Academic journal article Social Work

Poverty, Work, and Community: A Research Agenda for an Era of Diminishing Federal Responsibility

Academic journal article Social Work

Poverty, Work, and Community: A Research Agenda for an Era of Diminishing Federal Responsibility

Article excerpt

The process of shifting responsibility for entitlement programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to state and local governments is well under way. Even though these programs have not yet been turned into block grants, the majority of states now have waivers that allow significant latitude in the way they administer entitlements. At least 31 states, for example, have a waiver for some type of time limit on benefits or stringent work requirements (Center for Law and Public Policy, 1996). The theme underlying much of the reform is to make AFDC a temporary benefit and move large numbers of recipients who have been out of the labor force for extended periods of time into employment.

The income transfers provided through the AFDC program have been a cornerstone of anti-poverty policy in the United States through much of the 20th century. Although their effectiveness in actually lifting families' incomes above the poverty threshold has diminished in recent decades (Danziger & Weinberg, 1994), AFDC and related entitlements have provided an important safety net for families and children. For social workers and others working with poor people, AFDC has represented the economic floor below which few families could fall and from which they could rise economically.

The limitations and constraints now being placed on AFDC and related benefits will fundamentally alter the lives of low-income families, the conditions in low-income communities, and the demands placed on local governments and nonprofit organizations. The agencies administering public assistance and related programs will be challenged to redefine their missions and redesign their services. Social workers will need new skills and knowledge to help large numbers of individuals move into the labor market and to enable communities to foster and sustain employment opportunities.

To respond to the challenges of the new era, social workers need a greater understanding of how to enhance employment opportunities for welfare recipients and low-wage workers. More intricate knowledge of the workings of low-income communities and low-skill labor markets is required, particularly knowledge about how these factors support or undermine individuals' chances of finding a job that provides a living wage. It is within these contexts that effective programs and practices will need to be crafted.

This article discusses the relationship among poverty, welfare, and work and the factors that allow communities to foster employment opportunities, enhance accumulation of wealth, and provide a safety net for families. In addition, this article outlines the research needed to raise the understanding of how communities and labor markets affect work and poverty and the process through which communities can change to meet the challenges of devolution. The agenda set forth is not exhaustive but focuses on the contexts in which low-income people, whether working or on welfare, try to raise and support their families. The agenda assumes that social workers have an important role to play in helping create community and opportunity structures that allow all families to thrive.

Poverty and Work

Welfare Recipients and Poor Working People

To respond to the increasing emphasis on work and self-sufficiency, it is important to recognize that work, welfare, and poverty are intricately interwoven, dynamic, and fluid. Poverty is not solely a problem of joblessness. Although welfare recipients are the poorest population group, a sizable portion of the poor population is employed. Approximately 40 percent of poor individuals age 16 and older have jobs (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993), but their incomes do not rise above the poverty line because of low-wage jobs or parttime status.

Working families and welfare families are often thought of as two distinct groups, but there is actually considerable overlap between work and welfare. A slight majority of welfare recipients receive wages and welfare either simultaneously or sequentially and ultimately leave welfare for work (Harris, 1993). …

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