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Making Work Really Work For Families

August 17 2006 - The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) marks ten years since the US ended 'welfare as we know it' and moved to replace welfare dependence with 'the dignity, the power and the ethic of work'. The underlying premise of reform was that work would enable welfare recipients to move out of poverty. The reality is that too many former recipients and other low-income workers are stuck in dead end jobs without a future. Welfare changes during the 1990s helped recipients gain employment and contributed to increases in the real incomes of some working families.

Among the contributing factors were:

    a strong economy
  • expansion of the earned income tax credit
  • expansion of children's health care coverage
  • increased funding to help low-income families pay for child care
  • improvements in enforcement of child support.

Yet CLASP argues that by any real measure of family well-being, low-income parents and their children are not thriving. The reality is that too many former welfare recipients and other low-income workers are 'stuck in dead end jobs without a future'. Low-wage workers are no longer able to achieve economic security by 'working hard and playing by the rules'. Structural changes in the US economy mean that millions of people are working for wages that are too low, and at jobs that are too unstable, to allow them to escape poverty. Many workers live below the poverty line, including nearly 3 million in permanent full-time work. After an initial decline child poverty increased by 12 per cent between 2000 and 2004 (affecting 1.4 million more children).

Other barriers to achieving the goals of welfare reform remain. Those who have not left welfare struggle with low educational levels, learning disabilities, mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, domestic violence and other challenges 'that limit their ability to compete successfully in the labor market'.

CLASP points to the huge percentage of income spent on child care to enable parents to go to work. One study found that 40 per cent of poor, single, working mothers who paid for child care spent at least half of their income in this way, leaving little over for rent, food, and clothes.

CLASP states that a poorly designed, under-funded child welfare system leaves hundreds of thousands of children 'abandoned' after child welfare agencies determine they have been abused or neglected. More than 350 000 children receive no services at all. Hundreds of thousands more are in foster care waiting for a permanent home.

CLASP believes that the tenth anniversary is a time to look to the future and begin 'a national conversation' about the policies that are needed to truly help all low-income children and their families succeed. Over the next decade, every aspect of American society will need to work together towards the implementation of a holistic set of strategies that 'truly expand opportunities for low-income families to move into the middle class and achieve the American dream'.

In newly-published research focusing primarily on families of privilege, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, Heather Johnson, professor of sociology at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, finds that parents at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum believe in the ideology of the American dream, but 'the jewels in the crown' - quality education and financial success - are becoming far more elusive for the poor. 'America may well be a land of opportunity, but it's not a land of equal opportunity', she concludes.

Evelyn Ganzglass, director of workforce development at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said today:

'We need to ... talk about what we as a nation can do to help all people find work that allows them to support themselves and their families and provide them with necessary supports to help their children grow and develop into healthy adults. We ask overburdened families to do more and more and provide them with less and less support to meet the new challenges they face in raising their children.'

CLASP is contributing to the development of this new approach by promoting policy innovations in the following key areas:

  • Access to education and training to help workers prepare for jobs that pay a living wage and enable progression to sustainable higher level employment.
  • Cash assistance and help to families in overcoming barriers to employment.
  • Work supports that 'make work pay', help employment retention and strengthen families.
  • Help to families in finding and affording high quality child care from birth through school entry.
  • Supports for child care providers to ensure that they can earn a living wage.
  • Systemic approaches to reform of the child welfare system to ensure the safety, stability and well-being of children.
  • Child support systems that strengthen families, increase family income, and promote personal responsibility.
  • Strategies to help disadvantaged men secure employment, overcome job discrimination, remain engaged with their families, and lead productive lives, including those involved with the criminal justice system.
  • Integrated approaches to youth development including support in schools, alternative learning environments, and for those involved with the juvenile justice system.

Ganzglass said:

'The US cannot be competitive in the global economy with so many of our children growing up outside the economic mainstream. We must develop more inclusive social and economic policies to help low-income individuals, families, and communities contribute to, and share in, the benefits of our nation's prosperity. If welfare reform was about strengthening work ethic, today's discussions should be about the ethics of work - the dignity of adequate wages and family supports.'

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