Pathways to Opportunity: The Role of Race, Social Networks, Institutions, and Neighborhood in Career and Educational Paths for People on Welfare

Article excerpt

The ongoing struggle over welfare reform hinges on debate over which factors cause joblessness and poverty. Conservative scholars blame lack of work experience and a culture of poverty while liberals focus on lack of skills and structural inequality. Through a synthesis of six interrelated research studies conducted between 1992 and 1996, this paper examines the relationship between macro- and micro-level factors in the career and training paths of welfare recipients. The study illustrates the utility of a holistic, anthropological approach to the study of poverty. The studies found four distinct groups: 1 ) limited work experience; 2) low-skill workers; 3) displaced workers; and 4) immigrants and refugees. Social networks played a powerful role in the life histories of each group. Using a combination of statistics and ethnography, the article discusses different career and training paths for each group. The relationship between training and work experience for each group shows the nuances among training programs and the way that class, race, and gender work together to influence various ways that each group makes use of training in developing unique pathways to opportunity or continued poverty.

Key words: welfare reform, poverty, United States, education, policy

The ongoing struggle over welfare reform hinges on debate over which factors cause joblessness and poverty. Strategies to change welfare have swung between providing more services to help people move from public assistance to self-sufficiency and efforts to mandate work through required participation in work-related programs. Liberal approaches generally focus on human-capital development1 (Rose 1995). Conservatives focus on instilling the "work ethic" in the mistaken belief that poverty results from a "culture of poverty" among poor, female-headed households (Mead 1992; Murray 1984). In the early 1990s, the welfare reform pendulum swung back to a focus on employment. The Personal Responsibility, Work Opportunity and Medicaid Restructuring Act of 1996 cuts off benefits for welfare recipients not engaged in work-related activities and limits public assistance benefits to a total of five years over a lifetime.

Scholarly research on poverty in the U.S. has increasingly focused on the role of structural issues for urban, impoverished people of color. Segregation is often blamed (Massey and Denton 1993), as is the lack of jobs (Riemer 1988; Wilson 1996), public policy that forces women into low-wage employment (Brodkin 1990; Gordon 1994; Handler 1995; Handler and Hasenfeld 1991, 1997; Katz 1989; Rose 1995), and the nature of work available to people with limited skills (Edin and Lein 1997; Institute for Women's Policy Research 1989; Wilson 1987, 1996). Wilson (1996: xiv) states that social-structural, cultural, and social-psychological variables all play a role and that analysis needs to "reveal their relative significance and their interaction in determining the experiences and life chances of inner city residents." While I agree with this approach, the emphasis by Wilson and others on African Americans in the impoverished inner city ignores the different patterns for men and women; people from various races, ethnic groups, and nationalities;2 and people with varying educational and work experience.

While proponents of work-experience development (like Mead 1992) assume that welfare recipients lack work histories, scholars of welfare use show that the majority of the public-assistance population cycles between work and welfare (Bane and Elwood 1994; Handler 1995; Handler and Hasenfeld 1997). While the literature on human-capital development shows that more educated populations fare better in the labor market (Grubb 1995), evaluations of the various training programs for the population on welfare uniformly show limited increases in earnings for program graduates (Freedman and Friedlander 1995; Romero 1994; Stoesz 1996: 499-506). Some scholars blame this seeming failure of both work and training to lift people out of poverty on the nature of training for low-income people and the feminization of poverty (Gordon 1990, 1994; Institute for Women's Policy Research 1989; Rose 1995). …