Stretched Thin

Stretched Thin: Poor Families, Welfare Work, and Welfare Reform

Sandra Morgen
Joan Acker
Jill Weigt
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    Stretched Thin
    Book Description:

    When the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act became law in 1996, the architects of welfare reform celebrated what they called the new "consensus" on welfare: that cash assistance should be temporary and contingent on recipients' seeking and finding employment. However, assessments about the assumptions and consequences of this radical change to the nation's social safety net were actually far more varied and disputed than the label "consensus" suggests.

    By examining the varied realities and accountings of welfare restructuring, Stretched Thin looks back at a critical moment of policy change and suggests how welfare policy in the United States can be changed to better address the needs of poor families and the nation. Using ethnographic observations, in-depth interviews with poor families and welfare workers, survey data tracking more than 750 families over two years, and documentary evidence, Sandra Morgen, Joan Acker, and Jill Weigt question the validity of claims that welfare reform has been a success. They show how poor families, welfare workers, and welfare administrators experienced and assessed welfare reform differently based on gender, race, class, and their varying positions of power and control within the welfare state.

    The authors document the ways that, despite the dramatic drop in welfare rolls, low-wage jobs and inadequate social supports left many families struggling in poverty. Revealing how the neoliberal principles of a drastically downsized welfare state and individual responsibility for economic survival were implemented through policies and practices of welfare provision and nonprovision, the authors conclude with new recommendations for reforming welfare policy to reduce poverty, promote economic security, and foster shared prosperity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5908-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    In December 1998, a group of executive staff of Oregon’s welfare agency, Adult and Family Services (AFS), traveled across the state to meet with groups of welfare workers in order to present important changes in agency priorities and explain their planned strategy for the upcoming legislative session. On December 10, at one of these meetings, over one hundred welfare workers spent several hours of a work afternoon in an auditorium listening to a highly orchestrated presentation by the agency’s top leadership. With the full agency leadership team present, there was no doubt that this was an important event. The meeting...

    (pp. 1-18)

    When the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) became law on August 22, 1996,¹ its architects celebrated what they called the new “consensus” on welfare: that cash assistance should be temporary and contingent on recipients’ seeking and finding employment. Framing the policy as consensual ignored the inconvenient truths that many policy makers and antipoverty advocates disapproved of welfare “reform” and that precious few of those most directly affected had much opportunity to weigh in on this radical change in the nation’s social safety net. Then, as now, assessments about the assumptions and consequences of welfare “reform” were far...

    (pp. 19-31)

    To understand welfare restructuring in the late 1990s, it is important to understand the history of the contested but fundamental interconnections among an evolving capitalism, poverty, and assistance to the poor. This context is essential to make sense of the political energy and rhetorical excess that often propel public discussions of the poor by the more affluent. This brief detour into history is also important background for sorting out the complexity of positions that seek to define good public policy: how much, in what forms, and under what conditions should public assistance be given to the poor (Polanyi 1957). Social...

  7. 2 VELVET GLOVES, IRON FISTS, AND ROSE-COLORED GLASSES: Welfare Administrators and the Official Story of Welfare Restructuring
    (pp. 32-63)

    The “official story” of welfare restructuring—that is, the narrative that has been widely circulated to the public—has been largely written by and from the perspective of the State¹ actors who promoted, legislated, and/or implemented welfare “reform” and have declared it to be a policy “success.” Welfare administrators, especially those who lead their agencies or work at the state level, always play key roles in the public policy processes that impact their agencies, mainly as they shape the framing, implementing, organizing, and assessing of what it means to “do welfare” everyday. Welfare administrators work at the nexus of complex,...

  8. 3 DOING THE WORK OF WELFARE: Enforcing “Self-Sufficiency” on the Front Lines
    (pp. 64-83)

    Like a majority of case managers at the three branches we studied, Adult and Family Services (AFS) case managers Elena Lopez and Donald Henderson embraced the ideology of welfare “reform.” All the while, however, they were experiencing a dramatic shift in their own work of welfare provision. Like all case managers in the Oregon system, they were required to navigate a multidimensional process of transforming beliefs in individual responsibility and the primacy of paid work into daily practices that are geared to produce caseload reduction, employment, and self-sufficiency among this country’s most economically vulnerable families. As Elena’s and Donald’s comments...

    (pp. 84-110)

    Welfare restructuring is not simply the straightforward implementation of policies and practices, but a continual negotiation, an active (if not always intentional) navigation between the principles embodied in welfare “reform” and the on-the-ground realities of workers’ and clients’ circumstances. In navigating the difficult terrain of helping clients within the constraining network of “workfirst” bureaucratic rules and political-economic realities, workers faced a number of contradictions: self-sufficiency versus low-wage work, choice versus coercion, helping versus enabling, work versus family and unpaid care work, diversity versus inequity, and empowerment versus regulation. Workers openly recognized some of these contradictions while others remained implicit. Moreover,...

  10. 5 THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DESK: Client Experiences and Perspectives on Welfare Restructuring
    (pp. 111-143)

    Betty Wooten, an African American fifty-year-old mother, is employed full-time as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at a residential home for the elderly. Her minimum wage job barely allows her to make ends meet, even with the small check she receives from Social Security, because her ex-husband’s illness prevents him from working. Over the past twenty years, she has worked mainly as a CNA, turning to public assistance when she did not have a job or after the births of her children. She has endured years of economic hardship, and her troubles continued unabated over the two years of this...

  11. 6 LIFE AFTER WELFARE: The Costs of Low-Wage Employment
    (pp. 144-177)

    Delores James, a white single mother in her early twenties, was raising her school–aged child in an urban community. Like most other women and men we interviewed, her relationship to welfare, employment, and family was fluid, changing as she tried to make ends meet while being what she considered to be a “good mother,” coping with the trying conditions of poverty. For six years she received varying combinations of TANF, Food Stamps, Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid), and child care assistance either while she was working or between jobs. At the time of our final interview with her, she was...

    (pp. 178-204)

    Welfare reform failed to give the majority of mother-headed families receiving public assistance in Oregon meaningful self-sufficiency; that is, secure employment with earnings sufficient to meet family needs. Most of their family budgets were stretched thin as they tried to get along on wages below or close to the federal poverty line. By further shredding the country’s already tattered safety net, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) promoted greater economic insecurity, reduced women’s social citizenship rights, and undermined, for many, their ability to care for their families in ways consistent with what they believed was good for their children. This...

    (pp. 205-208)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 209-218)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-232)
  16. Index
    (pp. 233-238)