Get a job . . .

‘Reforming’ welfare: Work enforcement

Here are the assumptions often made about welfare recipients:

  1. motivation is lacking
  2. welfare policies are to blame (hence the need for ‘reform’)–the incentive structures reward the wrong behaviors
  3. welfare recipients will be attentive students/listeners, no matter how overwhelmed (and be ‘sanctioned’ if they aren’t)

Relevant statistics:

  1. episodic nature of most welfare experiences on or off the books while getting assistance–most welfare recipients are not chronically on the welfare rolls (Edin 2015, Hays 2003)
  2. recently employed (‘churning,’ meaning in and out of work, welfare)
  3. time off vs on (welfare)–more people use it for a ‘hand up,’ (not the infamous ‘handout’)

Perhaps more rational reasons to explain most people’s situations?

E.g., what is the institutional logic of welfare reform, and whose values does it reflect?

Background of policy changes (from Edin and Shaefer 2015)

  • The cash assistance (AFDC–Aid to Families with Dependents and Children) caseload tripled between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s
  • Sweeping changes occurring during this period included:
    • (reduction in poverty as a result of anti-poverty programs;
    • globalization and ‘outsourcing’ of good-paying factory jobs;
    • declines in marriage rates and increases in divorce rates
    • increase in welfare expenditures was seen not as a way to reduce poverty, but as a drain on ‘the system’ and the enabling of welfare-dependent
  • The ‘Big Brother’ welfare philosophy held sway during the 1980s, the Reagan years.
  • Reagan used the ‘welfare queen’ example to characterize the ‘abuses’ of the system–one result was the stigmatizing welfare recipients (background here)
  • Calls to replace welfare with a more humane system that rewarded work
  • A ‘Republican revolution’ in the Congress in 1994 (the House, specifically), that led to a campaign to reform welfare rather than replace it
  • Increasing stigmatization of single parent households and the single mother
  • Passage of the Welfare Reform Act in 1996
  • Pros for the poor: Expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, increased minimum wage, child care support
  • Cons: Turned the AFDC from an ‘entitlement’ program to TANF, a ‘block grant’
  • Transformation in the growth of the low-wage work sector, coming as because millions of people–most single mothers–would be required to work to receive TANF benefits.

Background of recipients (from Hays 2003)

  • 47% lack high school diplomas 19% have had some college
  • average of two children

What sorts of obstacles to many of them face in finding and keeping jobs?

  • child care, physical/mental health implications, obligations to other family members, unforeseen expenses, low-wage/low-security employment, changing work schedules
  • transportation

Incentives and disincentives (when there’s still money in the block grants, what sorts of support services exist for recipients?). First, the good stuff:

  • childcare subsidies
  • transportation (bus tokens or gas vouchers)
  • clothing and supplies for work
  • rent and utility payments
  • income disregards (provides supplemental income up to poverty line without counting against welfare check)
  • supportive services
    • car repair money
    • prescription eyeglasses
    • deposit on new apartment
    • reconstructive dental surgery
    • this is ALL at the discretion of caseworkers (remember the concept in bureaucracy of particularism)

Disincentives–the bad stuff

  • Various bureaucratic hoops to be jumped through:
    • An initial interview
    • Documentation needed
    • Employment caseworker-another screening and interview session, which includes a literacy test, work history, and job skills assessment
  • Busy work –rules:
    • Work participation-looking for work–here are some of the requirements (picture yourself here …):
      • 40 job contacts in 30 days.
      • job offer refusal canlead to ‘sanctions’
      • ‘Job readiness’/life skills classes.
      • No job after 30 days: Time for training!
        • Work first policy (what does this mean?)
        • clerical, nurse assistant, data entry, food service, childcare, ‘guest room attendants’ (hotel maids)–this isn’t career training
        • In some cases it amounts to free training for employers
      • Still no job?? It’s time for workfare!
    • Reporting–there is a fairly constant monitoring of recipients’ cases. You must:
      • Meet with your caseworker every 30 days
      • Contact your caseworker if you miss a day or even an hour of training program or workfare placement
      • Any changes?? At all??
      • If you get a job you have a choice of continuing with benefits or closing your case.
      • The ‘Big Clock’
      • Reporting any change in employment conditions

Sanctions (know what this means)

  • What is sanctionable? Short list:
    • Failure to make job contacts, attend scheduled meeting with caseworker, go to all job readiness classes, being late for a workfare placement, not cooperating with childcare enforcement, quitting your job without good cause or getting fired because of a mistake.
    • Some caseworkers deal ONLY with sanctioned cases–this uses up a good deal of welfare agencies’ resources
    • What is sanction? Essentially, a recipient’s welfare benefits can get cut if he/she doesn’t ‘behave appropriately’
      • First sanction costs one month of benefits, the second 3 months, 3rd 6 months, etc.
      • Fear of sanctions, ignorance of rules
      • Ticking clock
      • ¼ of clients at any given time are under sanction
      • As mentioned, many don’t understand the systems of sanctions
      • strategies to avoid sanctions:
        • sit it out and wait for benefits to resume
        • ‘drift away’
        • Self-removal (bad strategy)

The big picture

  • Is this aimed at self-sufficiency, or enforced work? Are the two compatible?
  • Compliance, deference to employer, the work ethic–this is what recipients are learning
  • Following Byzantine system of rules, sanctions.
  • Low-wage employment, work-first is the model being used
  • How is success measured?
    • Size of welfare rolls–reductions are viewed as a success–are they necessarily?
    • Employment of TANF recipients–states lose federal funds if their job placement statistics go down.
  • Let’s look at some other statistics:
    • Those off welfare experienced more material hardships than those on welfare
    • Feminization of poverty-single mothers’ population increasing while their incomes are declining (by $600/yr in 1990s)
    • Lots of churning, people in and out of poverty–maybe 20% achieve relatively permanent stability–can you predict what these 20% might look like?
  • Are we just shifting dependency-on men, low-wage employers, extended family members, friends, private or non-profits, etc.?
  • The ticking clock instills the fear factor–in a sense it’s the bank account for the poor. And many states have their own clocks with different timelines. Imagine two giant ticking clocks.
  • Administrative jargon, terms such as ‘enhanced disregards,’ supportive services, transitional, and differences between federal and state requirements, complicate recipients’ abilities to be knowledgeable and avoid sanctions. Is this perhaps intentional?
  • Anything wrong with this picture?