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From Welfare to Low-Wage Work

“Ten years into welfare reform, caseloads may have decreased, but the number of people living in poverty has not,” Robert Wharton, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Economic Development Administration, wrote in a recent piece in the Chicago Sun-Times. “At the same time, the safety net of services and support that once protected the poor lies in tatters. Today, working parents in ill-paid jobs often work themselves right out of eligibility for desperately needed assistance.”

Just as all politics are ultimately local, the outcomes of welfare-to-work programs vary from state to state, and from locality to locality. Some programs have changed lives for the better, helping former welfare recipients find good jobs with decent wages and benefits. Other W-2 initiatives have failed and are complicit in the creation of a new underclass with more women and children in poverty, lacking even the most fundamental services.  

A 2002 report by the Chicago, Illinois-based Joyce Foundation found that while hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients in the Midwest went to work since 1996, most had “taken jobs that pay low wages, are part-time, or don’t last... As a result, most of those who have made the transition from welfare to work remain poor.”

The foundation’s report, entitled “Welfare to Work: What Have We Learned?” ( /welrept/), looked at welfare-to-work initiatives in Midwestern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and found that “both before and since 1996, these states... pioneered innovative strategies to support welfare recipients’ transition to work, including ‘work first’ and ‘making work pay’ by offering cash assistance and other supports to working families.

“Work supports—such as child care, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—have helped thousands of working families make ends meet. But many of the jobs are part time or short term, and wages are low.  As a result, many working families still face serious economic hardships.”

“If we define success in terms of helping women to take care of themselves and their families, we’ve seen some programs do better than others,” said Jane Henrici, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. In an email interview, Henrici, the editor of the recently published book, Doing Without: Women and Work after Welfare Reform (University of Arizona Press, 2006), maintained that “At least in the short term, women have reported more positive experiences where resources have been put into subsidized child care and early education, as well as other supports that vary by the region—such as substantive job training or support for higher education, reliable public transportation, and accessible healthcare facilities.”

Henrici also pointed out that “Privatization and related features of the policies and their implementation have not proven to be beneficial: Too many women continue to struggle to find and keep a job that either pays enough to cover healthcare or provides benefits at the same time as their health and that of their children decline. In addition, the rising costs of housing, and of education for themselves as well as their children, make any sense of financial stability a target that keeps moving out of reach.”

Henrici’s book, In Doing Without, concludes that “one of the largest multi-city investigations on welfare reform ever undertaken [reveals] that the employment opportunities available to poorer women, particularly single mothers and ethnic minorities, are insufficient to lift their families out of poverty.”

Contributors to the book look at “the challenges that the women who seek assistance, and those who work in public and private agencies to provide it, together must face as they navigate ever-changing requirements and regulations, decipher alterations in Medicaid, and apply for training and education.

Contributors urge that the nation should repair the social safety net for women in transition and offer genuine access to jobs with wages that actually meet the cost of living.”

Wendell Primus, currently a policy advisor to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was an outspoken critic of the original legislation; he resigned from the Clinton administration over welfare reform. In his remarks, Primus maintained that “while many families had earnings gains under welfare reform, a significant number would have done better without welfare reform under the expanding economy of the 1990s,” reported.

“In the aggregate, there is absolutely no evidence that it (reform legislation) increased household income,” said Primus, pointing out that the rates of child poverty dropped more in the 1992-1996, pre-welfare-reform period, than they did in the post-reform period, from 1996-2000.

The Community Economic De-velopment Administration’s Robert Wharton suggests that we “begin to take better-planned, more deliberate action to alleviate poverty. Such an effort will require a federal agency charged with mounting a coordinated, nationwide attack on poverty….We must also include as a priority in budgeting—from the federal level down—some sort of entitlement to basic necessities, including shelter, food, healthcare, and education. These programs should be run on a sliding scale, so that the working poor are not penalized for earning what they can.

“We need scholars, social analysts, and politicians courageous enough to shepherd us in this national discussion of poverty.  We must commit to the philosophy of providing for the neediest, or we will continue—unconscionably—to tolerate intolerable poverty at home and in the larger world.”

Download or view a PDF of this article (324 KB). 

JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

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