Putting Poor People to Work

Putting Poor People to Work: How the Work-First Idea Eroded College Access for the Poor

Kathleen M. Shaw
Sara Goldrick-Rab
Christopher Mazzeo
Jerry A. Jacobs
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7758/9781610444965
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  • Book Info
    Putting Poor People to Work
    Book Description:

    Today, a college education is increasingly viewed as the gateway to the American Dream—a necessary prerequisite for social mobility. Yet recent policy reforms in the United States effectively steer former welfare recipients away from an education that could further their career prospects, forcing them directly into the workforce where they often find only low-paying jobs with little opportunity for growth. In Putting Poor People to Work, Kathleen Shaw, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Christopher Mazzeo, and Jerry A. Jacobs explore this troubling disconnect between the principles of “work-first” and “college for all.” Using comprehensive interviews with government officials and sophisticated data from six states over a four year period, Putting Poor People to Work shows how recent changes in public policy have reduced the quantity and quality of education and training available to adults with low incomes. The authors analyze how two policies encouraging work—the federal welfare reform law of 1996 and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998—have made moving people off of public assistance as soon as possible, with little regard to their long-term career prospects, a government priority. Putting Poor People to Work shows that since the passage of these “work-first” laws, not only are fewer low-income individuals pursuing postsecondary education, but when they do, they are increasingly directed towards the most ineffective, short-term forms of training, rather than higher-quality college-level education. Moreover, the schools most able and ready to serve poor adults—the community colleges—are deterred by these policies from doing so. Having a competitive, agile workforce that can compete with any in the world is a national priority. In a global economy where skills are paramount, that goal requires broad popular access to education and training. Putting Poor People to Work shows how current U.S. policy discourages poor Americans from seeking out a college education, stranding them in jobs with little potential for growth. This important new book makes a powerful argument for a shift in national priorities that would encourage the poor to embrace both work and education, rather than having to choose between the two.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-496-5
    Subjects: Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ABOUT THE AUTHORS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    In the 1996 commencement address he delivered at Princeton University, President Bill Clinton declared, “It is clear that America has the best higher education system in the world and that it is the key to a successful future in the twenty-first century. It is also clear that because of costs and other factors not all Americans have access to higher education. I want to say today that I believe the clear facts of this time make it imperative that our goal must be nothing less than to make the thirteenth and fourteenth years of education as universal to all of...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Emergence of the Work-First Prescription
    (pp. 18-36)

    Where did “work-first” come from? How did this particular philosophy gain such overwhelming acceptance and power among policymakers at all levels and with the general public? How did it displace the human-capital ideas that animated much of social policymaking in the late twentieth century and are still powerful in mainstream educational policymaking circles? Why did work-first begin to dominate discourse and practice in welfare and workforce policy? This chapter tackles these difficult questions.

    Ideas are powerful actors in the policy process. The ideas present in formal policy, more so even than formal language or mechanisms, may be reified, so that...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Welfare Reform and Access to Postsecondary Education: National Trends
    (pp. 37-63)

    When examined within a broader context of beliefs about higher education and its role in American society, it is quite remarkable that federal welfare reform so clearly discourages access to college. Postsecondary education leads to a wide array of individual and collective benefits, both monetary and nonmonetary. Scholars have found that postsecondary education is linked to higher levels of happiness and satisfaction in an array of life factors such as family, home, job, and community (Astin et al. 1997). Postsecondary education is also related to increased levels of citizen involvement, particularly with regard to voting and volunteerism (Putnam 2000). Increased...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The Implementation of Welfare Reform: Consistency and Change
    (pp. 64-96)

    The move to “end welfare as we know it” was an action formally initiated by the federal government and signed by President Bill Clinton over the objections of his two chief advisers, Mary Jo Bane and David Ellwood.¹ This new approach toward serving America’s poor was intended to be enacted across the fifty states in a “devolved” yet consistent manner. And in fact, as we have discussed in previous chapters, we have observed some real differences in the ways that states have developed their formal policies regarding access to postsecondary education and training under welfare reform. While most states clearly...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Workforce Investment Act: Investment or Disinvestment?
    (pp. 97-123)

    The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 and the 1996 welfare-reform legislation (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) are inextricably linked by an endorsement of the “work-first” ideology and a rejection of the human-capital narrative. As such, the full impact of the work-first idea on access to education and training can only be discerned by means of an examination of the implementation and impact of both policies. This and the next chapter focus specifically on WIA.

    Where welfare reform embodied one primary idea—that ending the entitlement to services and requiring work most benefits the poor—WIA was...

  10. CHAPTER SIX The Implementation of WIA: Does the Rhetoric Match the Reality?
    (pp. 124-140)

    Public policies are driven by political ideas, goals, and rhetoric, and the Workforce Investment Act is no exception. As explained in the last chapter, WIA contains two major philosophies: a work-first approach, which is designed to foster immediate attachment to the labor market without much concern about investment in education and skills; and a market-based approach to the delivery of training that utilizes accountability and customer satisfaction as means to improve both choice and quality of training. These two philosophies are in many ways contradictory: work-first is based on the premise that rapid workforce attachment is a “one-size-fits-all” solution, whereas...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The Power of Work-First: Implications and Future Trends
    (pp. 141-156)

    Julie is a twenty-year-old single white mother—demographically speaking, a typical welfare recipient.¹ She has a daughter just under two years old. In addition to working fifteen hours a week, she is enrolled in the local community college where she is pursuing an associate’s degree in education. Julie is able to do this because she lives in Illinois, a state with relatively liberal welfare policies that allows welfare recipients to pursue a limited amount of postsecondary education while receiving welfare benefits. As she talks, it becomes clear that Julie has little doubt that college is her route out of poverty....

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 157-170)
  13. REFERENCES
    (pp. 171-188)
  14. Index
    (pp. 189-206)