NOT so many years ago, when women began entering the labor force in record numbers, the prevailing question was: Should mothers work? Today, with 65 percent of mothers employed outside the home, that question is heard no more. The new question reads: Should mothers be forced to work?
Increasingly the answer is yes, at least for poor mothers. As workfare programs have spread across the country, growing numbers of welfare recipients - most of them women with children - must now take jobs in order to qualify for their benefits.
Before Congress overhauled the welfare system two years ago, mothers with children under the age of six were usually exempt from workfare requirements. Now mothers must leave children as young as three while they take mandatory employment.
At its best, workfare represents a worthy ideal: Give people a helping hand rather than a handout and you help them get a paycheck instead of a welfare check. In the process, the reasoning goes, they will gain skills, competence, and - perhaps most important - self-respect.
But too often that idealism gets swallowed up in the grim realism of menial jobs, subsistence-level wages, and child care that is either unavailable or unaffordable. Although federal law that took effect this spring requires states to give workfare participants one year of subsidized child-care benefits, critics point out that many women earning minimum wage fall back onto welfare when their child-care subsidies run out.
It is hard to argue against the work ethic, and against attempts to trim exorbitant welfare costs. Yet welfare-to-work programs pose a challenge: How to encourage - even demand - self-sufficiency without weakening already fragile families. Even middle-class families with advantages such as education, skills, child care, and two parents to share child rearing often find the dual demands of work and family a heavy responsibility. How much more difficult the demands on single-parent families when even the most minimal resources and supports are lacking.
Too often workfare requirements appear to play off two stereotypes, rooted in both racial bias and gender bias. The first stereotype holds that all welfare recipients are lazy. The second, that mothers at home don't really ``do'' anything all day. Therefore, the argument goes, send them to work.
These punitive workplace attitudes toward mothers go beyond workfare. Last week Congress failed to override President Bush's veto of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would have given new parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. Earlier in the year Congress also defeated a child care bill that would have been of particular help to low-income families.
The dual message from politicians in Washington appears to be: Poor mothers must work. But if other mothers choose to work, they shouldn't need supports such as parental leave or child care that make employment possible for parents of young children.
Properly implemented and funded, workfare programs that emphasize training and real work experience, rather than dead-end, make-work jobs, can offer a hopeful new beginning to families locked in a cycle of dependency. Even the names - Project Chance, Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), and Realizing Economic Achievement (Reach), among others - convey a sense of optimism. But the risk lies in pushing a right idea too far and undoing the delicate balancing act of working mothers struggling with their double obligation.
By Oct. 1, all states must have job training programs in place. At that point an attitude will harden into a federal standard. The effect will be to legislate the virtue of the work ethic, but without recognizing the nurturing a mother performs as work.
The lip service to the family continues, of course, but as a general piety. In practice, the priorities of the working mother are in danger of being reversed. A woman will work first. She will mother as a sideline.
Working mothers, and everybody else, may well ask: Is mothering about to become a new form of moonlighting?