The Role of Technology in the Lives of Welfare Women

Much of the literature on women and their roles with the development and application of technology revolve around the experiences of upper and middle class women. The disparity of lower class women, primarily African-Americans and Latinas, in science and technology is more evident in industry and the work place than in literature. It appears that these women are not offered the same opportunities as their more affluent counterparts. Lower aptitude does hinder their involvement in the sciences, rather culture and discouragement.

My interest in this theme began with my mother, whom I interviewed for information on this subject. As a product of an innercity environment, she was witnessed firsthand the harsh life women lead. She was the youngest of ten children in a poor Puerto Rican family living in the Bronx. For her, education was a vehicle to escape familial and societal pressures. She graduated from high school early to pursue higher education. Her college career was postponed unexpectedly when she became pregnant at the age of twenty. Due to the financial difficulties that arose with single parenting, she joined the welfare system as a mean to support herself and her child. One of her reasons for becoming a welfare recipient was to continue her college education, which the government pays for. This allowed her the opportunity to raise her daughter full-time, while going to school on the weekends. Her ambition drove her to research all the governmental programs that would alleviate the financial strain and allow her to complete college. She was determined to improve her social status and occupy the work place with more than an entry level position. After completing her degree in economics and business management at Marymount College, she continued her education by taking courses in psychology and counseling. This permitted her rejoin the welfare system, but with a different capacity, as a counselor rather that a recipient of aid. Most women of similar backgrounds do not have the stamina and determination to accomplish what she did. I have been fascinated with the overall attitude of poverty-stricken women toward academics, more specifically science and technology. For this reason, I interviewed my mother about her experience assisting underprivileged women.

The Department of Welfare is a grim scene for both workers and recipients. To one outside of the system, it is incomprehensible, especially to a child. As a young girl, I accompanied my mother to work, but never understood the magnitude of her position. All I retained from my experience there was that counselors and case workers provided the poor with money and food. My mother did more than maintain the bookkeeping of client accounts and ensure that checks and food stamps were mailed. She counseled both women and men financially and emotionally.

The welfare system is plagued by welfare families, those that have thrived off the program for generations. These women either do not recognize the opportunities offered to them, or do not have the motivation to pursue them. They are intelligent, and also wise or street smart. They work the system in ways that boggle the minds of administrators. Short cuts and knowledge of loop holes are passed down generations like precious heirlooms. These methods allow them access to more technologies than one might assume possible in their situations.

Few would dispute the fact that women in the system are poor. Their individual physical appearances and environment give evidence of their poverty. However, during field work, my mother noted that many of the homes of the families were adorned with new kitchen appliances and entertainment devices. They do not use these technologies in the same way that working mothers do. That is, as time-saving elements to lessen the chaos of trying to balance of a career and a family. Many of the welfare women are not employed, either full-time or part-time. These technologies can be seen as two-fold in their cases. One is to help with the rearing of several children, as many welfare families are large. These women are homemakers for the most part. The second is as a beautifying factor. The welfare money they received was allocated to the bare essentials, particularly clothes and food. Other times, the funds were used to buy luxuries, and more money and food were acquired through additional programs such as WIC. Their environments are often dreary, and items such as stereos and television sets, even kitchen appliances, beautify the home.

I asked my mother about the role that reproductive technologies, in particular contraception, plays the lives of these women. Many of the women have never researched the options available to them much less considered using contraception. Even more alarming is that a majority of the women thought of themselves as mothering machines. Constant reproduction ensured their survival on the welfare system when welfare reform went into effect. These reforms entailed placement into the work force to wean the recipients from the system. However, women are exempt for two years from this if they bear a child. Some of the women admitted to regularly giving birth to avoid this. Unplanned pregnancies are not viewed negatively by them, and in effect are a vehicle to perpetuate generational welfare families.

As mentioned above, women, as well as the few men on the system, are assigned to mandatory employment. These positions are menial, and rarely involve access to technology. Women are frequently deterred from working with computers, and for the most part are employed as receptionists. One factor in this is their brief, and poor, education. At most, these women have a high school diploma, and have never considered higher education, vocational or at the collegiate level. Some were illiterate, and could not provide a signature of documents, signing with an X. In the several years working in the Department of Welfare, my mother only encountered a handful of clients with college degrees. In counseling, my mother mentioned the opportunity available to them to pursue higher education free of charge. Not only is tuition paid but welfare recipients are provided with a stipend for books and academic materials. To her dismay, she never encountered a woman who entered, or showed interest in, this program. They did not believe themselves capable of academics or. even unfathomable, science.

Natasha Rosado

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last updated 9/8/98