Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Realistic Expectations About Employment
Though the job prospects of most welfare recipients are poor, it is reasonable to expect that the percentage of recipients who hold jobs can be boosted. Employment rates among current and former AFDC recipients are quite low. Among NLSY respondents who collected AFDC benefits between 1979 and 1981, only 50% held jobs in 1984. The employment rate was 84% among respondents the same age who did not collect AFDC.18 In spite of the obstacles they face in finding jobs, some welfare recipients permanently leave the AFDC rolls within a few months, frequently to take jobs. Women who remain dependent on welfare for longer periods face more severe obstacles to finding and holding a job. But many of them would be forced into employment if cash benefits were slashed or might be persuaded to take jobs if the attractions of employment were improved.
People who are sympathetic to the plight of poor single mothers sometimes view the work obstacles they face as insurmountable "barriers" to work. This viewpoint is unrealistic. Only a minority—probably a small minority—of single mothers are flatly prevented from holding a job as a result of a supposed "barrier" to employment. It is more helpful to think about the different kinds of costs faced by single mothers when they enter employment. These costs include the monetary expense of transportation and child care as well as the psychological costs of seeking work in a hostile labor market and hanging onto jobs that may be unpleasant or demeaning. If society as a whole or single mothers themselves are willing to bear the costs of employment, work should be considered a practical option for the great majority of mothers receiving cash assistance. The problem, of course, is that mothers may be unwilling to accept the burden of finding and holding a job if the rewards from work are small. Since most welfare recipients do not have skills that equip them to hold well-paid jobs, even a relatively small expense of employment—such as a three-dollar round-trip bus fare—may represent a formidable obstacle to work.
The educational and skill deficiencies of welfare recipients restrict their access to well-paying jobs, but they do not preclude employment altogether. An unskilled welfare recipient, if she is able-bodied and moderately resourceful, can almost certainly find an employer willing to offer her a job if she is willing to accept a low enough wage and an inexpensive package of fringe benefits.19 In many urban labor markets, jobless workers with few qualifications apply to temporary employment agencies for short-term work. Although the employment is uncertain and irregular, a worker who is diligent and persistent can usually obtain temporary work assignments, at least occasionally, and can often find permanent employment if her job performance impresses the manager who offered the short-term assignment. Other job opportunities for less qualified workers can be found in low-wage retailing, cleaning services, agriculture, manual labor, and informal child care. With relatively little training, less educated women can find work as home health aides.
While these job opportunities do not offer outstanding prospects for a fat paycheck, a secure career, or a big promotion, it is important to recognize that job opportunities exist for applicants who are willing to accept them, a fact confirmed by the job-finding success of unskilled immigrants. Many immigrants enter the United States suffering even worse disadvantages than those of long-term welfare recipients. Immigrants often have less schooling and lower English-language proficiency than welfare recipients. Illegal immigrants are not eligible to collect income transfers, except emergency medical aid, so they must rely on their own earnings to survive. The great majority find jobs, and even the least skilled immigrants sometimes prosper.20
It is less certain that unskilled welfare recipients could find jobs if hundreds of thousands or even millions of them were forced to find work within a one- or two-year period. Many observers doubt that the U.S. labor market can provide enough jobs to absorb the able-bodied recipients who would be forced to seek jobs under a system of time-limited welfare. With roughly seven million jobless workers, even at full employment, is it plausible to expect employers could offer an additional two million jobs for AFDC recipients forced from the rolls?
In the long run, most labor economists would probably agree that the answer to this question is "Yes." In the short run, however, many unskilled job seekers would face serious problems. Though employers could eventually create enough unskilled positions to employ most of the job applicants, it is unrealistic to expect that the new jobs will be created overnight. Many aid recipients will face a lengthy wait before finding a job. In the long run, however, the skill deficiencies of those who now depend on welfare do not represent an insurmountable barrier to employment. Skill deficiencies restrict the wages recipients can earn, but they do not bar employment altogether.