Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Contrary to popular perceptions, many mothers leave welfare for work and do so quickly after they first receive assistance. However, as this article has shown, they face a broad range of labor market, personal, and family challenges as they make the transition from welfare to work, and many recipients lose jobs quickly. Low pay, few fringe benefits, high work expenses, instability in the low-wage labor market, low skills, lack of knowledge of workplace norms, limited problem-solving skills, and physical and emotional health problems all contribute to the job loss experienced by welfare recipients. Typical welfare programs do little to help recipients stay employed—cash assistance is terminated almost immediately, procedures for obtaining transitional child care and medical assistance are complicated, and case management services are reserved for those on the welfare rolls. Consequently, a substantial fraction of former welfare recipients end up back on the welfare rolls, where they have to wait some time before receiving the assistance they need to reenter the labor market.
Efforts to promote job retention or reemployment among mothers who have left welfare are in their infancy. This article has described two types of changes that can help former welfare recipients stay employed. First, policy changes in the way benefits are provided can ease the financial challenge of supporting a family on a low-wage job, and, second, multifaceted programs like those described can help working mothers keep jobs or find new ones. Welfare-to-work programs will have to broaden their scope to help families successfully make the transition to self-sufficiency. Community-based and workplace alternatives for assisting poor working families to manage the dual roles of provider and parent are also needed.
As the shift to time-limited, employment-focused welfare programs forces more recipients into the labor market, it will be critical to implement promising job retention strategies like these on a much larger scale and to evaluate their effects. Just as varied approaches can help welfare recipients enter the labor market, so there are likely to be multiple options for helping them stabilize their lives and family circumstances once they find employment. Successful reform of the welfare system depends not just on helping recipients find jobs, but on helping them keep the jobs they find.