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From Self-Sufficiency to Personal and Family Sustainability: A New Paradigm for Social Policy

By Hawkins, Robert Leibson | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2005 | Go to article overview

From Self-Sufficiency to Personal and Family Sustainability: A New Paradigm for Social Policy


Hawkins, Robert Leibson, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Current social policy that affects welfare recipients focuses on the concept of "self-sufficiency" where leaving welfare for work is the goal. While this approach has reduced welfare rolls, it has not necessarily helped low-income people improve their economic, educational, or social outlook. This paper suggests that the concept of Personal and Family Sustainability (PFS) may be a better way to evaluate and direct social policy. A definition of PFS is developed from the environmental and community development roots of sustainability and four domains for creating PFS indicators are introduced.

Keywords: Self-sufficiency, sustainability, social policy, poverty, welfare, TANF

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The notion of "self-sufficiency"--and its related terms, "independence," "self-reliance," and "self-supporting"--have become the embodiment of poverty reduction policy. On its face, self-sufficiency appears to be an appropriate goal for social policy. However, this paper asserts that using self-sufficiency as a social welfare policy goal results in programs and evaluations that are unclear, inequitable, dichotomous, and limited in scope.

Self-sufficiency has become so ingrained in American society that the media, policy makers, researchers, and the general public no longer question the legitimacy of this goal. Examples are abundant in federal social policy. For example, one of the four federal goals for welfare reform (called Transitional Aid to Needy Families or TANF) is to "end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits ..." (House Committee on Ways and Means, 2004, sections 7-4). Indeed, the Congressional publication, Background Material and Data on the Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means, commonly known as the Green Book, explicitly states that reducing welfare and promoting "self-sufficiency" has been a Congressional focus since the 1960s.

While this paper focuses primarily on welfare, TANF is not the only entitlement program that sets self-sufficiency as its goal. Title XX of the Social Security Act, which created the Social Services Block Grant, sets out to: (1) achieve or maintain economic self-support to prevent, reduce, or eliminate dependency; and (2) achieve or maintain self-sufficiency, including reduction or prevention of dependency (House Committee on Ways and Means, 2003, section 10-6).

Using TANF as an example, this paper introduces and examines how a broader concept, Personal and Family Sustainability (PFS), may be a more effective way to define, evaluate, and direct poverty reduction. Although the emphasis on self-sufficiency in TANF has reduced welfare rolls, the larger societal goal of helping low-income people--especially single mothers--enter stable jobs or improve their economic, educational, and social situation has not been met. This paper suggests a new paradigm for considering the goals of social welfare policy. It introduces and examines how a broader concept, Personal and Family Sustainability (PFS), may be a more effective way to define evaluate, and direct poverty reduction.

Current and past U.S. presidents have used the concepts of self-sufficiency and independence to define social welfare policies. In its welfare reauthorization proposal, for instance, the Bush Administration described helping "each family reach its highest degree of self-sufficiency" (Office of the President, 2003, p. 13) as a fundamental goal of TANF. In the same vein, former President Clinton, who signed the 1996 welfare reform bill into law, said, "We want a welfare system which emphasizes getting people to work, self-sufficiency, and welfare as a transition, not as a way of life" (Federal News Service, 1995).

The media has also adopted the self-sufficiency mantra without questioning or defining the term. Months before the signing of the welfare reform bill, the Washington Post described a Virginia welfare-to-work program as "a shift from dependency to self-sufficiency" (Benning, 1996).

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