Work and Family Life

We are start our consideration of employment and family life with a consideration of work.  This will allow us to carry over the aspects of culture that we did not get the opportunity to unpack in previous class periods.

Proposals to foster work and strengthen low-income families have clustered around four general approaches:

1) Enforcing or incentivizing work: Popular on the right, these proposals entail curtailing eligibility for benefits, lowering the level of support benefits provide, and adding additional requirements to compel work, such as mandatory job searches or work activity.  Liberals prefer to add incentives like earnings disregards (recipients get to keep a some of their benefits along with earnings), transportation vouchers, and child care subsidies.

2) Enhancing human capital: These approaches tend to be found in liberal proposals.  They include job training, and skill development, literacy classes, but, in real-world legislation, can be paired with punitive measures enforcing work when job training is made mandatory.

3) Strengthening families: These approaches can be found in liberal and conservative forms, and as long as they are not too punitive, they tend to attract bipartisan support — grants for programs that teach fathers to become more involved in the lives of their children and that encourage couples to get married and stay married.  On the other hand, proposals like barring additional benefits for additional children (family caps), requiring women to name the fathers of their children to receive benefits, or rigorous enforcement of child support (where the state rather than the mother receives most of the collection) are supported almost exclusively by conservatives.

4) Economic development: Community development block grants, enterprise zones, tax breaks for businesses locating to disadvantaged areas — Liberals like these types of proposals though they can attract the support of economic conservatives when they offer incentives aimed at businesses rather than grants for non-business related community development.

According to many conservative thinkers of the 1980s and 1990s, the best way to end poverty is for people to do two things: 1) work, and 2) get married, and especially to get married before having children.  Moreover, according thinkers Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead, efforts to help the poor by creating generous income support programs are actually counterproductive because they remove the imperative to work.  They reward people who make no effort to better themselves, and therefore, they make those people who are working look like chums.  So, like Banfield, Murray and Mead would argue that culture matters, but like Wilson and Massey and Denton, they would say that culture isn’t some innate characteristic of a person — like how future-oriented he or she is.  It grows out of structure — In this case, however, the structure that gives rise to pathological behavior is the modern welfare state.

The 1996 welfare reform law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, PRWORA) grew out of the writings of Murray and Mead.  If you don’t know much about PRWORA, see the CQ articles below.

Before we critique PRWORA, it is useful to think about the role that employment plays in structuring family and community life.  Our readings for today focus on work among men in low-income communities.  As you read these articles, give some thought to these questions:

What is the primary barrier to the employment of low-income men?  Wilson and his students first popularized the theory of spatial mismatch: the people are not where the areas of job growth are, thus disadvantaging anyone who doesn’t have a car.  However, are there additional barriers that the readings shed light on?

How does the lack of work affect people beyond the individual men who are unemployed?  How does it affect the relationship family life, in particular, the relationship that the men have with their children and the mothers of their children?  How is the fabric of a community affected when a large proportion of men do not work?  What do the men do instead with their time?

The readings we have done so far discuss the role that culture plays in trapping people into poverty even after formal or legal barriers to integration and advancement have been lifted.  Do these readings support or refute those arguments?


On the effect of the recession on the poor and the safety net:

  • Peter Katel’s “Straining the Safety Net: Is Joblessness Overwhelming Aid Programs?” (2009) *
  • Thomas Billitteri, “Domestic Poverty: Is a New Approach Needed to Help the Poorest Americans?” (2007, updated 2011) *

On welfare reform and other anti-poverty initiatives:

  • Sarah Glazer, “Welfare Reform: Are Former Recipients Better Off Today?” (2001) *
  • Peter Katel, “Minimum Wage: Would Raising the Minimum Reduce Poverty?” (2005) *
  • Mary Cooper, “The Working Poor: Will Funding Cuts Make Their Future Grimmer?” (1995) *
  • Kathy Koch, “Child Poverty: Did Welfare Reform Help Poor Children?” (2000) *

Michael Stoll, “Geographic Skills Mismatch, Job Search, and Race,” from the Institute for Research on Poverty * – This article attempts to examine how much spatial mismatch matters in terms of explaining joblessness among different racial groups of the poor (black, white, and Hispanic) relative to other explanations of joblessness, such as lack of skills.

  • Alford Young, “On the Outside Looking In: Low-Income Black Men’s Conceptions of Work Opportunity and the Good Job,” from Sheldon Danzinger and Ann Chih Lin, eds., Coping with Poverty *
  • Andrew Reaves, “Black Male Employment and Self-Sufficiency,” from Sheldon Danzinger and Ann Chih Lin, eds., Coping with Poverty *