information for transformational people

worksign 246The dignity of work 

The welfare system in the USA is different than ours in many respects. One of these is 'welfare to work'. People with dependent children who are out of work can apply for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). 

Rules have varied over time but essentially, the program provides temporary financial assistance while aiming to get people off of that assistance, primarily through employment. There is a maximum of 60 months of benefits within one's lifetime, but there are shorter periods of grants for any one episode e.g 24 months. To qualify for benefits, recipients (with few exceptions) must work as soon as they are job ready or no later than two years after coming on assistance. Single parents are required to participate in work activities whilst receiving the benefit for at least 30 hours per week. Two-parent families must participate in work activities 35 or 55 hours a week, depending upon circumstance. Failure to participate in work requirements can result in a reduction or termination of benefits to the family.

The work activities are deemed to be:

  • normal employment,
  • subsidized private-sector employment,
  • subsidized public-sector employment,
  • work experience if sufficient private-sector employment is not available,
  • on-the-job training,
  • job search and job readiness assistance,
  • community service programs (my italics),
  • vocational educational training,
  • job skills training directly related to employment,
  • education directly related to employment (in the case of a recipient who has not received a high school diploma or a certificate of high school equivalency),
  • satisfactory attendance at secondary school or in a course of study leading to a certificate of general equivalence (if a recipient has not completed secondary school or received such a certificate) and
  • providing child care services to an individual who is participating in a community service program.

As initially envisaged, the four purposes of the TANF program are to:

  • Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes
  • Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
  • Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families

What have been the impacts?

  • Caseloads have been reduced nationally from 10.5M people in 1997 to 2.5M in 2016. This could be a combination of TANF and an increased number of jobs available.
  • The poverty rate has not declined as many people finding work have entered low paid jobs. However, child poverty has fallen especially among children of single mothers as their employment rate has surged.
  • Leavers who left welfare because of sanctions (time limits or failure to meet program requirements) fare comparably worse - they have lower employment rates than those who left welfare voluntarily.
  • Studies have produced only modest or inconsistent evidence that marital and cohabitation decisions are influenced by welfare program policies. 
  • However, the growth of out-of-wedlock childbearing has come to a near standstill.
  • Contrary to the fears of many, welfare reform and an increase in parental work do not seem to have reduced children's well-being overall. 
  • Employed welfare recipients find that work has led to higher self-esteem, new opportunities to expand their social support networks, and increased feelings of self-efficacy. Furthermore, they became less socially isolated and potentially less prone to depression.
  • However, many women were experiencing stress and exhaustion from trying to balance work and family responsibilities.

Here is one woman's story who was on TANF. It forms part of a chapter in a book, 'For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty' from the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE). This offers contributions from 12 leading Christian economists, theologians, historians, and practitioners which equip Christians with both a solid biblical and economic understanding of how best to care for the poor and foster sustainable economic development.
Elizabeth “Cookie” Jones, used to be a longtime welfare recipient in a D.C. public-housing project. A friend of Elizabeth also on welfare suggested that Elizabeth, then twenty-seven years old and the mother of three elementary school children by three different men, was making a mistake by going to work. The reason: “Your kids are raising themselves”—and that would ruin them in the long run.

Elizabeth found a job but then “faced a choice: Ice the job, reclaim the welfare check, walk the kids home from school. Or keep the job and risk the kids.” Elizabeth decided to work because her mother had gone on welfare after having a child at age seventeen, and Jones had done the same – but she now vowed to break that pattern, “or I’ll die trying.”

Elizabeth, in short, was a purpose-driven heroine facing huge obstacles, including the bad public schools in her poor part of the District.

Five years later, she had become a police officer, even though her children didn’t like it: “They think she’ll get hurt. She fears they’ll get hurt if she gives it up.”

The positive benefits that a mother is going to get from work—self-esteem and exposures to mainstream culture, the benefits of higher education – those are real benefits. But family life in the short-term isn’t very pretty.

Elizabeth persevered in police work: She now has fifteen years on the job. Looking back over the years and thinking about her original decision to go from welfare to work, she said, "I knew I had to do something. It’s always been hard—from day one."

Elizabeth’s initial job off welfare left her with fewer dollars than the friend who remained on welfare received. But she persevered, garnered increases in responsibility and salary, and raised three children, who are all in their twenties and doing well. She said her move off welfare helped her children “tremendously. They’re not in jail, they’re productive members of society, and they’re responsible.”

One is a college graduate. A second is in the Navy, is married and has a son. Her youngest child went to college for two years and is now working.

A while ago, Elizabeth saw her friend who remained on welfare for her children’s sake, but the two did not talk long because “the vibe wasn’t really pleasant.” Elizabeth says one of her friend’s sons was killed on the Washington streets.

I'd like to pick up on the theme of dignity of work.

"From the beginning man is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work." Pope John Paul II.

Nothing offers a fuller sense of satisfaction than a task well-performed. Inherent in who we are as humans is the need for a person to contribute to his or her family or neighbourhood or culture in a discernible way. This is what separates us from animals but also is what gives us dignity. Part of our dignity as created beings made in God's image. With 'work', we participate in God’s plan for man on earth and elevate each day’s work in such a way that it actually becomes worship.

When we create a culture where safety nets become traps, we are denying dignity to each and every person caught in the trap. Are we withholding an opportunity for each and every person to participate fully in God’s plan. Should benefits be linked to an expectation of appropriate work?

If a person is on certain benefits and cannot participate in training or find a job, helping a community service programme could be a great option. There is also a feeling of reprosity - of helping those who are helping them and also a strengthening of community. This may also help improve services and benefit the community further.

See also the article 'A sign that read: “Want a Job. Anything Helps.”'

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Geoff Knott, 10/10/2017

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