Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
The main purpose of this country's public assistance system is to ensure basic income support for poor children. Debate about the system has been long-lasting and contentious, in part because provision of this support for children has often seemed impossible without also affecting the lives of their parents. Throughout much of the time the system has operated, strong doubts have been raised about whether its benefits to children work at cross-purposes with society's expectations of how parents should behave. One set of questions has centered on whether the system encourages family dissolution and out-of-wedlock births (which themselves can pose risks to children). A second set of questions, more central to the topic of this paper, asks whether the support undermines parents' work ethic.
This article traces the history of efforts to reconcile the desire to provide basic assistance to children with the perception that cash welfare discourages parents from working. That history has seen a program that was designed to help widows and abandoned wives stay home with their children subsequently transformed by policies mandating that parents take part in job training and employment programs in exchange for their benefits. The article examines the translation of these mandates into practice, questioning whether adequate attention has been paid to the funding, operation, and management of welfare-to-work programs.
Maintaining a focus on children, the article also touches on another theme. Welfare-to-work programs are intended to resolve the tension between helping children and demanding parental responsibility. By requiring mothers to work or attend training, these programs also necessitate decisions about whether and how children will be cared for outside the home. These programs face the challenge of encouraging parents to work in a way that will not expose children to harm (in poor-quality child care, for instance). A few innovative welfare agencies, briefly mentioned here, have turned this challenge into an opportunity to meet family needs by both promoting employment and supporting children's health and development, but they are the minority.
The article opens with an overview of the early history of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The next section considers how that basic cash assistance program was supplemented with efforts to establish welfare-to-work programs for recipients. Following is a brief discussion of programs that emphasize not employment but income transfers to poor families. The fourth section focuses on the Family Support Act of 1988, which until the welfare reform legislation signed in 1996 was the most recent federal law designed to engage welfare recipients in work-related activities. The article concludes with a discussion of the directions welfare-to-work policies appear likely to take as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 replaces the Family Support Act with a new set of policies and assumptions about how to structure the welfare system.