Opinion

The Great Debate

Women: The changing face of U.S. poverty

We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the 50 years since the launch of the War on Poverty. In today’s economy, poverty increasingly falls on women. They make up over half the workforce, and two out of three mothers are the primary or co-breadwinner for their household.

But one thing hasn’t changed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty: When we think of the poor we still think of someone else. That’s why it’s crucial to share stories — including my own.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston, the child of two immigrants who had come from India decades earlier. We lived in Bedford, Massachusetts, a quintessential middle-class town. But when I was 5, my parents got divorced and my dad left. My mother was on her own.

She had never held a job before. She faced the choice of going back to India or staying in the United States and going on welfare to support her two young children. In India, she knew, we would have been stigmatized — no one got divorced there in the 1970s. Children of a divorced woman would have limited life opportunities.

So she decided to stay in the United States. Welfare gave her that choice. We were on food stamps and received housing vouchers to help pay the rent. Thanks to a new state law, we could use those vouchers to move into an apartment in Bedford and remain in our good local public schools. After three years, my mom got a job and moved up. By the time I was 11, she was able to buy her own house in Bedford.

What about Social Security’s rollout?

After the nation’s major social program finally became law, critics regularly blamed it for a slowing economy and a swelling federal bureaucracy. Fierce congressional opposition led to the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to overhaul the measure. Obamacare in 2013? Not quite. It was Social Security in 1937.

Meanwhile, after enrollment began for the far-reaching health insurance initiative, administrators wrestled with myriad, unexpected problems. Implementation, according to the man who oversaw the introduction of Medicare in 1965, “took the form of a whole year of consultation with literally hundreds of people in identified areas of concern.”

The tortuous, often controversial implementation of both Medicare and Social Security serves as an early template for the current controversies over the Obamacare rollout. The ultimate success of those social programs ought to calm the overheated atmosphere surrounding the first days of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.

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