At the Honors Convocation on May 22, 2001, sociologist William Julius Wilson spouted a stream of statistics and studies intended to portray the pitiful state of welfare and its benefactors. One of the themes throughout his speech was that people on welfare are often viewed as preferring welfare to work, and that the facts show otherwise. An important part of the story was left out, however, and I feel that individuals need to ask themselves certain questions before they can accept such a point of view.Perhaps the most striking part of Wilson’s speech was his story about a single mother of two. She was making $7/hour and supporting herself, but after having two children, she could not afford a baby-sitter and health insurance for herself and her children with her current job. When her children became sick, she was turned away from a hospital because of her lack of insurance. In the end, she was forced to quit her job, go back on welfare and ask of her right wing critics, “What do I do when my kids get sick?”
This is indeed a dire situation. I can only begin to imagine the terror a mother must feel when confronted with the possibility of not being able to acquire medical attention for her children. But let’s take a step back.
Wilson failed to explain the circumstances under which the woman in the example had her children. She is simply quoted as saying, “Then I had two kids.” Assuming that having children was her decision, was it a responsible one? At $7/hour (approximately $14,000/year), did she think she could afford having a child, much less two?
The question might then become, do we, as Americans, have the right to have children, regardless of our socioeconomic status? If you answer, yes, then you must also believe that part of the role of the government is to support those parents who cannot afford their children.
Such a transfer of responsibility is a key element to understanding the flaw in arguments of the kind made by Wilson. He demands the recognition of a welfare recipient as a person who would choose to support herself by working, but overlooks her previous decision to have children, which denies her the choice to support herself and her children without government aide.
But we do not hear that part of the story. Wilson presents us with a world wherein welfare recipients are the hapless victims of society, powerless to take actions that would prevent their current situations.
Perhaps you are of the mind that the government should be responsible for the well being of families whose parents have made decisions like these, making them dependent on welfare. But to what extent must they condemn themselves to dependency before you would hold them responsible for their actions? What if the woman in the example decided to have four kids? Or six? Where do you draw the line between “victimized” and “irresponsible”?
Finally, I would like to echo Ryan Tierney’s support for a greater variety of speakers at Lawrence convocations. Let’s try and capture the whole spectrum of political views, and not take the phrase “liberal arts” too literally.