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When Work Is Not Enough: State and Federal Policies to Support Needy Workers

When Work Is Not Enough: State and Federal Policies to Support Needy Workers

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Millions of American workers live between dependency and self-sufficiency. Despite significant effort, they cannot earn enough to support themselves and their families. Policymakers have come to their aid with a wide range of programs, collectively termed the work support system, that are designed to help needy workers make ends meet. But how well does the system work?

In When Work Is Not Enough, Robert Stoker and Laura Wilson take on this critical question. Drawing on state and national data, they examine the adequacy and coverage of the work support system in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. In the process, they evaluate a broad range of policies that provide cash or in-kind benefits to low-wage workers, low-income working families, and families moving from welfare to work. These programs include minimum wage rates, earned income tax credit (EITC) programs, medical assistance programs, food programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families earned income disregards, child care grants, and rental assistance.

The research tells a story of unrealized potential. Work supports can be an important source of material benefits for needy working families. However, the system remains marred by important flaws, such as significant inequities across states and across groups. Stoker and Wilson offer a number of proposals for addressing these problems, including reform of the Food Stamp Program, changes in state EITC programs, and the creation of rental assistance entitlement.

They also offer a powerful argument for the importance of such reforms. They work support system promotes a new, more positive image of redistribution by providing means-tested benefits to needy workers and people making the transition from welfare to work. The result could be a fundamental shift in public perceptions of poverty, work, and welfare, replacing the powerful image of the welfare queen with the working mother struggling to support her family. The politics of redistribution, in other words, could be transformed by connecting the means-tested assistance to the American impulse to aid the working poor. However, the prospects of this transformation depend critically on how well the work support system performs.