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Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better

Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better: Forward-Looking Policies to Help Low-Income Families

Carolyn J. Heinrich
John Karl Scholz
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better
    Book Description:

    Work first. That is the core idea behind the 1996 welfare reform legislation. It sounds appealing, but according to Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better, it collides with an exceptionally difficult reality. The degree to which work provides a way out of poverty depends greatly on the ability of low-skilled people to maintain stable employment and make progress toward an income that provides an adequate standard of living. This forward-looking volume examines eight areas of the safety net where families are falling through and describes how current policies and institutions could evolve to enhance the self-sufficiency of low-income families. David Neumark analyzes a range of labor market policies and finds overwhelming evidence that the minimum wage is ineffective in promoting self-sufficiency. Neumark suggests the Earned Income Tax Credit is a much more promising policy to boost employment among single mothers and family incomes. Greg Duncan, Lisa Gennetian, and Pamela Morris find no evidence that encouraging parents to work leads to better parenting, improved psychological health, or more positive role models for children. Instead, the connection between parental work and child achievement is linked to parents’ improved access to quality child care. Rebecca Blank and Brian Kovak document an alarming increase in the number of single mothers who receive neither wages nor public assistance and who are significantly more likely to suffer from medical problems of their own or of a child. Time caps and work hour requirements embedded in benefits policies leave some mothers unable to work and ineligible for cash benefits. Marcia Meyers and Janet Gornick identify another gap: low-income families tend to lose financial support and health coverage long before they earn enough to access employer-based benefits and tax provisions. They propose building “institutional bridges” that minimize discontinuities associated with changes in employment, earnings, or family structure. Steven Raphael addresses a particularly troubling weakness of the work-based safety net—its inadequate provision for the large number of individuals who are or were incarcerated in the United States. He offers tractable suggestions for policy changes that could ease their transition back into non-institutionalized society and the labor market. Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better shows that the “work first” approach alone isn’t working and suggests specific ways the social welfare system might be modified to produce greater gains for vulnerable families.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-644-0
    Subjects: Business, Sociology, Economics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Chapter 1 Making the Work-Based Safety Net Work Better
    (pp. 1-22)
    Carolyn J. Heinrich and John Karl Scholz

    The idea that work is the gateway to self-sufficiency and the way out of poverty is a simple, powerful message. Work-based welfare reform aligns the structure of the safety net with the central values of Americans who are not on welfare. As R. Kent Weaver points out in his political analysis in this volume (see chapter 9), a key element of continuity in American attitudes concerning policy toward low-income families is the emphasis on and expectation that the able-bodied should work. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the safety net for disadvantaged families could fail to embrace work when...


    • Chapter 2 Alternative Labor-Market Policies to Increase Economic Self-Sufficiency: Mandating Higher Wages, Subsidizing Employment, and Increasing Productivity
      (pp. 25-78)
      David Neumark

      The principal means by which individuals and families achieve economic self-sufficiency is through labor-market earnings. As a consequence, it is natural for policymakers to look to interventions that increase the ability of individuals and families to achieve an adequate standard of living from participating in the labor market. This chapter discusses some key policies that are used or can be used to increase economic self-sufficiency by increasing earnings.

      Broadly speaking, the set of available policy options can be cast in the context of a simple supply-and-demand analysis. First, we can try to increase earnings via higher wages, by mandating a...

    • Chapter 3 On Work and Health Among the American Poor
      (pp. 79-114)
      Jayanta Bhattacharya and Peter Richmond

      The relationship between work and health is an uneasy one. For many, work is a fundamental part of their identity; their well-being depends crucially on doing fulfilling work. Unemployment can have devastating psychological and physical impacts. On the other hand, work is often stressful. Also, work may take away time or energy that would otherwise be devoted to health-promoting activities such as exercise. Papers by Christopher J. Ruhm (2000) and others suggest that, at a population level, increases in unemployment are associated with improvements in health. At the same time, losing a job is the source of much stress, which...


    • Chapter 4 Parental Pathways to Self-Sufficiency and the Well-Being of Younger Children
      (pp. 117-148)
      Greg J. Duncan, Lisa Gennetian and Pamela Morris

      The push for antipoverty programs that promote parents’ self-sufficiency by requiring or supporting employment has been building for over thirty years, since the early 1980s. Yet increasing the self-sufficiency of single parents raises some important questions about how such strategies affect the development of their children. Most important, how do children fare when their parents increase their employment? Transitions from welfare to work may benefit children by placing them in stimulating child-care settings, creating positive maternal role models, promoting maternal self-esteem and sense of control, introducing productive daily routines into family life, and, eventually, fostering career advancement and higher earnings...

    • Chapter 5 School Reforms and Improved Life Outcomes for Disadvantaged Children
      (pp. 149-182)
      David N. Figlio

      In this chapter I describe the treatment of disadvantaged families in the United States education system today, and present an economics perspective regarding the likely consequences of education reforms, both popular and less-tested, in terms of improving the life outcomes of disadvantaged children. In this chapter I concentrate on the potential education reforms where economics offers the most insight—policies concerning school spending and class size; teacher quality and teacher compensation; and other market-based policies such as school choice and school accountability. In each case I describe the rationales for the proposed policies and discuss the distributional consequences of the...


    • Chapter 6 The Impact of Incarceration on the Employment Outcomes of Former Inmates: Policy Options for Fostering Self-Sufficiency
      (pp. 185-226)
      Steven Raphael

      The United States currently incarcerates its residents at a rate that is greater than that of every other country in the world. Aggregating the state and federal prison populations as well as inmates in local jails, there were 737 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2005 (International Centre for Prison Studies 2007). This compares with a world average of 166 per 100,000 and an average among European Community member states of 135. Of the approximately 2.1 million U.S. residents incarcerated in 2005, roughly 65 percent were inmates in state and federal prisons and the remaining 35 percent were held in...

    • Chapter 7 The Growing Problem of Disconnected Single Mothers
      (pp. 227-258)
      Rebecca M. Blank and Brian K. Kovak

      A key issue in designing public safety-net programs is the inherent tension between broad coverage and incentives to move toward economic self-sufficiency. Broader coverage and more generous benefits provide more assistance in the short term to needy families and individuals, but this creates incentives for persons to utilize government assistance rather than moving into employment. Over the past fifteen years, the United States has increased the incentives for low-income adults to work more, reducing the availability and generosity of benefits for nonworking (and non-disabled) individuals. These policy changes have been connected to substantial increases in work and earnings, particularly among...


    • Chapter 8 Beyond the Safety Net: Supporting the Economic Security of Working-Poor Families
      (pp. 261-291)
      Marcia K. Meyers and Janet C. Gornick

      A persistently large share of all U.S. families with children is poor or struggling at the margins of economic security. In the United States, as in other rich industrialized countries, market income is the most important factor in families’ economic security. Families in the United States and other countries do not depend exclusively on market income, however. Governments supplement the resources of households throughout the income distribution by providing a “package” of social benefits and employment supports.

      The United States is similar to other rich industrialized countries in providing a social benefits package, for poor and nonpoor families, that includes...

    • Chapter 9 The Politics of Low-Income Families in the United States
      (pp. 292-338)
      R.Kent Weaver

      Policies for low-income families are an area of great controversy in the United States. Although “greater self-sufficiency” is almost universally seen as a desirable goal for low-income families, there is much less agreement on what “self-sufficiency” means, what the barriers are to achieving it, and what role government should play in helping families achieve it.

      Disagreements about how to improve the life prospects of low-income families often take place along partisan and ideological lines. In the short term, the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency in 2008, with increased Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, has created...

  10. Index
    (pp. 339-348)