- Welfare Reform in Persistent Rural Poverty: Dreams, Disenchantments, and Diversity
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more familiarly known as welfare reform, set in motion one of the largest social experiments in recent U.S. history. The widespread belief that the welfare system that had been built piecemeal since the Great Depression was irretrievably broken and in need of drastic surgery led to enthusiastic embrace by politicians, policy makers and the public of the project to dismantle the old safety net and reconstitute it in "reformed" mode. One important component of the new system was devolution of responsibility to state and sometimes local authorities, with the result that the specific contours of welfare reform vary from place to place. The full range of this variation has received short shrift in the many studies that have attempted to evaluate its effects. In particular, rural areas, especially those with a long history of poverty and underdevelopment have been ignored in favor of national studies and urban settings. This volume, comparing the outcomes of welfare reform in four persistently poor rural regions, goes a long way to rectify this neglect. The authors present extensive quantitative and qualitative data collected from comparable case studies of counties [End Page 871] that encompass South Dakota Indian Reservations, Appalachian Kentucky, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the Mississippi Delta. The result is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the outcomes of welfare reform for rural peoples and places.
The book provides a useful if depressing window on the challenges and failures of welfare reform in these areas. Despite wide differences in history, demography, geography, and political economy, the study areas share the result that although they experienced huge decreases in welfare rolls, in every other sense welfare reform has been problematic at best and a disaster at worst for the affected individuals and families. The stringency of the regulations that dole out woefully inadequate benefits with unrealistic and often capricious work requirements combined with the very real lack of opportunities in these depressed rural areas force most recipients into reliance on what the authors following Braudel term the "everyday economy." Survival is based on piecing together an ever shifting mix of formal and informal work, exchange, favors and assistance from family, friends, connections and private charitable sources, suggesting that little has changed with welfare reform. Numerous hardships are documented in the efforts of recipients to simultaneously fulfill the work requirements of the new system and their obligations to children and family in environments that will not or cannot provide adequate support, whether this takes the form of child care, transportation, protection from domestic violence, or most simply and fundamentally, jobs.
In fact, the results reinforce findings from other studies that show that welfare reform has been most successful in reducing the numbers of persons on the welfare rolls and least successful in moving former recipients into meaningful work that provides a living wage or a pathway out of poverty. In these remote rural areas, this task is made more difficult by the sheer lack of opportunities for employment and work supports that each of these regions exhibits. As stated about the South Dakota Indian reservations, "imposing work requirements before you have a viable, 'independent' economy is like putting the cart before the horse."(121-2). Yet that is exactly what was required by PWRORA. It is not that these areas are so remote as to be disconnected from the global economy. Rather, poverty and isolation are also partially the result of an economy unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection from harsh realities, such as plant closings and the fallout from trade agreements.
The book's greatest strength lies in its comparative approach. The variation in policies and programs created by devolution, along with the huge differences in the milieus in which they are applied means that evaluation of their effects is problematic. The carefully crafted case comparisons as described in this volume that are...