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Book questions successes of welfare reform in Oregon

University of Oregon authors focus on key perspectives and experiences, provide roadmap for changes

University of Oregon

Welfare reform initiated in the 1990s in Oregon failed to help breadwinners rise above low-wage jobs, even when the economy was thriving -- leaving needy residents struggling to find child care and housing, and keeping them relying on state supports, say University of Oregon researchers in a newly published book.

The 256-page book, "Stretched Thin: Poor Families, Welfare Work, and Welfare Reform," is based on comprehensive research conducted in the late 1990s, before the nation's deep, long-running recession added new layers of complexity. However, the impacts of the current economic crisis are incorporated into the authors' examination of welfare-reform efforts.

The book, published by the Cornell University Press, "focuses on differences in experiences, interpretations and assessments about the assumptions of welfare reform," the authors write in their introduction. Many of those families affected by welfare reform, mostly mother-headed families, the three UO authors concluded, had family budgets that "were stretched thin as they tried to get along on wages below or close to the federal poverty line."

"As more Oregon families face growing economic insecurity, it is important to examine how well Oregon's social safety net is serving struggling families," said Sandra Morgen, professor of anthropology and associate dean of the UO's graduate school. The book, she added raises questions and "the so-called success of welfare reform" when it comes to reducing poverty and economic hardship, especially in the context of high unemployment.

Co-authors with Morgen were Joan Acker, professor emeritus of sociology, and former UO graduate student Jill Weigt, now a sociologist at California State University-San Marcos.

Researchers interviewed and observed low-income families across the state, as well as welfare workers and administrators. These interviews led to enlightening new definitions of the problems facing those who work within the welfare delivery system and the people the system serves. The researchers assessed the strengths and shortcoming of welfare reform, and they suggest policy directions that will promote economic security and family well being, especially important during an economic crisis such as the one facing Oregon and the country today.

The reasons for the overall failure of welfare reform, the authors concluded, are complex and rooted in a misdiagnosis of the reasons that millions of families are poor and dependence on policy solutions "that intensified economic insecurity and reproduced inequalities more than they fostered poverty reduction or economic opportunity."

Morgen, Acker and Weigt call for an immediate effort to build a stronger social safety net and to repeal the most onerous provisions of welfare reform. They recommend a host of policies to promote economic security including a focus on developing higher wage jobs, health care reform, and access to high quality and affordable higher education, housing and child care.

"An important guiding principle of a reformed welfare 'reform' would be to focus on reducing poverty rather than welfare caseloads and to enact policies that recognize the importance of both the paid and unpaid work needed to foster the well-being of children and others who cannot care for themselves," the authors wrote.


About the University of Oregon

The University of Oregon is a world-class teaching and research institution and Oregon's flagship public university. The UO is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization made up of the 62 leading public and private research institutions in the United States and Canada. The UO is one of only two AAU members in the Pacific Northwest.

Source: Sandra Morgen, professor of anthropology, associate dean of the graduate school, 541-346-2800,

Video with Sandra Morgen:
UO anthropology department:
UO Graduate School:
Acker faculty page:
Weigt faculty page:

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