Thinking about United States welfare programs and policies, what reforms, if any, would you suggest after reading Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle? Explain how your suggested reforms would have...

Thinking about United States welfare programs and policies, what reforms, if any, would you suggest after reading Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle? Explain how your suggested reforms would have affected the Walls family and their life of poverty.

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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At the risk of seeming to evade the question – what welfare reforms or policies would one recommend after reading Jeannette Walls’ account of growing up in a supremely dysfunctional environment – one could quite easily arrive at the conclusion that no reform or policy would have helped this particular family. The Walls family’s life of poverty was so self-induced, and involuntarily-committing someone into a mental health facility so difficult, that no real solution existed or existed now for this contingency.  Welfare exists to help those who live below the poverty line, but who would, presumably rise above their current socioeconomic status of the opportunity to do so availed itself.  It is not designed, nor should it be, to aid those who evade all responsibility and who repeatedly uproot themselves and their families for the purpose of avoiding financial responsibilities – most definitely the case with Jeannette Walls’ parents during her childhood.  The Glass Castle depicts a very unstable environment resulting overwhelmingly from Rex and Rose Mary’s philosophy regarding life, a philosophy that placed absolutely no emphasis on stability and responsibility.  At the first sign of trouble, or of responsibility with respect to bill paying, they piled their possessions in their car or in a truck – one time even piling their three children and a newborn baby in the back of a truck – and bolted for the next, usually depressing, town. 

Is it conceivable that social workers could have prevailed upon the Walls to remain in one home long enough to provide a sense of stability for their young children? The answer to that question has to be no, unless they were promised an amount of welfare money monthly to remove any incentive to once again flee to the next desert or remote mountain town, and no welfare system can realistically be expected to provide that level of sustenance.  Welfare, again, exists to help those who need financial assistance because their jobs don’t pay well enough to support their families, or because they can’t work – as in the case of single parents, especially unwed teenage mothers who can’t afford child care.  Welfare is not intended to be permanent, although it historically did become a fixture in many families’ lives.  But even more generous welfare benefits than currently exist would likely be insufficient to convince a couple like Rex and Rose Mary Walls to stay in one place, which brings us to the next problem: mental health.

As noted earlier, mental health laws make it next to impossible to commit someone who doesn’t want to go to a mental health facility.  Unless they are demonstrated to be a threat to others, it just isn’t going to happen.  Rex and Rose Mary may have been mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean their children or anybody else could have done anything about that without their parents’ consent, and that consent was not going to be forthcoming.  Could, in the context of the student’s question, which allows for creative thought, mental health laws be changed so that the Walls could have been committed?  Certainly.  Is that a realistic proposal?  No, it isn’t.  There are families whose situations can be better addressed through reforms to the existing welfare system, but the author’s parents simply don’t fit into any viable system. They had knowingly chosen their paths in life and, for better or for worse, their children paid the price. As Walls’ opens her memoir, she describes an uncomfortable encounter with her mother, who didn’t see her, and returned to her apartment rather than risk being seeing publicly with a homeless woman.  Having agreed to meet her mother in a restaurant, Jeannette offers financial assistance, which is promptly declined.  Questioning her mother’s choices in life and her values, the response she receives was as follows:  "You want to help me change my life?" Mom asked. "I'm fine. You're the one who needs help. Your values are all confused."  No responsible welfare system can address that mentality, nor should it.

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