Academic journal article Social Work

Rhetoric and Reality of Work-Based Welfare Reform

Academic journal article Social Work

Rhetoric and Reality of Work-Based Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

The argument presented in this article is that although work is one path toward improved well-being for poor families, a successful and humane social welfare policy must recognize and respond to its limitations. The prowork rhetoric surrounding current efforts to move women from welfare to work rests on at least three propositions: Work is the norm, work is good for families, and work leads to self-sufficiency. The article reviews empirical evidence on each of these propositions and concludes that many former welfare participants will earn low wages in unstable employment and will require a broad range of supports to move from welfare to self-sufficiency and improved family well-being.

Key words: employment; policy; single mothers; TANF; welfare reform

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) eliminated the long-standing entitlement to cash assistance for poor mothers and their children. In its place, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant provides states with funding for time-limited, work-based welfare programs. TANF required that by 2000 single mothers with school-age children receiving benefits work at least 30 hours per week. By imposing lifetime limits of no more than 60 months of benefits, although states may impose shorter time limits, and many have done so (Gallagher, Gallagher, Perese, Schreier, & Watson, 1998), the new legislation further manifests the expectation that families will make the transition to self-support. The argument here is that although work is an important path toward improved well-being for poor families, a successful and humane social welfare policy must recognize and respond to its limitations.

Contemporary society appears to view employment as the avenue to women's economic security, at least for poor women. Earlier generations regarded marriage and the male breadwinner as the key. Marriage was and continues to be a strong link to economic well-being for women with children. Unmarried women with children are about five times more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. In 1995, 42 percent of single-mother families with children were poor, compared with fewer than 8 percent of married couple families with children (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). Marriage is, however, only a partial solution. Even a generation ago, not every woman married, not all marriages lasted, and not all husbands were able and willing to support a family. Declines in marriage, high divorce rates, and stagnating male earnings (especially among low-skilled men) mean that marriage is an increasingly incomplete path to economic well-being (Acs & Danziger, 1993; Spain & Bianchi, 1996).

Yet, just as marriage was never a guaranteed path to economic security, work is a limited alternative. Just as not all women marry, not every woman has employment opportunities or the skills necessary to take advantage of such opportunities (Holzer, 1996; Spalter-Roth, Burr, Hartmann, & Shaw, 1995). Employment, even more than marriage, can be a temporary state (Cancian & Meyer, 2000; Pavetti & Acs, 1996). Moreover, women with low levels of education and other employment skills are particularly vulnerable to macroeconomic fluctuations and are likely to be employed in occupations that fail to offer stable employment (Pavetti & Acs; Spalter-Roth et al., 1995).

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) (P.L. 87-543) and its precursors were designed in large part to offset the loss of economic support associated with the absence of a husband and father. If we are to rely on a work-based approach to economic support, current policies must accommodate the irregular and insufficient earnings that can be expected for many single mothers. Many women who move from welfare to work will find themselves in low-paying jobs with limited prospects for advancement. Women of color face particular challenges in moving from welfare to work; they are likely to face discriminatory attitudes of employers and fellow employees (Henly, 2000; Holzer, 1999; Kirschenman & Neckerman, 1991), to live in areas with high unemployment, and to have lower levels of formal education (Holzer & Danziger, 1998). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.