Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lisa D. Brush's "Poverty, Battered Women, and Work in U.S. Public Policy"

Lisa D. Brush is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her first book, Gender and Governance, analyses states and social policies through a gender lens. She is an award-winning editor and plays the French horn in the East Liberty Community Engagement Orchestra.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Poverty, Battered Women, and Work in U.S. Public Policy, and reported the following:
In this book, I use three types of data on poverty, battering, and work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: interviews with welfare-to-work program participants; administrative records from welfare cases, protective order petitions, and earnings reports; and narratives and analyses that current and former welfare recipients developed in a community literacy project. These data give me leverage to understand a major development in U.S. welfare and law-and-order policy and practice: Conventional wisdom holds that women’s employment is the cure for both poverty and battering.

Page 99 falls part way through the chapter in which the women who participated in the community literacy project “talk back” to the damaging myths they encounter in real and imagined conversations with welfare and law-and-order bureaucrats, politicians and pundits, neighbors and relatives. On p. 99, I write about their evidence and arguments rebutting the old chestnut that welfare recipients are bad mothers.
The participants in the community literacy project … made the point that in the unstable and dangerous neighborhoods where low-income parents often live, it can be important for mothers to stay home and care for their children, as Jule, Robin, and Takina tried to do. For example, Jule notes the importance—and undeniable pleasures—of being able to give her children some semblance of a steady family life.
I enjoyed being a stay-home mother. The house was clean, dinner was ready when they got home from school, and I was there to help them. I was able to help out at their school—taking field trips with the class and helping with projects. In my extra time, I was able to be active in church; I sang in the choir and had my Bible study group to the house for dinner.
It took Jasmine time and energy to fight for the appropriate services and programs to care for her son, who has a diagnosed disability (as does Jule’s oldest son). For Jasmine, being a good mother was much higher on her agenda than conforming to work requirements. Nikki notes the dangers of public housing projects for children and youth. From a somewhat different perspective, Robin wrote about the prospect of being a good mother and worried about caring for her first child as a teenaged high school graduate.
Making the Decision: Should I Go to School?

I didn’t want to be a drop-in parent. If I took the scholarship I wouldn’t have been able to take my son to school with me. I knew there were not good accommodations for young parents on most college campuses. I would have had to leave him home with a family member. I would only get the chance to see him on Holidays and during breaks. I would miss his first steps, first words, all of those utterly important firsts that can never be recaptured.
Robin makes it poignantly clear that mothers’ desires to experience the milestones of their children’s development are not limited to White, married, middle-class women.
Page 99 is representative of the ways the book consistently engages with the experiences and analyses of poor and battered women, in the service of challenging the conventional wisdom about the causes and consequences of poverty and partner-perpetrated abuse. However, it doesn’t deliver other important empirical findings, such as the evidence from the interviews about the ways poor women cope with conflicts about work, conflicts that interfere with work, and conflicts that actually follow women from home to the cubicles, cash registers, and steam tables where they go to fulfill the work requirements instituted when Congress rescinded benefit entitlements in 1996 (the focus of the first empirical chapter). It doesn’t present the results from the new methods I propose for calculating the costs of taking a beating (the culmination of the second empirical chapter). It doesn’t capture the changes envisioned by the community literacy project participants (offered in the conclusion). Nor does it convey the book’s central findings about the ways abusive partners use words, fists, cell phones, jealous rage, and many other means to sabotage women’s employment and welfare eligibility and to destroy their solvency, safety, integrity, and dignity.

Still, page 99 gives readers a sense of the ways poor women are taking a beating at the low end of the service economy, now that having a job is the only way to be eligible for welfare.
Read more about the book at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue