Using Company-Owned Housing and Workfare to Fill the Need for Low-Wage Workers: A Solution or Step Backward?

By Belcher, John R.; Rejent, Deborah | Social Work, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Using Company-Owned Housing and Workfare to Fill the Need for Low-Wage Workers: A Solution or Step Backward?


Belcher, John R., Rejent, Deborah, Social Work


Employers across the United States, particularly in large eastern urban centers such as New York; Boston; and Washington, DC, are increasingly unable to attract entry-level workers (Putka, 1989). For example, businesses in Montgomery County, Maryland; New York City; and other affluent areas are confronted with an inadequate supply of workers to fill low-paying positions, mostly because entry-level workers cannot afford to pay rent and purchase other necessities with the low wages they receive.

Business groups and some conservative scholars have blamed the shortage of entry-level workers on an inadequate supply of affordable housing and the unwillingness of poor people to work (Anderson, 1978; Mead, 1989; Murray, 1984). These same groups and individuals argue that a combination of company-owned housing and workfare will help to fill the need for entry-level workers. Although these approaches may provide housing and fill jobs, it can also be argued that the workers would become increasingly isolated from the mainstream economy, would become more dependent on low wages for their future well-being, and would jeopardize their self-determination (Block, Cloward, Ehrenreich, & Piven, 1987; Piven & Cloward, 1971, 1982). Over time, the workers would trade off greater control of their lives in exchange for housing and minimal entitlements.

The pressing need on industry to employ entry-level workers has overshadowed concerns over the long-term effects of company-owned housing and workfare on the worker. Belcher and DiBlasio (1990) observed that "prior to the 1970s, there was agreement among many, both conservative and liberal, that it was appropriate for the federal government to intervene in housing issues". However, more recently, housing issues have been viewed by many liberals and conservatives as needing a private-public solution (Drier, 1987), and rising numbers of welfare claims (Darity & Meyers, 1988) have stimulated efforts to use poor people to fill industry's need for entry-level workers. As the role of the federal government in developing progressive housing and welfare policies has declined, business groups have entered the void and launched an agenda that focuses on improving the power of business in labor-management relations. Interestingly, some policymakers have endorsed the notion of workfare and formed a "new consensus" with conservatives, which supports infusing more coercion into the welfare state (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1987; Nathan, 1989).

As liberal and conservative policymakers attempt to reach a consensus on the functions of the welfare state, it is important for social work as a profession to examine proposals such as company-owned housing and workfare. Responses to the apparent decline in worker rights can be addressed through more grassroots efforts or through changing the nation's social policies. Social work as a profession has often struggled with what Mary Richmond called the "retail" and "wholesale" approaches toward social reform (that is, social casework and social policy) (Fox, 1967). Rather than assume an either-or approach, Minahan (1980) cautioned the profession about ignoring either one; instead, she encouraged the profession to combine both approaches. The changes brought about by a changing economy and a postindustrial society are issues that demand a forward-looking social policy (Reich, 1991), as well as a social casework approach. It is beyond the scope of this article to adequately outline both positions; instead, this article examines the impact of social policy on the worker. Proposals from the business community that redefine the relationship between the worker and his or her employer are examined, and alternatives are suggested.

The Changing American Workplace

Over the past decade, the American workplace has radically changed from being dominated by high-paying manufacturing jobs to being dominated by lower-paying, unskilled service-sector jobs (Belcher & DiBlasio, 1990; Bluestone & Harrison, 1982; Harrison & Bluestone, 1988). …

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