The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) that was signed in to law in 1996 has been successful in reducing the number of welfare claimants in the country. It was the first serious attempt by American legislatures to free millions of the poor from yokes of dependency on federal, state and local governments. However, the institutions and systems that were put in place ended up converting a new group of working Americans known as “working Poor”, which means hardworking employees that were still tied in poverty (International Labor Organization, 705).
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Continued discrimination, mistreatment from employers, lack of skills, and federal paternalism are termed as the cause of “working poor’s” woes. But is it true? That’s what this paper will address, and will apply institutional and systems theories to achieve that goal. It is arranged in three sections. It will first analyze Barbara Ehrenreich theories, then present some policy initiatives that would have made PRWORA more effective and end by synthesizing on the several important points.
An Analysis of Barbara Ehrenreich’ Theories
Ehrenreich provides a detailed day to day life of the working poor that she experienced as an undercover researcher. Her accounts are consistent with other accounts of the working lives of former welfare claimants. She however brings new insight like the reality that one job cannot do it for the working poor; they have to get into several jobs to survive. She asserts that the transition from welfarism to the job market with several months assistance from state and federal authorities does not really prepare claimants for the “working poor ” lives they end up living.
Reason: all jobs, including the lowest in the informal sector needs some skills that the people never get to develop because situations force them to migrate from one job to another. The squat supply of low rent accommodation in their localities lead to situations where some even pay higher rent than their salaries, which further demands second or even third survive. This further raises the importance of constant migration from job to job in search of better pay.
Moving to new jobs require relocating to places closer to work, which comes with new challenges such as housing, transport and assimilation to new environment. This transition is even harder for minorities, disabled, and the poor with children. Some of those theories are very valid while others leave unanswered questions. The subsequent section explains why some theories are agreeable while others are not.
Ehrenreich correctly asserts that working poors’ liberties are grossly abused by employers. This starts even before they are employed, as they get subjected to rigorous selection process that require background checks and drug testing (Ehrenreich). Such checks deny people with histories of drug abuse or crime the opportunities to improve their lives through employment. It also encroaches on their private lives. This does not stop with employment of the few that survive that embarrassing process. Restricted bathroom breaks, unreasonable searches, regular drug testing are some of the practices that these workers have to undergo during their employment period.
Employers have the tendency of putting a tight leash on “working poor” employees. This demoralizes employees, which leads to decreasing efficiency and productivity. Employers respond to decreasing productivity by terminating employees and hiring new ones. Terminated employees are thus send back to poverty that had forced them to seek employment, a cycle that keep repeating itself within the group.
Informal sector participants can vote with their feet, that is, they can switch employers at will. This flexibility has served the “working poor” well, because they can switch to jobs that match their interests. The flexibility further helps them escape issues like discrimination, poor working conditions and pay, as well as choosing safer locations. It, however, comes with the cost of having to start life all over again, especially when it involves relocating from one city or state to another. As mentioned in the previous section, the supply of low-rent housing is usually lower than demand, which has meant that the poor pay higher proportions of their salaries to rent compared to other income classes.
The relocating “working poor” with children have to face the challenges of coping with new life; the elderly and disabled face similar challenges. Luckily, employers do feel the pinch of losing potentially good employees due to high employee turnover, which is occasioned by increasing retraining costs for new recruits. Such concerns will hopefully force employer to start taking the lower classes of workers with more dignity, which will increase company productivity and more relaxed lives for the working poor.
According to Ehrenreich, it is the decreased profits and increased foreign competition made American corporations to start squeezing more productivity from their employees through tight supervision and union busting (Ehrenreich). This resulted to significant loss of workers’ freedom in the country and good fortunes for the corporations. The writer could not be further from truth because powerful unions had by that time degenerated to quasi managers of independent organization. It had reached a point that unions were deciding corporations working hours, pay, and even duration fro break and vacation time.
This had completely engrossed into company activities at a time that foreign competitors, especially in Japan, were enjoying flexibility in their operations. The result: lower production costs for foreign companies and higher costs for their American counterparts that translated to lower prices of foreign goods. 1970s also came with the first major oil shock that resulted to increased production costs worldwide. Since corporations could not control the oil factor, their next option was to reduce other inefficiencies in their operations, which turned out to be labor inflexibilities.
Ehrenreich further claims that wealthy individuals, who employ services of the poor, use money power to downgrade workers. After all, the rich 1 percent control 40 percent of national assets whereas the lower 20 percent control just 1 percent of national wealth. She gives an example where cleaning maids are requested to clean floors with sponges and kneeling down equates to downgrading them instead of using use mops like the house owner would (Ehrenreich).
This is just one of her examples showing how employees are not provided with proper tools, because they are poor and have no union to fight for their worker rights. But the work is completely voluntary, that is, they are not forced to do it; they agree to use tools provided by employers. Those who do not like the tools provided can relocate to other employers; the issue of downgrading should thus not rise.
Alternative Public Policy Initiatives
The 1996 welfare reform policy was a good a good start. In 2006, only a decade after Clinton signed PRWORA into law, welfare claimants dropped from 12.2 to 4.5 million, or by 63.5 percent (Clinton). Though the reforms were not radical as many conservatives would have hoped or humane as many liberals advocated, the results have turned out to be better for both sides. This begs the conclusion that PRWORA was the best option for reforming American Welfare system; no other relaxed nor aggressive act would have sailed through legislature, give more attention on the poor, or survive the political test of the time.
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The only additional measure that would have included in the law was arrangement for successive reforms after every ten years. After all, PRWORA’s success has not meant the end of welfare system in America. There still exists serious issues with America’s social entitlement programs—social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and food stamps—whose claimants have risen sharply in the last decade (Wolf). These entitlements need total overhaul.
In addition, state and local governments should have been accorded jurisdiction over the process. These authorities can easily encourage local entrepreneurs to high the poor. Such a measure could see many companies integrating the hiring of poor into their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) chatters. Fact that local and most state governments do not have vast resources to finance welfare compared to federal government will help former welfare recipients steadfast in searching for job opportunities lest their bread basket be cut abruptly.
The use of state government and local government would have also facilitated designing of policies that works best in their localities as opposed to the Washington created one-size-fits-all policies. Diversity of policies in the nation would have been further be used in deciding which policies work best that could later be copied by other jurisdictions or even by the federal government.
PRWORA is one of the few government initiatives intended to help the poor that has achieved in its mission; most other initiatives end up increasing bureaucracy, creating dependency that leads to worse levels of poverty. The resulting class of working poor is has not been liked by many, but there has been consensus that it represents the transition period whose end will come in few years. PRWORA’s success should is enough evidence that the so called dependence programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Food Stamps can be reformed if the society is willing to pay the price.
Clinton, Bill. “How We Ended Welfare, Together.” 2006. The New York Times. Web.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Warning: “This Is a Rights-Free Workplace.” 2000. The New York Times. Web.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Maid to Order: The Politics of Other Women’s Work.” 2001. Harper’s Magazine. Web.
International Labor Organization. “Key Indicators of the Labour Market (KILM): 2001-2002.” Geneva: International Labor Organization, 2002.
Wolf, Richard. “How Welfare Reform Changed America.” 2006. USA Today. Web.