Understanding a Work-Family Fit for Single Parents Moving from Welfare to Work.

Author:DeBord, Karen

Teng and Pittman's model of "work-family fit" served as a theoretical base for exploring the experiences of families moving from welfare to work. Responding to open-ended telephone interview questions, 30 recently hired welfare recipients described factors that were needed for them to make a smooth transition into work, be successful at their jobs, and balance work and family. The individuals appeared to experience greater success when their own needs and the needs of their families were being met and when they were able to meet the demands of work, leading to greater work-family fit. Support from the workplace and other community sources, as well as participants' personal attributes contributed to this work-family fit. Specific strategies based on these findings are offered for employers, social workers, and community organizations.

Key words: community response; employment; poverty; single working mothers; welfare reform; work-family fit

Federal legislation (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, P.L. 104-193) has altered drastically the United States' welfare system, ending the guarantee of cash assistance to eligible families in poverty and setting both work requirements and time limits for all welfare recipients. These far-reaching changes in the welfare system raise questions about the futures of families living in poverty, who must meet these new requirements while facing many obstacles to finding and keeping good jobs. With most welfare recipients being young single mothers with young children and well-below-average education levels, (Burtless, 1997), obtaining employment raises questions about their abilities to handle new work demands along with their family responsibilities. The overriding question is What factors will help participants in welfare reform programs transition successfully into work while maintaining the well-being of their families?

Most of the research on the work and family interface has been framed by one of three perspectives: multiple roles, job demands, or spillover and crossover (Pleck, 1995). Although these perspectives are helpful in understanding the experiences of some families, they were developed primarily using studies with middle-or upper-middle-income white, often married, participants. This fact may limit their relevance for understanding the processes involved as single, poor mothers, many who are African American, move from welfare to work.

A new perspective of "work-family fit" shows promise for addressing not only a much broader range of families and contexts, but also the complex interactions between work and family (Teng & Pittman, 1996). The work-family fit approach views work and family as interconnected systems, where connections between these two systems are conceived of as the "fit" between the demands of work and the family's abilities to meet those demands and the fit between the family's needs and the supplies available from work to meet those needs. Both work and family are seen as active contributors to this exchange process, and bidirectional influences are assumed to exist between the two dimensions of fit.

Although the work--family fit model attends to the diverse complexities of family and work contexts, for families in poverty the workplace frequently is unable to meet their multiple needs. Other sources of needed supplies must be considered, such as help from friends or relatives, support from social services, child care resources, and various other community services (Chilman, 1991; McLanahan & Booth, 1989; Parish, Hao, & Hogan, 1991). In addition to providing assistance, these community supports can place demands on welfare recipients, such as obligations to extended relatives (Parish et al., 1991). Therefore, to explore the full experience of families moving from welfare into work, our conceptual framework extends Teng and Pittman's (1996) model and includes both community supplies and community demands, in addition to the previously discussed components of the work-family fit model (see Figure 1).

To illustrate the dynamic nature of this model, consider the situation of a single mother in a low-income family who is hired for a job but has transportation difficulties. Her car often breaks down, and no bus route goes to her workplace. This mother has a need for reliable transportation to work, but the income she earns is not enough for her to purchase a reliable car, leading to a lack of fit between the family's need and work supplies. This unmet need for reliable transportation also leads to the mother's inability to meet the job demand of being at work by 8:00 A.M. every day, creating a lack of fit between family abilities and job demands. Thus, one imbalance in the model (lack of supplies to meet a need) can affect the fit in the other half of the model. However, extended family or services agencies could provide help with these transportation difficulties, thus creating a better fit between job demands and family abilities.

Recent research revealed that low-income single-mother families often experience imbalance in the fit between family needs and work supplies. High rates of poverty exist among single-mother families because of low-wage jobs, high child care costs, and inadequate or nonexistent child support payments (McLanahan & Booth, 1989). In addition, the types of jobs typically held by low-income single mothers are associated with significantly reduced access to needed benefits, including health insurance, paid sick days, and wage replacement during leave (Piotrkowski & Kessler-Sklar, 1996). child care assistance is rarely provided by the workplace (Piotrkowski & Kessler-Sklar, 1996), despite a widespread crisis in child care availability, affordability, and quality in the United States. Even when financial assistance for child care is provided through other sources, low-income mothers often face transportation problems getting to child care, have frequent changes in caregivers, and have concerns about the quality of th eir child care (Burns, 1991; Meyers, 1993). Finally, lack of transportation--which is tied to a lack of economic resources--is a frequently stated barrier to employment among low-income single mothers (Brooks & Buckner, 1996).

As with family needs and available supplies, often there is a lack of fit between job demands and low-income families' ability to meet those demands. Lower-income mothers frequently have jobs with rigid work schedules or inflexible employers (Burris, 1991). Both rigid schedules and heavy workloads have been associated with increased "role strain" among single mothers (Campbell & Moen, 1992) and low-income, African American mothers (Katz & Piotrkowski, 1983). Long work hours also have been associated with role strain among middle-income single mothers (Campbell & Moen, 1992), although this negative outcome is not always found among low-income populations (Jackson, 1993; Katz & Piotrkowski, 1983). In fact, low-income single mothers have been found to have higher life satisfaction when they work more hours (Jackson, 1993). This finding is possibly due to the greater earnings that accompany longer work hours, which are particularly needed by families in poverty.

Examining the fit between work and family for parents transitioning from welfare to work should reveal both the positive and negative aspects of this transition and should highlight areas in need of additional systems-level intervention. The purpose of this study was to explore recently hired North Carolina welfare recipients' perceptions about their transition into working, their current work situation, and how they were managing work and family responsibilities. We also hoped to identify factors that were felt to be supports or obstacles to families during this process.


In North Carolina the response to welfare reform is a program called Work First. As part of a response to a call for support of local Work First efforts, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service partnered with the North Carolina Department of Social Services in Raleigh, North Carolina, to assess how these workers were finding balance between work and their family needs.


The original pool of respondents provided by the Department of Social Services (DSS) consisted of 37 Work First participants who were in transition from the welfare rolls to the mainstream work force. Three to five participants were selected from each of nine counties--five rural and four urban--to make up the sample of 19 urban and 18 rural workers. Regional DSS Work First directors asked local case workers to suggest clients who met the criteria of being accessible by phone and fully employed for the past three to six months.

Thirty participants (82 percent) were reached by telephone and completed the interview. The seven participants that could not be reached either had disconnected phones with no forwarding numbers or had been released from their jobs and had no home telephone. The final sample included 30 women: 16 European Americans and 14 African Americans. Fifteen were from urban communities and 15 were from rural communities; their ages ranged from 22 to 50. Each participant had at least one child; ages ranged from two years to 17 years; there were 57 children in all. Twenty-six participants were single parents, and four were married. Although there is not complete data on their earnings, those who offered information about their wages revealed a range...

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