Scapegoating single mothers

April 29, 1994|By Barbara Ransby

WHEN 19 poor children were found living in cramped and squalid conditions on Keystone Avenue in Chicago last February, America took notice. The media quickly indicted the parents, and the Keystone 19 became a symbol of what's wrong with the black urban poor in this country. But the case was also distorted in the media spotlight, raising serious questions about poverty and the villainous stereotype of poor black women.

The Keystone parents were tried last week on a variety of charges. Five of the six mothers and a boyfriend were found guilty of child neglect and endangerment and face up to a year in jail each. But more than half of the charges were dropped. Trial evidence presents a more balanced picture of the Keystone case.

The five Melton sisters, ages 21 to 31, are all single mothers on welfare. According to the standard account, the Melton family wantonly abused their children and the welfare system. Clearly many of the adults involved behaved badly, but look closely and you will see not monsters but flesh and blood people with stories and histories and problems.

First of all, the family's combined $65,952 income may sound like a lot on the news, but for a family of 27 it is still well below the poverty line.

They were crowded into a two-bedroom apartment because of the scarcity of affordable housing and the willingness of sisters to help out in hard times. When one sister was burned out, she moved in with another. Other misfortunes led the remaining sisters to join. In search of adequate housing and barely escaping homelessness, the Melton sisters have lived at six different addresses over a two-year period. Often they moved to escape broken windows, faulty appliances, poor plumbing, and roach and rat infestation.

The filth and lack of food in the apartment provided the most compelling indictments of the Melton sisters as unfit mothers. Conditions were bad, but the Meltons say that much of the garbage in the apartment was strewn about by the police in their frantic search for the drugs they never found.

Authorities admit that the children were not physically abused or malnourished. Indeed, defense attorneys presented a grocery receipt nearly three feet long for food purchased the week before the raid. Obviously someone was preparing meals for them even if the cupboard was bare on that particular evening.

The media have also neglected to mention government and landlord responsibilities. The landlord was legally responsible for repairs and pest control, so why was the state paying rent for substandard housing? If children had been truant or attending school dirty and improperly clothed, why didn't the school investigate?

But the scapegoating of single black mothers is not deterred by facts. Instead, the popular discourse about welfare reform and the alleged breakdown of the black family is filled with stereotypes of immoral, promiscuous and incompetent black mothers. And it's not just biased talk. A battery of laws and policies have been designed not to fight poverty, but to modify the behavior of poor, black women.

Already some states limit future benefits for poor women who have more children while on welfare. Bill Clinton wants to cut benefits after two years -- the deadline for recipients to find non-existent jobs. What will that do to combat child neglect? There is even a push to hold parents criminally liable for the actions of their children. Again the message is that poor, black mothers are the culprits.

In a twisted way, the Keystone 19 may relieve Americans of the guilt and responsibility they might otherwise feel for the suffering of the urban poor. As the story has been reported, society is not responsible for the fate of the Keystone 19. Instead, callous, uncaring mothers who raise their children like animals are to blame. Thus a war on the poor, not poverty, is justified.

Obviously, the Melton sisters could have cared better for their children. However, their conditions -- and those of their children -- are also an indictment of a system which abysmally fails to provide for the poor and vilifies black, single mothers. While the Meltons face jail, our social institutions get off scot free.

Barbara Ransby teaches history at DePaul University in Chicago.

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