Poor women and welfare reform: working without a net
Welfare and Unemployment Insurance, considered important parts of Americans' safety net during difficult financial times, have provided little to no help for many low-wage earners who have the shortest distance to fall. Poor women in a study by Indiana University sociologist Kristin Seefeldt grew to expect this.
"For the lowest income citizens in the U.S., they have very, very limited expectations about what government could or should do for them even though they are being hit so hard by the recession," said Seefeldt, assistant professor in IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Seefeldt will discuss her findings on Saturday during the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.
The women in her study also saw the support they received from private safety nets, such as family members, diminish as the recession worsened. The women struggled with a variety of issues, such as not qualifying for public benefits despite their dire situations, red tape that appeared overly cumbersome or interfered with their jobs, and discouraging interactions with case workers. National data, Seefeldt said, has shown that cash welfare caseloads have not increased much since the recession began.
"Women have been left with nowhere else to turn but themselves," Seefeldt said. "This renders them very poor. I've found that these women often carry enormous amounts of debt, get behind on bills."
From 2006-2010 Seefeldt conducted five rounds of in-depth interviews with 39 low-income women to document the extent to which they sought out public benefits and assistance from their private networks. The women ranged in age from 19 to 61 and had on average two children at home. They were married, divorced, single and widowed. At any given time 50-60 percent of the women worked, getting paid between $8-$13 an hour. Some experienced significant pay cuts during the recession. Some worked informally as babysitters and hair-stylists but saw demand for their services drop off as the economy worsened. Almost all of the women reported having worked since they were 18 or younger.
Seefeldt said the economic downturn and recession has provided the first test of the U.S. work-based welfare reforms enacted in 1996 with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act. Poor women with children can receive cash benefits if they meet work requirements, such as working or searching for work. These work requirements have remained in place during the recession, even though jobs are scarce.
Seefeldt said these women also have trouble benefiting from the Unemployment Insurance program for a variety of reasons, such as holding seasonal jobs, not having earned enough to receive benefits, or working for employers who contest their application for benefits.
"The Unemployment Insurance system is really set up with the assumption that people work full-time year round in the same job for long periods of time and then get laid off," she said. "Unemployment Insurance hasn't kept up with the realities of the labor market where people do move around a lot."