Despite the largest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, the rate of child poverty in Massachusetts actually rose in the past decade. One cause, according to Randy Albelda, professor of economics at UMASS Boston, was the state's Welfare to Work program that forces recipients to give up their benefits and return to the workforce within two years.
Albelda, who researches women's economic status, poverty, and income inequality, was one of the keynote speakers at the Center for Women and Work's "Gathering at the Well" forum held on March 29. An audience of nearly 100 joined with academics and community activists to discuss the question, " Can Women Work and Have a Life Too?" The answer appears to be, "No; not without great difficulty."
Albelda says that the situation for poor single mothers is especially bleak due to a shortage of viable childcare, and jobs that provide benefits and pay a decent wage. Yet, since the welfare roles have gotten shorter, the program is seen as a success, notwithstanding the reduced quality of life that these family face.
Keynote speaker Lotte Bailyn, author and professor of management at MIT's Sloan School, argues that the work/family-life balance is a struggle on all societal levels.
"There is a cultural assumption," she says, "of a public sphere involving the economic...and the private sphere...and these are differently valued." These differing values "disadvantage anybody who has responsibility and involvements outside their paid work."
Bailyn asserts that there needs to be a fundamental cultural change in the country that places greater value on the private sphere or domestic life. Companies in Norway, for example, often provide as much as 42 weeks of paid maternity leave. Fathers as well are given time that can be used exclusively for leave upon the birth of their children. The problem in the U.S. is that, "We have no family policy to deal with these issues...There's simply no collective will to do anything about it."
Paradoxically, Bailyn observes, professional women are sometimes chided for not being home enough with their children, while welfare mothers are being sent back to home.
Other discussants at the program included Lou Brady, chief operating officer of the Lowell Community Health Center; social worker Vichenny Keo-Sam of Casey Family Services; Ivette Rosario, assistant director of Middlesex Community College's Enrollment Services; and education programs coordinator Osvalda Rodrigues of the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers. They spoke about strategies within their organizations for dealing within the many demands faced by their workers and clients.