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John Florez: Valuing the role of homemaker

Published: Saturday, July 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Women, forget homemaking; you could be displaced and out of luck.

That doesn't seem to be the best thing to tell women in a state that places high value on families and stay-at-home moms.

However, that seems to be the unintended message Utah legislators sent some women who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a source of income. Last month, a legislative interim committee voted against reauthorization of Utah's Displaced Homemaker program passed in 1986.

It was created along with federal programs to help women who had stayed at home to care for their children and husbands and later lost their husbands because of death, divorce or other reasons and no longer had a source of income.

Many of the displaced homemakers who dedicated themselves to caring for their families found themselves without employment experience and ineligible for unemployment insurance. In short, they were out of luck.

Legislative committee members, to their credit, voted against reauthorization of the program because the Department of Workforce Services, the agency responsible for administering the program, was unable to show results — how many displaced homemakers they helped find living-wage jobs. They were only able to describe what services they provided, i.e., counseling, links to other programs, ideas on networking, educational support, food stamps, job interviewing and, most presumptuous, resume writing.

Can you imagine asking a 40-year-old divorced woman who has spent the past 15 years raising children and supporting her husband in his work, or helping him with his education, to write a resume? What might she put down — changed diapers, did laundry, prepared school lunches, drove kids to school, ran errands, grocery shopped, organized and cleaned house and fixed dinner? All volunteer work and no pay.

She may never have found time to develop her work skills or have a work experience, though she juggled housekeeping, homework with kids, multitasking and the ability to work without supervision. When the DWS worker asks her about her qualifications, she might answer, "None."

What must it be like for a woman, whose life revolved around keeping her family together to all of sudden find herself desolate, penniless and having to ask for help?

One legislator on the interim committee asked how women found out about the displaced homemaker program. The DWS representative indicated that was one of the limitations, that there was no outreach; another was the requirement that women had to be out of the workforce for eight years.

Also asked was, how do the services they provide to this target group differ from the services they are able to provide all individuals eligible for DWS services? The answer was, they did not differ much.

The review of this program reveals what is endemic to state government agencies: they report on process — all the programs they run and what they do — rather than on output — what they produce. DWS, like all bureaucracies, survives by overwhelming policymakers with information that has nothing to do with the cost-effective outcomes taxpayers should expect. Legislative committee members saved a few tax bucks this time.

Keeping families intact and preserving the role of homemaker is more critical than ever before. Lawmakers ought to work harder to promote family policies that support the role of homemaker. Rather than putting women through agency bureaucratic hurdles, lawmakers ought to provide stipends for education, training and financial help directly to women to find a living-wage job, instead of fattening the bureaucracy with meaningless projects.

Helping displaced homemakers become economically independent lets Utah women know that homemaker is a vital role in our state's commitment to families, and we will not forget them.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Senator Orrin Hatch, was former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments — including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.

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