Linking Welfare Clients to Jobs: Discretionary Use of Worker Social Capital

Article excerpt

The overarching theme of the 1996 welfare reform law was to move clients from dependency to self-sufficiency by facilitating their entry into the labor market. While numerous mechanisms were used to do this, this study explores discretionary actions taken by workers to help clients find jobs, namely, tapping into their own social capital. Respondents in one urban and one rural county in a southern state reported using their own social capital to get information regarding job openings and to exert influence to get clients hired. Notably, respondents at all levels of the bureaucracy expected this behavior to occur. Both the positive and negative aspects of social capital emerged as points of discussion in the rural county. Potential benefits and risks of worker social capital use are discussed as are future research directions and implications.

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A plethora of research undertaken in recent years addresses the impact of the TANF program on clients. This research documents a variety of factors that affect the success or failure of clients in securing and maintaining employment, including the economic conditions of an area, skill levels of recipients, child care, transportation, and client attitudes (Brayfield and Hofferth, 1995; Ong, 1996; Hofferth, 1999; Danziger et al., 1999; Kalil, Schweingruber, and Seefeldt, 2001). The Work First strategy driving the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) focuses on pushing welfare recipients into the labor force as rapidly as possible (Midgley and Rainford, 2000). Much of the discourse surrounding welfare reform focuses on the client's responsibility to work while the specific responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken by the state in the welfare-to-work era eludes most inquiry (Brodkin, 1997). Thus, a closer look at how state agencies and individual workers implement their side of the welfare-to-work contract is warranted (Brodkin, 1997). Otherwise, as Brodkin (1997) points out, bureaucratic processes are reduced to the proverbial black box. One area not sufficiently discussed in the literature is the formal and informal mechanisms used by welfare workers to find employment for their clients. This study explores one informal job search mechanism: worker social capital. It seeks to determine whether or not workers use their own social capital to help clients find jobs, ascertain the factors that influence this use and examine the attitudes and opinions of workers regarding its use.

Theoretical Framework

Social Capital and the Job Search

Social capital exists in the social relations of individuals (Lin, 1999) and like Bourdieu's (1985) conception of the term, social capital, in this paper, refers to elements of social relationships that result in economic benefits to individuals. This includes the social-structural resources available to individuals that facilitate actions that further their interests (Coleman, 1990). Especially useful in the job search are the social resources present in the networks of others, known as alters, in an individual's network. Individuals whose alters have higher levels of wealth, status, and power have greater access to information and influence that can improve stratification outcomes (Lin, Ensel, & Vaughan, 1981). Research has demonstrated that social networks are essential in obtaining both professional and entry-level blue-collar jobs (Granovetter, 1981; Kaye and Nightingale, 2000). Newman (1999) affirmed these findings in reference to the low-skilled work force during her research in Harlem, "employers can be very choosy, and they use social networks, among other things, as a mechanism for streamlining the choice-making process" (p. 84).

Worker Social Capital And Discretion

Job readiness and search classes, on-the-job training, community work experience placements (CWEP) and other subsidized employment opportunities provide welfare recipients avenues to enter the work force. …