Prostitution: One of Welfare Reform’s Unintended Consequences

by April 23, 2012 0 comments

While waiting in my car for a funeral repast to begin at a fraternal function hall, I noticed two young women, in their late teens or early 20s, lounging together on a stone wall at the edge of a large neighborhood park. They were wearing tight jeans and lightweight blouses that left more exposed than concealed, a revealing style of dress unremarkable in this age of excessive openness about everything.

I figured they were friends relaxing on a sunny, warm afternoon.

That is, until a man old enough to be their grandfather pulled up in a car, braked and engaged one of the women in a brief conversation. She got in. He drove off. What had looked like purposeless idling now appeared to be commerce: the sex trade.

Harambee Park in the heart of the Boston’s Dorchester section, a city facility once known as Franklin Field, was not where I expected to find prostitution. It’s in a residential neighborhood. A youth center, popular indoor tennis club and sports fields are in or adjoin the park.

The New York Times recently ran a front-page article about what poor single women with children do to make do in the recession since the country has ended welfare “as we know it” and slapped a five-year limit on cash benefits. The hard-pressed women interviewed in Phoenix reported they had “sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners.”

Jason DeParle is a seasoned reporter who knows federal social policy, but this time I don’t think he got the whole story. His New York Times sources may not have told him everything or they may not have been entirely representative.

I suspect what I saw at that park earlier in the 2000s, before the Great Recession, and have observed any number of times since then in Boston represent an unanticipated way women in poor families manage welfare reform: neighborhood prostitution.

If I’m right, I wonder what the “family values” crowd who pushed for the limits on welfare – a program originally authorized in the Social Security Act of 1935 – thinks about this unintended consequence of relieving poor women from dependence on the government.

The two young women hanging out on that day were light-skinned, maybe Black, maybe Hispanic, maybe Cape Verdean. The elderly motorist was definitely Black. There is a public housing project on the opposite side of Harambee Park.

I’ve observed similar scenes on my morning walks involving White, Black, Latina or Asian women; usually young, but some edging toward middle age. I’ve seen in White and Black neighborhoods what sure looks like prostitution by women who are poor, given their gaudy but cheap clothing.

Women sexily dressed and posed, standing in the cold near the entrance of drug or grocery stores, smoking cigarette after cigarette, waiting for a man to offer a ride, for starters. On a summer day, a woman in short shorts, sitting a long time on a step at a gas station, waiting to be approached—downscale marketing I saw repeated one summer I worked in Reno. I’ve observed women flouncing along thru streets in residential neighborhoods, with a brief vehicle stop, a quick conversation and a hop-in.

In none of these cases have I done a journalistic investigation to know for sure what I saw was prostitution, but it sure looked like it and it’s a repetitive pattern. In one instance, I know police thought the same thing and intervened to disrupt the pattern.

A small neighborhood park on an inlet into Boston Harbor is on my walking route. The park, which is actually state property, has a parking lot almost as big as the grounds. I used to see a lot of parked vehicles with a middle-aged man behind the wheel and a 20-something woman in the passenger seat—that is, when you could see her.

The state police started making morning sweeps of the parking lot. I watched troopers ask a couple to get out the vehicle and overhead one inquire of the middle-aged man, referring to his much younger female companion:  “Where did you pick her up?”

That kind of early morning business does not happen in Tenean Beach Park any longer.

I don’t know for sure the women I observed are members of former welfare families or, under the rules before the 1996 changes, whether they would have been eligible for government assistance. Those strike me as good questions worthy of official investigation.

With committees in the Republican-controlled House eager to investigate anything in a bid to harm President Obama politically, maybe the committee chairmen could do something constructive and turn their scrutiny on one of the laws passed after Republicans took over the chamber in 1995 for the first time in 40 years. They could ask Bill Clinton, then president, who coined the phrase “end welfare as we know it,” to appear as a witness. And maybe Newt Gingrich, who was House speaker when the welfare law passed.

While they’re at it, the House committees could also explore whether welfare reform has pushed more poor teenage boys into selling drugs to make up for the government money no longer coming into their households. In Boston, police say inner city gangs have become less about territory and more about the drug trade. That’s new.

Are teenage boys selling illegal drugs and young women selling their bodies better alternatives to poor families depending on the government for financial support? That’s a moral dilemma that supporters of the 1996 welfare reform law need to confront. •

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