Chapter One: Talking Dirty About Dirty Secrets

The Bargain Of Women’s Work Comes Cheap, While Other Prices Inflate And Go Up.

Dressed in my business suit and new earrings, embarrassed and tentative, I take a seat in my local Michigan welfare office waiting room. It is 1979, and my shock at being here at all is met by a greater surprise in the eyes of other waiting faces, darker than mine and with eyes sadder than mine. I’m ashamed of how well-off I must look, dressed in earrings and business suit, sticking out in the company of those darker mothers in tee-shirts surrounded by young children—but also by how well I am treated by the all-white social workers. They rush me into a private meeting room, leaving those who have been waiting, waiting.

Race prejudice does play an important role in poverty, but I am not in the minority nationwide, as I would later learn. The greatest numbers of poor in the US are white like me and are often working single moms. Blacks and Hispanics are poor at more than twice the rate as white people, however, just as women are more likely to be poor than men. Unmarried women with children are among the poorest, women of color in that situation the most likely to be extremely poor. From 2000–2012, poverty grew from 33.3 million Americans to 48.8 million, and extreme poverty deepened, a trend that began with welfare reform in 1996 and has deepened since, especially in city neighborhoods.  

 At the time, I didn’t think monetary policy mattered to me or to those other moms in that office. I assumed my ignorance of the difference between macro- and microeconomics must mean that I shouldn’t trouble my pretty little head. I was part of the economy but too busy working to think about something I mostly found intimidating.

I thought more about my own budget, scrawled out in pencil on a yellow pad, its numbers adding and subtracting but mostly subtracting. Despite working full-time, same as my ex-husband did, I couldn’t make my budget work. I couldn’t support my three children on my wages and child support of $25 a week. I was scared and felt guilty. What was wrong with me?

….Playing the Race Card

The country was divided in those days, as it is today, but party polarities would nearly reverse on race and the poor by the 1980s. Republicans came to play the race-hate card that had been played by the Dixie Democrats during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. The year I got food stamps, my newly Reagan-Republican mom posted a bumper sticker on her car that parodied the state’s “water-wonderland” themed license plate. Michigan: The Welfare Wonderland, her car announced, whenever she pulled into her daughter’s driveway.

I can’t say whether she was consciously condemning me or perhaps was compensating, more ashamed than I was for my needing food stamps to feed my children, her grandchildren. I didn’t have the courage to challenge her then; I didn’t need another fight. My ex-married misery, my hope of starting again, was beside her economic point. In her view (and that of many Reagan idealists), marriage was a woman’s one sure way to solvency, however lonely or abusive the relationship, whatever the color of her skin….

Male Voice of Money

As the outspoken feminist Andrea Dworkin once put it, Money speaks, but it speaks in a male voice. I began to see it does matter very much that those who run our national economy and shape its fiscal policies serve a particular insider group of a particular class, of a particular race and gender….It is one of the dirty secrets this book is about. I had to invent a new word to more easily describe the ultra-masculine, ultra-rational mindset that has become a social construct of our times, the pale male voice of money and privilege: EconoMan.