I’ve been plenty critical of the media’s promises to pay attention to poor people since the economy collapsed, so I should give credit where it’s due: The New York Times has a front-page story today by Peter Goodman on people facing the hard choice between welfare and low-income work — and it goes way beyond the usual “poverty sucks” platitudes to actually focus on a serious policy concern: the lack of affordable child care that makes it nearly impossible for many low-income Americans, especially single parents, to escape poverty.
The story leads with an irresistable narrative hook: Alexandria Wallace is a 22-year-old single mom who wants to work, but can’t because her home state of Arizona has cut subsidized child care to any families not under the supervision of child protective services or on welfare. She had arranged a child-care swap with a friend, but that fell apart, leading to a crisis that will be all too familiar to anyone who’s tried to hold down a job while being a sole caregiver at the same time:
Her first month, she brought home about $500. She felt confident her clientele would grow.
Then, her friend canceled the swap, forcing Ms. Wallace to bring Alaya to the salon, where she tried to keep her occupied with cartoons in a back room.
Soon her car broke down, forcing her to rely on family and the public bus to get to work, which did not always happen.
Her boss had been kind, but patience wore thin.
“She was like, ‘Your baby sitter bailed on you, your car broke down. What do you have left?’” Ms. Wallace said. “She said, ‘If you can’t get something worked out, I’m going to have to let you go.’”
If there’s a flaw in the story, it’s that it only profiles two welfare recipients — Wallace and another single Arizona mom who lost her job for lack of child care — both of whom were working up until the state cut back child-care funds. But as the article notes in an easily missed aside, even back in 2000, only one in seven children whose families were eligible for subsidized child care were getting aid.
Also, Wallace in particular is counterposed to the regular poor people she’s suddenly forced to join on public assistance — the “lazy people who con the system,” as the Times describes her impression of welfare recipients, while she herself worries that she’ll “fall back to — I can’t say ‘being a lowlife.’” Without any portrayal of those who went on welfare when child care was only partly inaccessible, readers could still be left thinking that the problem is that child-care cuts are forcing the deserving poor to hobnob with the undeserving.
Meanwhile, over at Business Week, Bloomberg News reporter James Warren takes note of another poverty issue, puzzling over the falling welfare rolls in many states despite rising unemployment. “Something doesn’t compute,” he concludes, before noting that a March Government Accountability Office report blamed “rules mandating job-related searches; declining cash benefits, which ‘have not been updated or kept pace with inflation’; and sanctions tied to the search process.”
All of which is great for Business Week to be paying attention to, but it would have been nice if someone had noticed, oh, thirteen years ago when these trends first became apparent. But accepting “better late than never” is an American tradition — except, of course, when you’re trying to explain being late for work because the babysitter didn’t show.