, and have higher self-esteem,” Brazil’s Social Development Minister Tereza Campello told the Guardian in December.
Campello also credited the payouts with increased numbers of women fleeing violent relationships. The same article quotes recipient Maria da Paz, explaining that the funds helped her and her three daughters leave the man who beat them on a regular basis: “I substituted my husband for bolsa familia.”
In the context of Obama’s “equal pay day” this week, Bolsa Familia’s success raises the question that if the US government really wants to increase economic equality for women, why not just give them money?
After all, such models have proven track records of success for single moms in Brazil, Mexico, and Columbia, and other countries with direct payouts. And in contrast to Brazil’s rising middle class, the US has a rising number of people in poverty.
New state models have vastly decreased the homeless populations by simply giving people homes. In Utah, a Republican Senate realized that it was cheaper to give away free apartments to homeless people than it was to continue to jail them.
But what about families who are struggling to avoid becoming homeless, and need public assistance to keep children fed and in school?
“Our social policies haven’t really been keeping up with our family needs,” Jeffrey Hayes, Study Director at Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told VICE News.
Welfare payout programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), have shrunk in the years since the Clinton administration signed “workfare” into law in 1996. Instead, says Hayes, poor families are increasingly reliant on annual lump-sum refunds, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.
“Most of our safety nets are tied to work these days,” he said. That means parents who are out of work are left hanging, often receiving less assistance than those who have low-wage jobs.
“We’ve seen the rise of what’s called the disconnected families, who are neither working nor receiving public assistance,” Hayes said.
Joan Entmacher, Vice President for Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center, told VICE News that while TANF still exists, “It is really not at all functional.”
Only 1 in 4 poor families actually receive TANF cash assistance because of harsh restrictions, like the lifetime 5-year limit imposed by the Clinton administration in 1996.
This week, the House passed Paul Ryan’s 2015 budget, which dramatically cuts funding to all social safety net programs, including TANF and food stamps.
“At the same time the budget proposition is making brutal cuts for safety net programs,” Entmacher said, “It’s proposing trillions in cuts for both corporations and the very wealthy.”
“To get TANF now, the benefits are so low that if you go to work you are immediately disqualified. In Indiana, your income has to be 36 percent below the federal poverty level — so for a family of three, you have to earn below $7500 a year,” said Diana Pearce, Director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at University of Washington.
That’s why the Center for Women’s Welfare created a “self-sufficiency standard” to replace the unrealistic federal poverty levels. The standard shows how much is actually needed to house, feed, clothe, and generally provide for families based on geographic and inflation data.
Pearce, who coined the term “feminization of poverty,” told VICE News that the US should “Reinstate a backup for families. Just like in the Bolsa Familia program, a woman who is experiencing domestic violence or a desperate poverty situation should be able to receive help without a time limit. Secondly, when we ask people to go to work, we should pay them decent wages, and give support for the extra cost of childcare.”
Women aren’t heading up the majority of households in poverty because they are often single parents, then — those families are also poor because of the gender-based wage gap.
“If women were paid equally to men in terms of education and hours worked, we see that overall poverty would be cut in half for families with one or more working women,” Hayes said.
The same paper also determined that if working women were paid equal to men, the total increase in earnings would amount to 14 times what federal and state governments spent on TANF in 2012.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that many available jobs pay wages insufficient for family stability — even with the increase to minimum wage that Obama is aiming for in 2015.
“If you’re a single mom with two kids,” said Hayes, “You’re still going to be in poverty working a full-time job at the proposed $10.10 an hour.”
That’s partially because all of that working mom’s money will go to childcare. A 2013 report found that the annual cost of childcare for two kids in New York State was $21,305.
A full-time job paying $10.10 per hour amounts to a salary of $21,008 a year. That’s less than the daycare cost alone.
“No mother should have to choose between being a good mother and being a good worker. You have to either choose inadequate child care to go to work, or stay home and be impoverished,” Pearce said, “We’re criminalizing being a single parent.”
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