Workfare and Welfare

views updated

Workfare and Welfare






Workfare in its narrowest definition is mandatory “work for benefits”—for government cash and services. In its strongest and broadest applications it is part of a larger array of means-tested benefits that are prominent in the Anglo-American democracies but most developed in the United States. The American welfare system consists of inadequate benefits and income for poor families, significant inequities in the flow of cash and services, heavy reliance on means testing, and extensive monitoring for welfare fraud, which inspires an expensive, time-consuming apparatus of investigation and surveillance—a bewildering array of programs and agencies that recipients must negotiate when they need help. Although much exaggerated, some work disincentives are part of the welfare system, especially America’s unique avoidance of national health insurance (welfare recipients who receive Medicaid targeted to the poor eventually lose coverage if they go to work). Added to inadequacy, inequity, punitiveness, and inefficiency is an unfortunate lack of fiscal and policy control. All this constitutes a welfare mess that makes the nonworking, nonaged, nondisabled poor highly visible and unpopular, easy targets for scapegoating (Wilensky 2002, ch. 10). The mobilization of fear and resentment, in turn, provokes mass backlash against “welfare” and recurrent attempts to reform public assistance under such tough-sounding slogans as “workfare” and “end welfare as we know it.” It also blocks the formation of a stable congressional coalition to fund the alternative policies most rich democracies have adopted, especially family policies and active labor-market policies.

For several centuries of modernization every generation has discovered its own undeserving poor or “dangerous classes.” Modern debates about the causes of poverty— personal moral failure or lack of opportunity—are as old as the English Poor Laws of the sixteenth century. The welfare reform bill of 1996 (“Temporary Assistance for Needy Families”) is merely one more episode in a long cycle of crackdowns on the poor followed by reforms to ease up a bit. Even the harshest of them all, the British Poor Law of 1834, was quickly followed by strong criticism. The critics noted that it did not distinguish between the non-working poor who receive poor relief and the more deserving poor who did not; or that it undermined incentives to obey the work ethic; or that it lumped together the worthy and unworthy in a miserable poorhouse, where criminals, alcoholics, women, mothers, children, infants, the aged, and the sick were jammed together and where brutality and corruption were common. Serving later as Conservative prime minister from 1874 to 1880, Benjamin Disraeli complained that the Poor Law Reform Bill of 1834 made it “a crime to be poor”—an idea echoed by today’s liberals who are repelled by the “conservative” urge to punish the poor for their poverty. The principles of Elizabethan poor law—direct aid for the unemployed, work (or the workhouse or almshouse, or prison) for the able bodied, and local administration that would keep welfare benefits below the lowest wage and thus provide incentives to work— persist to this day in the United States (Handler 1995, pp. 12 ff.).

This never-ending cycle is most prominent in the Anglo-American democracies, which rely most heavily on means-tested benefits targeted to the poor (Wilensky 2002, Table 8.3). The cycle occurs around a long-term upward trend toward more cash and services for the poor as modern democracies became quite rich, but there is no doubt that since the mid-1990s the United States has been in a phase of getting tough on welfare. The welfare reforms of 1996 and 2006, accenting workfare, are the latest expression of that mood.

In the intensity of political fuss about it, the welfare mess is peculiarly American, but in its broad outlines it is shared by several other countries that rely heavily on meanstested programs and have high rates of poverty (United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland). The American welfare mess is perpetuated first by politicians who use welfare mothers (in the public image they are racial minorities) as convenient scapegoats who are somehow responsible for problems of racial conflict, crime, family breakup, illegitimacy, budget deficits, and moral rot; and second, by the limited political capacity to reduce poverty by other more universal means—by education, active labor-market and family policies, and fiscal policy. It will last as long as the United States maintains a high rate of poverty and inequality and succumbs to polarized politics in government.

For decades workfare advocates have marketed a misleading stereotype of an epidemic of teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and parenthood—a picture of very young, black, never-married mothers, living in an inner-city ghetto, who are permanently welfare dependent and receive generous benefits, an incentive to have many children who will perpetuate welfare dependency across generations. This picture has been widely circulated in a spate of books sponsored by neoconservative think tanks (e.g., Charles Murray’s 1984 Losing Ground). Research, however, has shown that welfare benefits in the United States are anything but generous; on average they have eroded while eligibility rules tightened. Neither the level nor the trend of welfare benefits has any relation to fertility rates. In fact, in size and fertility trend welfare families are like nonwelfare families. In attitudes, welfare mothers embrace the work ethic as much as the nonwelfare population. The welfare population is heterogeneous in race and ethnicity, physical and mental health, and the number and age of children. About half of welfare mothers are white, about a third are black, a fifth Hispanic. Very few are teenagers, though most are young. Poor single mothers with enormous deficits in human capital are overrepresented among welfare recipients. What welfare parents frequently pass on to their children is not welfare status but poverty and all its pathologies.


Because work-for-benefits—the core of 1996 welfare reform—has a long history and in one form or another has been evaluated systematically since the late 1970s (e.g., Friedlander and Gueron 1992, Table 4.1), it is possible to summarize what has become a consensus of the experts. By the single criterion of cutting the rolls, workfare with strong sanctions—certain time limits for all welfare benefits if work is not obtained—can be effective. For instance, if the sole concern is removing people from the rolls under a deadline, considerable success can be achieved with a week or two of orientation, followed by sanctions if any job at all is refused. A credible threat to cut off welfare will also encourage a substantial percentage of welfare recipients who already work off the books to disappear from the rolls. If at the same time the country is blessed with an economy that is booming (as it was in the 1993–1999 period), the result is a fine cost/benefit ratio for such tough workfare rules—so long as one does not follow the people who have moved from welfare to work too long or worry about how much they earn. But if the aim is to prepare the typical welfare family (a mother with young children, little education, little job experience, and other handicaps) for stable employment in the real world of work and not merely perpetuate the longstanding pattern of alternating or simultaneous low-wage temporary work and welfare, policymakers must get serious about expensive education and training, placement, wage subsidies, job creation, counseling, child care, housing, transportation, rehabilitation of those on drugs or alcohol or who are mentally ill, and more.

Some of the most sophisticated evaluation research ever done has been focused on these programs. Using a variety of methods and research designs, mostly social experiments where a group exposed to a particular workfare program is compared to a randomly selected control group, an army of researchers has descended upon these welfare clients to assess outcomes. (See especially the reports, summaries, and critical assessments by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation and academic researchers: Gueron and Pauly 1991; Handler and Hasenfeld 1991, chapter 5; Burghardt et al. 1992; Friedlander and Gueron 1992; Greenberg and Wiseman 1992; Bane and Ellwood 1994; Riccio, Friedlander, and Freedman 1994; Fried-lander and Burtless 1995; Cong. Rec. 1995; Nightingale, Smith, and Haveman 1995; Harris 1996; Besharov, Germanis, and Rossi, 1997; Miller et al. 1997; Blank 2006; and Jencks 2005.)

Here is a brief summary of findings on which almost all researchers agree:

  1. In implementing work-focused mandates, states show substantial variation in their degree and kind of success.
  2. If researchers compare welfare recipients who are subjected to (varied) welfare-to-work mandates with control groups who are not and measure the respective earnings gains over anywhere from a few months to five years, the workfare programs on average do show modest relative earnings gains for the workfare participants.
  3. Obviously, different program packages have different outcomes. Especially effective in decreasing welfare spending are short-term measures. Job clubs, a week or two of charm school (how to dress, how to show deference and enthusiasm in an interview, etc.), and a little help in job search can move many people into jobs quickly (on average raising the percentage of people who find a job by a modest five percentage points); it can also save taxpayers money. But such quick solutions do not improve job quality and job stability, nor succeed with the more disadvantaged. In varying amounts, some workfare programs add more expensive skills training, basic education, counseling, job creation, and other work supports. These appear to produce better jobs for some people and probably make a greater long-term difference in earnings. Workfare does not work on the cheap.
  4. The population targeted by welfare-to-work programs has many unfavorable characteristics for steady long-term employment. Nationally and for the past twenty-five years of study, most who get jobs do not keep them. There are four major sources of this instability: (1) The job pays close to the minimum wage—and the former or current welfare recipient cannot support a family on it. (2) Jobs are dead end because most welfare recipients lack education, basic literacy and numeracy, and skills necessary for moving up. Gary Burtless (1995, pp. 77–78) found that among twenty-five-year-old respondents to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth who had received welfare in all of the previous twelve months, 72 percent scored in the bottom quarter of the Armed Forces Qualification Test. JudithGueron(1995, p.5)notes that a survey of people who were targeted for the JOBS program “shows that between a quarter and half lacked prior work experience, at least a third had extremely low literacy skills, and more than a quarter said they could not participate … because they or their child had a health or emotional problem.” The survey excludes AFDC recipients who were not currently subject to the

    JOBS work mandate because of still worse handicaps. (3) There are well-known disincentives built into the system—the welfare recipients typically lose Medicaid and related benefits when they leave welfare, and their low-wage, high-turnover jobs seldom provide any or adequate benefits. (4) Labor markets turn down in an industry, area, or national slump. Workfare programs do almost nothing about (1), (2), and (4), and the resources are seldom available to do much about (3)— anything beyond limited assistance for child care and health care for a transition period only. Researchers agree that a substantial portion of the welfare population is simply unemployable without very expensive, long-term help, if then.

    If one examines the characteristics of the minority who exit from welfare, stay off welfare, and hold stable jobs for as long as a few years, one can see why it is so hard to break the revolving-door pattern of welfare dependency. In these successful cases, the best evidence shows an interaction of education, marriage opportunity and stability, and stability of employment (Harris 1996; Wilson 1996; Jencks 2005; and Duncan, Huston, and Weisner 2007). Even a modest amount of education improves the welfare mother’s chances of securing stable work. Both education and work increase her chances of marrying or cohabiting with a partner who works. Education and partnering to a stable worker, in turn, improve the mother’s chances to stay off welfare, gain additional education, and maintain employment. The combined income and mutual help under these unfortunately rare circumstances often moves the family above the poverty line. Such transitions from welfare to relatively stable work are rare because only a small minority of welfare recipients combine the necessary education, job opportunity, and the opportunity to marry a working partner (Harris 1996, pp. 420–423)

  5. The final conclusion from the workfare evaluations is that staffing is weak for the purpose of training, job development, placement, and work support. At the root of the problems is America’s lack of an active labor-market policy—for example, training and rehabilitation, placement, counseling, work-study programs, mobility incentives, wage subsidies, and job creation (Wilensky 2002, pp. 100–108, 706–707).

Almost all welfare-to-work programs in the past twenty-five years have had conflicting goals. It is misleading to declare victory when the welfare rolls have declined. Consider these obvious conflicts: The number of families on welfare can be reduced at the same time that total welfare costs increase if the reduction is achieved by providing the necessary apparatus of support. Both the costs and the rolls can be decreased by further impoverishing poor children and their parents while increasing the long-run costs of foster care, homelessness, malnutrition, family violence, crime, the criminal-justice system, and prisons (see Wilensky 2002, ch. 14, for evidence of these connections). Some women who have competitive advantages can be forced to take minimum-wage jobs without the necessary support and thereby increase child neglect. In short, the goals of reducing the rolls and cost cutting, dominant in “welfare reform” since the mid-1990s, conflict with the goals of reducing child poverty, moving welfare recipients into stable jobs with above-poverty earnings and prospects for advancement, and improving the economic base for stable family life and even marriage.


What explains the limited funding and impact of workfare is the politics of American “welfare” in particular and of means-tested programs in general. For understanding national differences in poverty reduction and the politics of the welfare state, Wilensky has found that a gross distinction between complex, most-visible means tests and simple, least-visible income tests is most useful. Means testing refers to (1) noncategorical benefits targeted to the poor via a stiff income and/or assets test; (2) applied by welfare administrators with substantial discretion; (3) with a high probability of stigma. “Income-testing” is the opposite. It is categorical as a social right with copayments graded by income bracket and, because it is private and invisible, has no stigma.

Means testing is characteristic of the United States, Britain, and other fragmented and decentralized democracies (Canada, Ireland, Switzerland). In contrast are most “corporatist” democracies of continental Europe with more centralized, consensual bargaining arrangements among government, labor, management, and strong political parties, especially those with cumulative labor-left power. They avoid overreliance on means tests and instead accent universalistic social policies and simpler income tests. They implement the two policy packages that are most effective in avoiding the welfare mess—family policies and active labor-market policies targeted to everyone. They have long maintained high standards for primary and secondary schools and have paid attention to the connections between education, work, low-income housing, transportation, and other infrastructure problems. They all have national health insurance. Almost all have family policies that help all working parents to balance the demands of the labor market and parenting (e.g., child care, including universal preschool and day-care centers, before- and after-school leisure centers; short workdays for parents, parental leave, home help or long-term care for the frail elderly, pensions with flexible retirement). In other words, these countries have recognized that the long list of measures needed to move people from welfare out of poverty, and, where possible, to work, is the same as the list of policies needed to improve the lives of the nonwelfare population—the working poor and the celebrated “middle class.” The benevolent side-effect of universal social policies has been to prevent the political mobilization of the middle class white voters with high school or part-college education against the poor (see Wilensky 2002, pp. 375–378).

The alternative, aggressively pursued by the United States, is to accent stiff means tests for scores of separate, uncoordinated programs; to develop a large, expensive, intrusive apparatus of surveillance and harassment of the poor; and to make the welfare poor dramatically visible, the target of mass resentment and political scapegoating, and thereby make certain that funding for welfare reform will be meager and the maze of programs, ineffective.


In a systematic study of tax revolts in nineteen rich democracies, it proved impossible to separate antitax, anti–social spending, antibureaucratic protest movements and parties from nativist, xenophobic, or racist protests; these two themes appear together in all the high-scoring countries (Wilensky 2002, pp. 373–378). When Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan swept California in the 1966 gubernatorial election, he sounded not only the familiar antitax, anti–social spending, antibureaucratic themes but at the same time baited welfare mothers. He brought the house down when he asserted that welfare recipients are on a “prepaid lifetime vacation plan.” (A careful survey experiment shows that voters hear these as code words for black welfare poor; see Gilens 1996.) In 1970, after four years in office, Governor Reagan ran and won on the same slogans: “We are fighting the big-spending politicians who advocate a welfare state, the welfare bureaucrats whose jobs depend on expanding the welfare system, and the cadres of professional poor who have adopted welfare as a way of life” (The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 1970). As president, Reagan repeatedly referred to mythical “welfare queens” as symbols of welfare fraud and abuse. That movement culminated in eight years of the Reagan presidency and ultimately a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 with identical campaign themes—antitax, antispend, antibureaucracy combined with the complaint that immigrants and other poor racial and linguistic minorities were creating immense burdens of welfare and crime. Populist right politicians in the United States and abroad have sounded these themes for decades.


The history of welfare reform in the United States since the 1960s is one of increasingly tough talk about the evils of welfare dependency or the need to “make the tough decisions” to save money combined with strident demands that states and localities put huge numbers of welfare recipients to work. The reform of 1996 cut the rolls in half by 2000. But it was not typically accompanied by the upfront money and staff to make work mandates even modestly effective in improving the lives of welfare mothers and their children. Only in a few states or urban areas with booming economies that have greatly increased spending and support services are there hints of success in both reducing poverty and expanding job opportunity for welfare recipients.

Neither welfare nor workfare can be done on the cheap. The outcome of “welfare-to-workfare” policies for those who entered the programs since 1996 is typically a move from welfare poverty to unstable working poverty. The politics of welfare reform continues to block adequate funding of support services for both workfare and welfare, although workfare has for a time reduced grand-scale scapegoating of racial minorities in congressional debate.

This article is based, in part, on Wilensky, 2002, chapters 8, 10, 14, and 18.

SEE ALSO Education, Racial Disparities; Labor Market; Nativism; Social Welfare States; Underemployment.


Bane, Mary Jo, and David Ellwood. 1994. Welfare Realities: From Rhetoric to Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Besharov, Douglas J., Peter Germanis, and Peter H. Rossi. 1997. Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners. College Park, MD: School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland.

Blank, Rebecca M. 2006. “What Did the 1990s Welfare Reform Accomplish?” In Poverty, the Distribution of Income and Public Policy, edited by Alan J. Auerbach, David Card, and John M. Quigley. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Burghardt, John, Anu Rangarajan, Anne Gordon, and Ellen Kisker. 1992. Evaluation of the Minority Female Single Parent Demonstration. Summary Report. Vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

Burtless, Gary. 1995. “Employment Prospects of Welfare Recipients.” In The Work Alternative: Welfare Reform and the Realities of the Job Market, edited by Demetra Smith Nightingale and Robert H. Haveman, 71–106. Washington DC: Urban Institute Press.

Duncan, Greg J., Aletha C. Huston, and Thomas S. Weisner. 2007. Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Friedlander, Daniel, and Gary Burtless. 1995. Five Years After: The Long-Term Effects of Welfare-to-Work Programs. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Friedlander, Daniel, and Judith M. Gueron. 1992. “Are High-Cost Services More Effective than Low-Cost Services?” In Evaluating Welfare and Training Programs, edited by Charles F. Manski and Irwin Garfinkel, 143–198. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilens, Martin. 1996. “’Race Coding’s and White Opposition to Welfare.” American Political Science Review 90 (3): 593–604.

Greenberg David, and Michael Wiseman. 1992. What Did the Work-Welfare Demonstrations Do? Discussion Paper #969-92. Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Gueron, Judith M., and Edward Pauly. 1991. From Welfare to Work. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Handler, Joel F. 1995. The Poverty of Welfare Reform. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

———, and Yeheskel Hasenfeld. 1991. The Moral Construction of Poverty: Welfare Reform in America. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Harris, Kathleen Mullan. 1996. “Life After Welfare: Women, Work, and Repeat Dependency.” American Sociological Review 61 (3): 407–426.

Jencks, Christopher. 2005. “What Happened to Welfare?” New York Review of Books December 15: 76–81, 86.

Miller, Cynthia, Virginia Knox, Patricia Auspos, et al. 1997. Making Welfare Work and Work Pay: Implementation and 18-Month Impacts of the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services.

Murray, Charles A. 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. New York: Basic Books.

Nightingale, Demetra Smith, and Robert H. Haveman, eds. 1995. The Work Alternative: Welfare Reform and the Realities of the Job Market. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Riccio, James, Daniel Friedlander, and Stephen Freedman. 1994. GAIN: Benefits, Costs, and Three-Year Impacts of a Welfare-to-Work Program: California’s Greater Avenues for Independence Program. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Testimony of Judith M. Gueron, president, Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. Congressional Record, 104th Cong., 1st sess., March 20. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995.

Wilensky, Harold L. 2002. Rich Democracies: Political Economy, Public Policy, and Performance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.

Harold L. Wilensky