Academic journal article Family Relations

"They Get You out of Courage:" Persistent Deep Poverty among Former Welfare-Reliant Women

Academic journal article Family Relations

"They Get You out of Courage:" Persistent Deep Poverty among Former Welfare-Reliant Women

Article excerpt

We looked closely at families who remain in persistent deep poverty in the remote rural areas of one state, using welfare reform as the contextual backdrop. We examined the lives of 10 women who have participated in this qualitative research for over 6 years. The woman heading each family was a welfare program participant; she engaged (more or less) in the process mandated by the state for an orderly exit from welfare; and today she is caring for herself and her family without welfare. Human ecology and systems theories are used to help explain the choices made by these women as they often faced insurmountable barriers to finding and retaining jobs. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]

Key Words: family, poverty, qualitative research, rural, welfare reform.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 127-137)

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) welfare reform legislation carried with it the implicit suggestion that Americans could expect a reduction in poverty among families and households dependent on government benefits. The explicit policy goals were to reduce the welfare rolls through employment, increase child support collections, and encourage the formation of two-parent families (Greenberg etal., 2002). With this policy coming as the U.S. economy enjoyed an unprecedented level of positive momentum, the bipartisan supporters of the policy had every reason to think that we would see reductions in poverty and gains toward work-based self-sufficiency in the welfare-reliant population. Work-based self-sufficiency meant that women could meet the needs of their families through employment, with little or none of the government assistance traditionally associated with poverty: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, or childcare subsidies (Dill, 1998; Rogers & Weil, 2000).

Despite a now-shaky economy, we generally accept the assessment that the legislation achieved its goals on a broad scale and that there has been some degree of poverty reduction. Caseloads declined dramatically, even as policy scholars debated whether declining caseloads should be the primary measure of the success of the policy, especially in rural areas (e.g., Besharov & Germanis, 2000; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Parisi, McLaughlin, Taquino, Grice, & White, 2002). Most recipients who move off the welfare caseloads do so because they find employment, usually in the low-wage service sector (e.g., Jencks & Swingle, 2000; Tweedie & Reichert, 1998). Many women who exit the welfare program, however, have a short tenure in the workplace because of individual and structural impediments; that is, they bring weak work skills to these jobs, and the quantity and quality of jobs available to low-skilled workers is poor (Lehman & Danziger, 1997; Monroe & Tiller, 2001).

There are families who today are off welfare but not nearly out of poverty, and whose lives continue to be characterized by hardship and deprivation (Guyer & Mann, 1999; Jencks & Swingle, 2000). In many instances, the adults in these families are not yet securely attached to the labor force, thus vulnerable to swings in the economy and changes in local employment conditions. These adults may have little opportunity to improve their human capital in ways that would reduce their economic vulnerability. Policy scholars warn that poverty rates will increase over the long term as the current welfare policies settle in as the nation's normative approach to public assistance (e.g., Duncan, Hams, & Boisjoly, 2000; Ellwood, 2000).

In this study, we take a close look at 10 families who remain in persistent deep poverty in the remote rural areas of one state, using welfare reform as the contextual backdrop for this examination. In each case we examine, the woman heading her family was a welfare program participant, and we talked with her at three points in time: when she was engaged (more or less) in the process mandated by the state for an orderly exit from welfare; during a transition period as she attempted to leave welfare for work; and as we found her caring for herself and her family a year or more after her welfare participation ended. …

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