Public Release: 

Workfare adults, working poor face economic roulette

Penn State

Working poor and working welfare recipients still face economic uncertainty because available jobs may not offer living wages, basic benefits, stable pay and hours, or future security, leaving their families exposed to crises, say researchers.

"People on welfare and people who have a job are not two distinct groups," says lead author Laura Lein, professor of social work and anthropology, University of Texas at Austin. "Many low-income single parents move back and forth between welfare and work. Their jobs do not tend to provide long-term stability."

"Many parents have temporary, part-time jobs," she adds. "Even those with full-time, low-wage jobs find it difficult to make ends meet."

Lein, Alan Benjamin of Penn State, Monica McManus of Northwestern University and Kevin Roy of Purdue University presented their findings today (Aug. 17) at the annual American Sociological Association meeting. Their research stems from an ethnographic study, which is part of a larger on-going project, "Welfare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study," where researchers at eight universities are monitoring the consequences of welfare reform on the lives of 2,400 families in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio.

Ethnographic research teams observed 254 families' day-to-day activities and the influences impacting their interactions with school, work, family and government and health care agencies. The team led by Lein analyzed data from 155 families in the group.

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act instituted the current welfare reform, with a new program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which limited the time that families can receive public assistance and installed work requirements.

The researchers found the following employment patterns in the families in the study:

  • Single jobs, which are "close to full-time," and last at least six months, but may include brief periods of lay-off or lower hours;
  • Multiple jobs - Employment through many job spells, adding up to "close to full-time;"
  • Chronic Underemployment: Consistent, part-time, low-wages, may include multiple jobs;
  • Churning: alternating employment and unemployment; often part-time and/or minimum wage;
  • Unemployment: little to no employment, may include sporadic part-time job.

"Welfare reform is based on the assumption that any job will improve a family's well-being and increase its self-sufficiency, compared with life on welfare," says co-author Benjamin, a research associate with Penn State's Population Research Institute. "But most Americans assume that a job is accompanied by enough income to support a family, a daily schedule and structure, and benefits including health insurance, sick and vacation days. But many low-income mothers find that the jobs they hold provide few, if any, of these assets."

Lein notes, "More low-income mothers on welfare are working, but they often are working without access to the safety net provided by welfare programs. The implications of unstable parental employment and a weaker safety net for children are complicated and troubling." Much of the public attention has focused on the welfare assistance program, titled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), but TANF rarely cover all needs. There is a variety of other social programs to assist low-income Americans including Food Stamps, Medicaid, Child Health Insurance Program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, child care vouchers, public housing developments and vouchers, utility assistance, and transportation assistance.

Leaving the welfare assistance program for work may result in the loss of other social welfare benefits, programs that have different eligibility criteria based on income, the researchers say.

"The network of non-TANF programs is quite complex and difficult for former recipients and service providers to understand," Lein and Benjamin add. "Some benefits are available, while others are not, so working poor constantly face challenges about providing sufficient food, clothing and other basics for themselves and their families. When crises such as illness occur, the new worker becomes more vulnerable become the wages earned from the job can't cover those extra costs."


The ethnographic study received funding from a variety of federal and private sources including: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services; Social Security Administration; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Full reports of "Wefare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study" are posted at

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