As Mother’s Day approaches, I cannot help but think of two women, Mildred and Claudine. Mildred, of course, is my mother. Claudine is Diahann Carroll’s character from the 1974 movie “Claudine”, and she is the fictional depiction of my mother and so many other mothers in the U.S. today. Claudine is a single mother of six who works as a maid, albeit secretly so that she can still qualify for welfare. She falls in love with a garbage man, Rupert (James Earl Jones). However, as Claudine and Rupert’s relationship grows, they quickly realize that they live and operate in a socio-political system that is rigged against them.
The storyline for “Claudine” highlights so many issues that are still relevant today when it comes to public policy debates about black women and social welfare policy. How can we, as a country, improve the social safety net for Claudine and the many women just like her? The women who work hard every day, but still cannot make ends meet. The women who need food stamps to help put food on the table, but don’t need the stigmas and the side-eyes that all too often come as a result of receiving the assistance. The Claudines of America need a public policy agenda that acknowledges the structural barriers that hinder their greatness.
For starters, let’s talk about the fact that Claudine worked! She earned wages that were so ridiculously low, yet she still had to lie about working so that she could qualify for welfare. Let’s look beyond the lying for just a moment and talk about the fact that she WORKED! Today, women represent approximately two-thirds of minimum wage workers. Women are often on the lower end of the pay gradient as they’re more likely to work in positions that are not as highly compensated as traditionally masculine positions. And, of course, there is still a gap in earnings for women who do the exact same work as men. This gap in earnings is even wider for women of color. We cannot ignore the impact that this disparity in pay has on many facets of life. We have to earnestly work to close the pay gap and increase the minimum wage.
Now, let’s address the fact that Claudine still needed welfare in order to take care of children. Yes, Claudine lied about working. However, it is a fact that today workers in low-wage industries earn so little that they still qualify for SNAP (food stamps). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children—more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.” It is not true that able-bodied people are sitting at home waiting for handouts, nor is it true that people who go on welfare stay on it forever.
How we respond to the needs of poor people during their times of economic hardship speaks volumes about our values and priorities as a country. I know that there are many impassioned positions on all sides of the social welfare policy debates. However, let’s have these debates by using facts and evidence, not myths and stigmas. I know the hard-working Claudines would appreciate that in lieu of gifts this Mother’s Day. Let’s show them that we see them, we hear them, and we understand them.