Book Reviews -- Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America by Mark R. Rank

By Wilson, Stephan M. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America by Mark R. Rank


Wilson, Stephan M., Journal of Marriage and Family


Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America. Mark R. Rank. New York: Columbia University Press. 1994. 266 pp. Hardcover ISBN 0-231-08424-2. $29.95 cloth, $14.00 paper.

This book is an excellent resource for many college classes in social work, family studies, public administration, and family law, and can be enlightening for politicians and policy makers. The book focuses on the struggle to live, with public assistance among those who are not urban underclass. It provides a thoughtful counterpoint to arguments that individual or cultural deficits are the "cause" of welfare dependency.

Rank reviews a half-century of welfare policy and programs and cogently critiques the major points in the ongoing welfare reform debate. Contrary to popular myths about laziness and lifestyle, he suggests that individuals turn to public assistance when two conditions intersect vulnerability due to lack of human capital and personal crisis. He further argues that the structural constraints imposed by reproduction of social class and competition for the scarce resource' of adequate jobs--not lack of personal motivation--are the basic cause of welfare dependence.

In an extensive search for the truths about welfare families, Rank investigated several questions often overlooked or stereotyped by the public and some policy makers. This study concerns the following questions: Who are the recipients? Why do they turn to welfare? Now well do they actually fare on public assistance? What can society do to better address this troublesome issue? Using a representative sample of over 3,000 households from statewide longitudinal caseload files in Wisconsin, taped interviews of 50 families on public welfare, and extensive fieldwork, Rank's study gives a comprehensive view of families on welfare. His analysis of the material reveals the ugliness of life for welfare families, exposing the depth of despair and devastation in families with few other options. Case studies help the reader to identify with and humanize the individuals and families who have to depend on public assistance for a large part of their life support. The recipients report why they turned to welfare, and how they are faring. For many, aspirations and dreams are still alive, albeit not likely to materialize in the present situation, and are different only in scale from those of mainstream Americans. Rank's analysis of quantitative data, in areas such as additional childbearing of welfare mothers, health status, and conditions of exit and entry into the work and welfare systems, supports the sympathetic interpretation he provides for the case studies.

The admittedly sympathetic bias of the author must be held in mind as one evaluates this book. Two important parts of the data, the case studies and field work, make Living on the Edge more inviting than a statistical report, and it will appeal to many readers more than the latter; however, this book's data are more subject to bias in selection and interpretation. Nonetheless, this clearly written and straightforward volume is a valuable contribution to students and professionals alike, as well as toward a better informed and more thoughtful public.

STEPHAN M. WILSON University of Kentucky

Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America. Mark R. Rank. New York: Columbia University Press. 1994. 266 pp. Hardcover ISBN 0-231-08424-2. $29.95 cloth, $14.00 paper.

This book is an excellent resource for many college classes in social work, family studies, public administration, and family law, and can be enlightening for politicians and policy makers. The book focuses on the struggle to live, with public assistance among those who are not urban underclass. It provides a thoughtful counterpoint to arguments that individual or cultural deficits are the "cause" of welfare dependency.

Rank reviews a half-century of welfare policy and programs and cogently critiques the major points in the ongoing welfare reform debate. …

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