November 22, 2005


On a random suggestion from a blog comment somewhere on the internet, I started reading Jennifer Mittelstadt's From Welfare to Workfare, which, among other things, revisits the debates over welfare back in the 1950s and 1960s, when liberal reformers conceived of welfare as a form of income support for needy mothers, recognizing the value of work and the ways to support that for low-earners while trying to avoid moral hazard. All sorts of smart progressive ideas were making the rounds back then, many reaching across what's seen as the liberal-conservative divide on the subject today.

But what started as an extremely thoughtful and nuanced debate eventually went down in flames when neoconservatives hijacked it and seized on reform as a means of "rehabilitating" women who were too "dependent" on welfare—by shunting them into jobs as soon as possible. On this view, Bill Clinton's welfare reform bill in 1996 was a rousing success, since it did after all reduce welfare rolls, which, for many, seems to be a good in itself. Mittelstadt's book traces a lot of the gendered and racialized assumptions that went into this view, which deserves a post or two in itself. (Here's one short article on the topic.)

At any rate, this isn't really the place to revisit the debate over welfare reform. No doubt there will be time for that if and when Congress ever decides to reauthorize the 1996 bill (they've put it off several times already). But it was a way of introducing an interesting new paper by Susan Houseman and David Autor, which examines the temp agencies often used by states to get welfare recipients into work as soon as possible:
We find that moving welfare participants into temporary help jobs boosts their short-term earnings. But these gains are offset by lower earnings, less frequent employment, and potentially higher welfare recidivism over the next one to two years. In contrast, placements in direct-hire jobs raise participants' earnings substantially and reduce recidivism both one and two years following placement. We conclude that encouraging low-skilled workers to take temporary help agency jobs is no more effective - and possibly less effective - than providing no job placements at all.
But hey, at least welfare rolls are reduced! Sort of. No, not good. On the other hand, before getting too excited about those "direct-hire jobs" mentioned above, Harry Holzer of Brookings has argued that even in those, many lucky welfare-to-work "recipients" get stuck on the lowest rung of the job ladder, with permanently low earnings, in part because they generally get "placed" into the first job that comes along—jobs which often offer little prospect of advancement. Whether these stagnant jobs are "better" for the person in question than remaining on welfare depends—on whether, for instance, the pay and "sense of achievement," etc., outweigh the increased child care and transportation costs, increased income volatility, etc. (among a thousand other things). For some it obviously is; for many it's not.

Ideally, low-earners would find jobs with decent pay and actual upwards mobility, but those jobs aren't exactly falling off trees, so it takes time, continuous training and support, a tight employment market, and perhaps even financial incentives for decently-paying employers to hire former welfare recipients. (The 2004 Senate authorization bill actually had a provision of this sort.) But judging from the most recent welfare bill that came out of the House, though, the debate is still in the clutches of 1960s neoconservatives and their offspring, so these aren't problems we're likely to worry about anytime soon.

Continue reading "Rehabilitation"
-- Brad Plumer 9:03 PM || ||