Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Commitment to Work among Welfare-Reliant Women

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Commitment to Work among Welfare-Reliant Women

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to describe the work of welfare-reliant women and to reveal commitment to work in the experiences of 84 welfarereliant, rural women interviewed for this study. Understanding the domains where welfare-reliant women exhibit commitment to work may help policy makers, trainers, and employers design and implement interventions that enhance chances of success for these women in the formal, paid workforce. Discussion focuses on the women's formal labor force participation in the past and desire for wage work in the future; barriers to labor force participation, both personal and in the rural job market; informal work and the work of care; support networks; survival strategies for making ends meet while receiving welfare; and the stigma of welfare receipt.

Key Words: family policy, welfare reform, women's work.

There are many impediments, at societal and individual levels, to families moving from welfare reliance to full-time paid labor Well-known barriers include lack of job skills, low educational attainment, single-parent households and heavy family responsibilities, severely limited employment opportunities in local communities (especially in the rural South), lack of reliable transportation, and lack of quality affordable child care (Brayfield & Hofferth, 1995; Browne, 1995; Hao, 1995; Harris, 1996; Nord & Beaulieu, 1997). Recent research suggests that it is not just these obstacles, but a pileup of severe, persistent problems that impede employment success for welfare-reliant women (Zedlewski, 1999). There is another impediment that rests just under the surface of public discourse among employers, trainers, politicians, and the general citizenry: the belief that some welfare reliant adults resist efforts to move them into the formal workforce. Some employers call this problem a lack of "willingness to work" or absence of a work ethic (Gilens, 1999; Kirschenman & Neckerman, 1991; Monroe, Blalock, & Vlosky, 1999). Work ethic is described as responsibility, dependability, pride in a job, loyalty to an employer, and commitment to work, and the welfare reliant population is stereotyped as uniformly deficient in its work ethic (Kirschenman & Neckerman; Rose, 1995; Task Force, 1993).

Such thinking is flawed on many levels. There is solid evidence that the welfare-reliant population is heterogeneous in terms of many defining characteristics, including previous participation in the formal labor force and the circumstances that precipitated the need for public assistance (for reviews, see Jencks, 1992; Task Force, 1993; Taylor Jackson, & Chatters, 1997). Furthermore, most people who participate in the welfare system do not rely on welfare for long periods of time, although participants appear to be stereotyped by the small core of individuals who are chronically dependent on public assistance (Friedlander & Burtless, 1995; Harris, 1996; Rank, 1994a, 1994b; Rosenbaum & Popkin, 1991). Despite such empirical data, the American people and their public officials show a broad willingness to stigmatize the poor, including the working poor and families reliant on public assistance, and to base policy reforms on such stereotypes (Gilens, 1999).

The purpose of this article is to describe the work of welfare-reliant women. We will attempt to uncover various ways (where they exist) in which marginalized women exhibit commitment to informal and formal work, for the purpose of helping policy makers, trainers, and employers design interventions that enhance chances of success for these women in the formal workforce. Finally, the foregoing issues will be examined in the context of the rural and remote rural Southern communities in which these families are being asked to achieve wage-based self-sufficiency (see Lobao, 1996). Although poverty and welfare reliance are disproportionately concentrated in both urban centers and in remote rural areas, poverty and welfare research to date has focused on urban areas (Jensen & Tienda, 1989; Task Force, 1993). …

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