These days, when I open the newspaper or turn on the news, I see my past. The policy debates currently raging in this country — about welfare and food stamps, affirmative action and students loans, take me back to a time when I was dependent on social programs to pull myself out of poverty. Given our current policy environment, I doubt that I’d be able to accomplish that today.
It was the 1970s. I was a young, single parent with no means of support. I’d been married, but it didn’t last. My son’s father was in no position or mindset to help. After high school, I’d taken a few secretarial courses but was hardly prepared for the job market. There was no college-going tradition in my family, but I knew that to provide for my son, I’d need much more education. With my eye on a brighter future, and the help of a college counselor assigned to help black students, I applied for every kind of assistance: welfare benefits, food stamps and financial aid. I entered Temple University in 1972 and earned my bachelors’ degree in 1975. Later, I returned for a masters. The investment society made in me paid off. I’ve built a wonderful career, and the son I once struggled to provide for is a successful adult and loving parent to his own child.
The welfare benefits I received under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program were barely enough to live on, but they paid for housing, food and medical care while I pursued my education. I was poor, but hopeful about the future.
During the 1970s, many Great Society and War on Poverty programs were still going strong. My North Philadelphia community was the site for many anti-poverty programs, and federal funding was available for a variety of programs and activities. On my way to class, I’d drop my son off at a beautiful community center that featured a reading program for preschoolers. Financial Aid seemed plentiful. I paid my tuition with Pell grants, work-study jobs and a minimal amount in student loans. Affirmative Action was still considered an appropriate means for redressing past racial discrimination in higher education and employment. My first full-time job after college was with a prestigious, nonprofit research firm whose funders required them to hire a diverse staff.
I don’t see the 1970s as a panacea for the disadvantaged in this country. I also know that policy makers and social scientists disagree about whether the social programs of the 1960s and ’70s had much impact on poverty. Still, if I had to be a poor, single mother in this society, I’m glad it was then and not now.
In my opinion, many of this country’s current social policies do little to alleviate poverty. For example, while it is not impossible for a welfare recipient today to receive benefits and attend college as I did, the system does not encourage higher education, but is much more focused on services intended to lead to immediate employment. Often the jobs are low-wage and dead-end. Also, the steep cuts proposed in the food stamp program don’t bode well for any needy family.
Many other policy shifts threaten to close off routes I took out of poverty. Pell grants, designed to help low-income students pay for college without much borrowing, now cover only one-third of the cost of a four-year public college degree. As a result, many poor students are leaving college with more loan debt than ever. Some don’t bother to apply at all. Nonetheless, in 2011, eligibility for Pell grants was restricted and some in Congress are calling for deeper cuts.
Unless Congress acts to stop it, interest rates on new federally subsidized student loans are scheduled to double July 1, putting another roadblock between needy students and higher education. And then there’s affirmative action. The Supreme Court did not rule against affirmative action in the recent case of Fisher vs. the University of Texas at Austin. However, this does not change the fact that such programs have been severely undercut over the past few decades, a direction that could very well continue in the future. In my opinion, dismantling affirmative action programs strikes at the heart of the black middle class, of which I am now a tax-paying member.
While I’m grateful for the access to social programs when I needed them, I’m certain I have more than made good on that investment. My concern now is for the young mothers who are struggling like I did. I volunteer at a program that works with needy young women, some of whom are single mothers.
I watch them carrying their babies on their hips and think of my younger self. I encourage them to be hopeful like I was at their age, but I see no targeted policy initiatives for helping them move out of poverty. In fact, so much seems to be going in the wrong direction. It scares me, for these young women and for this country.
Bernardine (Dine) Watson is a social policy researcher and writer living in Washington, D.C.