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An overview of the workfare concept and the typical welfare recipients

In its strongest and broadest applications it is part of a larger array of means-tested benefits that are prominent in the Anglo-American democracies but most developed in the United States.

The American welfare system consists of inadequate benefits and income for poor families, significant inequities in the flow of cash and services, heavy reliance on means testing, and extensive monitoring for welfare fraud, which inspires an expensive, time-consuming apparatus of investigation and surveillance—a bewildering array of programs and agencies that recipients must negotiate when they need help. Added to inadequacy, inequity, punitiveness, and inefficiency is an unfortunate lack of fiscal and policy control.

All this constitutes a welfare mess that makes the nonworking, nonaged, nondisabled poor highly visible and unpopular, easy targets for scapegoating Wilensky 2002, ch. Even the harshest of them all, the British Poor Law of 1834, was quickly followed by strong criticism. The critics noted that it did not distinguish between the non-working poor who receive poor relief and the more deserving poor who did not; or that it undermined incentives to obey the work ethic ; or that it lumped together the worthy and unworthy in a miserable poorhouse, where criminals, alcoholics, women, mothers, children, infants, the aged, and the sick were jammed together and where brutality and corruption were common.

The principles of Elizabethan poor law—direct aid for the unemployed, work or the workhouse or almshouse, or prison for the able bodied, and local administration that would keep welfare benefits below the lowest wage and thus provide incentives to work— persist to this day in the United States Handler 1995, pp.

  • Consider these obvious conflicts;
  • Research, however, has shown that welfare benefits in the United States are anything but generous; on average they have eroded while eligibility rules tightened;
  • The combined income and mutual help under these unfortunately rare circumstances often moves the family above the poverty line;
  • The population targeted by welfare-to-work programs has many unfavorable characteristics for steady long-term employment.

This never-ending cycle is most prominent in the Anglo-American democracies, which rely most heavily on means-tested benefits targeted to the poor Wilensky 2002, Table 8. The cycle occurs around a long-term upward trend toward more cash and services for the poor as modern democracies became quite rich, but there is no doubt that since the mid-1990s the United States has been in a phase of getting tough on welfare. The welfare reforms of 1996 and 2006, accenting workfare, are the latest expression of that mood.

In the intensity of political fuss about it, the welfare mess is peculiarly American, but in its broad outlines it is shared by several other countries that rely heavily on meanstested programs and have high rates of poverty United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland. The American welfare mess is perpetuated first by politicians who use welfare mothers in the public image they are racial minorities as convenient scapegoats who are somehow responsible for problems of racial conflict, crime, family breakup, illegitimacy, budget deficits, and moral rot; and second, by the limited political capacity to reduce poverty by other more universal means—by education, active labor-market and family policies, and fiscal policy.

It will last as long as the United States maintains a high rate of poverty and inequality and succumbs to polarized politics in government. For decades workfare advocates have marketed a misleading stereotype of an epidemic of teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and parenthood—a picture of very young, black, never-married mothers, living in an inner-city ghetto, who are permanently welfare dependent and receive generous benefits, an incentive to have many children who will perpetuate welfare dependency across generations.

This picture has been widely circulated in a spate of books sponsored by neoconservative think tanks e. Research, however, has shown that welfare benefits in the United States are anything but generous; on average they have eroded while eligibility rules tightened. Neither the level nor the trend of welfare benefits has any relation to fertility rates.

In fact, in size and fertility trend welfare families are like nonwelfare families. In attitudes, welfare mothers embrace the work ethic as much as the nonwelfare population. The welfare population is heterogeneous in race and ethnicity, physical and mental health, and the number and age of children. About half of welfare mothers are white, about a third are black, a fifth Hispanic.

Very few are teenagers, though most are young. Poor single mothers with enormous deficits in human capital are overrepresented among welfare recipients. What welfare parents frequently pass on to their children is not welfare status but poverty and all its pathologies. Because work-for-benefits—the core of 1996 welfare reform—has a long history and in one form or another has been evaluated systematically since the late 1970s e.

By the single criterion of cutting the rolls, workfare with strong sanctions—certain time limits for all welfare benefits if work is not obtained—can be effective. For instance, if the sole concern is removing people from the rolls under a deadline, considerable success can be achieved with a week or two of orientation, followed by sanctions if any job at all is refused. A credible threat to cut off welfare will also encourage a substantial percentage of welfare recipients who already work off the books to disappear from the rolls.

But if the aim is to prepare the typical welfare family a mother with young children, little education, little job experience, and other handicaps for stable employment in the real world of work and not merely perpetuate the longstanding pattern of alternating or simultaneous low-wage temporary work and welfare, policymakers must get serious about expensive education and training, placement, wage subsidies, job creation, counseling, child care, housing, transportation, rehabilitation of those on drugs or alcohol or who are mentally ill, and more.

Some of the most sophisticated evaluation research ever done has been focused on these programs. Using a variety of methods and research designs, mostly social experiments where a group exposed to a particular workfare program is compared to a randomly selected control group, an army of researchers has descended upon these welfare clients to assess an overview of the workfare concept and the typical welfare recipients. See especially the reports, summaries, and critical assessments by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation and academic researchers: Gueron and Pauly 1991; Handler and Hasenfeld 1991, chapter 5; Burghardt et al.

Here is a brief summary of findings on which almost all researchers agree: In implementing work-focused mandates, states show substantial variation in their degree and kind of success. If researchers compare welfare recipients who are subjected to varied welfare-to-work mandates with control groups who are not and measure the respective earnings gains over anywhere from a few months to five years, the workfare programs an overview of the workfare concept and the typical welfare recipients average do show modest relative earnings gains for the workfare participants.

Obviously, different program packages have different outcomes. Especially effective in decreasing welfare spending are short-term measures. Job clubs, a week or two of charm school how to dress, how to show deference and enthusiasm in an interview, etc. But such quick solutions do not improve job quality and job stability, nor succeed with the more disadvantaged. In varying amounts, some workfare programs add more expensive skills training, basic education, counseling, job creation, and other work supports.

These appear to produce better jobs for some people and probably make a greater long-term difference in earnings. Workfare does not work on the cheap. The population targeted by welfare-to-work programs has many unfavorable characteristics for steady long-term employment. Nationally and for the past twenty-five years of study, most who get jobs do not keep them. There are four major sources of this instability: Gary Burtless 1995, pp.

  • In these successful cases, the best evidence shows an interaction of education, marriage opportunity and stability, and stability of employment Harris 1996; Wilson 1996; Jencks 2005; and Duncan, Huston, and Weisner 2007;
  • Nightingale, Demetra Smith, and Robert H.

Workfare programs do almost nothing about 12and 4and the resources are seldom available to do much about 3 — anything beyond limited assistance for child care and health care for a transition period only. Researchers agree that a substantial portion of the welfare population is simply unemployable without very expensive, long-term help, if then. If one examines the characteristics of the minority who exit from welfare, stay off welfare, and hold stable jobs for as long as a few years, one can see why it is so hard to break the revolving-door pattern of welfare dependency.

In these successful cases, the best evidence shows an interaction of education, marriage opportunity and stability, and stability of employment Harris 1996; Wilson 1996; Jencks 2005; and Duncan, Huston, and Weisner 2007.

  • Friedlander, Daniel, and Gary Burtless;
  • Manski and Irwin Garfinkel, 143—198;
  • Both the costs and the rolls can be decreased by further impoverishing poor children and their parents while increasing the long-run costs of foster care , homelessness, malnutrition, family violence, crime, the criminal-justice system, and prisons see Wilensky 2002, ch;
  • The combined income and mutual help under these unfortunately rare circumstances often moves the family above the poverty line.

Both education and work increase her chances of marrying or cohabiting with a partner who works. The combined income and mutual help under these unfortunately rare circumstances often moves the family above the poverty line. Such transitions from welfare to relatively stable work are rare because only a small minority of welfare recipients combine the necessary education, job opportunity, and the opportunity to marry a working partner Harris 1996, pp.

Almost all welfare-to-work programs in the past twenty-five years have had conflicting goals. It is misleading to declare victory when the welfare rolls have declined.

Workfare and Welfare

Consider these obvious conflicts: The number of families on welfare can be reduced at the same time that total welfare costs increase if the reduction is achieved by providing the necessary apparatus of support.

Both the costs and the rolls can be decreased by further impoverishing poor children and their parents while increasing the long-run costs of foster carehomelessness, malnutrition, family violence, crime, the criminal-justice system, and prisons see Wilensky 2002, ch.

Some women who have competitive advantages can be forced to take minimum-wage jobs without the necessary support and thereby increase child neglect. For understanding national differences in poverty reduction and the politics of the welfare state, Wilensky has found that a gross distinction between complex, most-visible means tests and simple, least-visible income tests is most useful.

It is categorical as a social right with copayments graded by income bracket and, because it is private and invisible, has no stigma. Means testing is characteristic of the United States, Britain, and other fragmented and decentralized democracies Canada, Ireland, Switzerland. They avoid overreliance on means tests and instead accent universalistic social policies and simpler income tests.

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They implement the two policy packages that are most effective in avoiding the welfare mess—family policies and active labor-market policies targeted to everyone. They have long maintained high standards for primary and secondary schools and have paid attention to the connections between education, work, low-income housing, transportation, and other infrastructure problems.

They all have national health insurance. Almost all have family policies that help all working parents to balance the demands of the labor market and parenting e. The alternative, aggressively pursued by the United States, is to accent stiff means tests for scores of separate, uncoordinated programs; to develop a large, expensive, intrusive apparatus of surveillance and harassment of the poor; and to make the welfare poor dramatically visible, the target of mass resentment and political scapegoating, and thereby make certain that funding for welfare reform will be meager and the maze of programs, ineffective.

When Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan swept California in the 1966 gubernatorial election, he sounded not only the familiar antitax, anti—social spending, antibureaucratic themes but at the same time baited welfare mothers.

In 1970, after four years in office, Governor Reagan ran and won on the same slogans: That movement culminated in eight years of the Reagan presidency and ultimately a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 with identical campaign themes—antitax, antispend, antibureaucracy combined with the complaint that immigrants and other poor racial and linguistic minorities were creating immense burdens of welfare and crime.

Populist right politicians in the United States and abroad have sounded these themes for decades. The reform of 1996 cut the rolls in half by 2000. But it was not typically accompanied by the upfront money and staff to make work mandates even modestly effective in improving the lives of welfare mothers and their children.

Only in a few states or urban areas with booming economies that have greatly increased spending and support services are there hints of success in both reducing poverty and expanding job opportunity for welfare recipients.

Neither welfare nor workfare can be done on the cheap.

The politics of welfare reform continues to block adequate funding of support services for both workfare and welfare, although workfare has for a time reduced grand-scale scapegoating of racial minorities in congressional debate.

This article is based, in part, on Wilensky, 2002, chapters 8, 10, 14, and 18. From Rhetoric to Reform. A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners. School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland. Auerbach, David Card, and John M. Huston, and Thomas S. Friedlander, Daniel, and Gary Burtless.

Friedlander, Daniel, and Judith M. Manski and Irwin Garfinkel, 143—198. Greenberg David, and Michael Wiseman. From Welfare to Work. The Poverty of Welfare Reform. New HavenCT: The Moral Construction of Poverty: Welfare Reform in America. Women, Work, and Repeat Dependency. Making Welfare Work and Work Pay: American Social Policy, 1950—1980.

Nightingale, Demetra Smith, and Robert H. Welfare Reform and the Realities of the Job Market. Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.