Understanding a Work-Family Fit for Single Parents Moving from Welfare to Work

By DeBord, Karen; Canu, Rebekah Fanning et al. | Social Work, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Understanding a Work-Family Fit for Single Parents Moving from Welfare to Work


DeBord, Karen, Canu, Rebekah Fanning, Kerpelman, Jennifer, Social Work


Teng and Pittman's model of "work-family fit" served as a theoretical base for exploring the experiences of families moving from welfare to work. Responding to open-ended telephone interview questions, 30 recently hired welfare recipients described factors that were needed for them to make a smooth transition into work, be successful at their jobs, and balance work and family. The individuals appeared to experience greater success when their own needs and the needs of their families were being met and when they were able to meet the demands of work, leading to greater work-family fit. Support from the workplace and other community sources, as well as participants' personal attributes contributed to this work-family fit. Specific strategies based on these findings are offered for employers, social workers, and community organizations.

Key words: community response; employment; poverty; single working mothers; welfare reform; work-family fit

Federal legislation (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, P.L. 104-193) has altered drastically the United States' welfare system, ending the guarantee of cash assistance to eligible families in poverty and setting both work requirements and time limits for all welfare recipients. These far-reaching changes in the welfare system raise questions about the futures of families living in poverty, who must meet these new requirements while facing many obstacles to finding and keeping good jobs. With most welfare recipients being young single mothers with young children and well-below-average education levels, (Burtless, 1997), obtaining employment raises questions about their abilities to handle new work demands along with their family responsibilities. The overriding question is What factors will help participants in welfare reform programs transition successfully into work while maintaining the well-being of their families?

Most of the research on the work and family interface has been framed by one of three perspectives: multiple roles, job demands, or spillover and crossover (Pleck, 1995). Although these perspectives are helpful in understanding the experiences of some families, they were developed primarily using studies with middle-or upper-middle-income white, often married, participants. This fact may limit their relevance for understanding the processes involved as single, poor mothers, many who are African American, move from welfare to work.

A new perspective of "work-family fit" shows promise for addressing not only a much broader range of families and contexts, but also the complex interactions between work and family (Teng & Pittman, 1996). The work-family fit approach views work and family as interconnected systems, where connections between these two systems are conceived of as the "fit" between the demands of work and the family's abilities to meet those demands and the fit between the family's needs and the supplies available from work to meet those needs. Both work and family are seen as active contributors to this exchange process, and bidirectional influences are assumed to exist between the two dimensions of fit.

Although the work--family fit model attends to the diverse complexities of family and work contexts, for families in poverty the workplace frequently is unable to meet their multiple needs. Other sources of needed supplies must be considered, such as help from friends or relatives, support from social services, child care resources, and various other community services (Chilman, 1991; McLanahan & Booth, 1989; Parish, Hao, & Hogan, 1991). In addition to providing assistance, these community supports can place demands on welfare recipients, such as obligations to extended relatives (Parish et al., 1991). Therefore, to explore the full experience of families moving from welfare into work, our conceptual framework extends Teng and Pittman's (1996) model and includes both community supplies and community demands, in addition to the previously discussed components of the work-family fit model (see Figure 1). …

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