Abstract: A Holey Safety Net: ‘Economic Opportunity', ‘Temporary Assistance', and ‘Work-Fare' in the United States (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

226P A Holey Safety Net: ‘Economic Opportunity', ‘Temporary Assistance', and ‘Work-Fare' in the United States

Friday, January 15, 2016
Ballroom Level-Grand Ballroom South Salon (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Rob Bennett, MSW, Doctoral Student, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Michelle Hand, MSW, LSW, PhD student, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

Traditional welfare entitlements contradict capitalism, which is one possible motivation underlying campaigns to end them.  State provisions of income, housing or food protect people from the vicissitudes of the private market by guaranteeing access to living necessities.  This also empowers people relative to private markets, as they possess reliable alternatives to addressing basic needs.

What follows is a systematic review of scholarly literature on the implementation and outcomes from the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  The goals of this review are 1) to explore which components of these policies benefit and which harm those who interact with them, 2) to consider tensions between meeting citizen need through social welfare and private market employment, and 3) to discuss the implications of a social welfare policy aimed at increasing private market employment without concern for meeting fundamental needs.


A systematic review of scholarly literature on the implementation and outcomes of these programs was conducted using the search terms “Economic Opportunity Act,” “Opportunity Act of 1964,” “EOA,” “1964,” “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” and “TANF” in EBSCO, JSTOR, Academic Search Complete, OhioLINK, Social Work Abstracts, and SocIndex databases.  Peer-reviewed scholarly articles were deemed eligible if they contained information on the implementation or outcomes of the EOA or TANF.  Eighty articles reporting on the implementation or outcomes of TANF and fourteen addressing those of the EOA met this criteria, thus 94 articles were reviewed. 


A central goal of TANF is to require parent and caretaker recipients to work.  However, available employment is largely minimum wage, variable schedule, at-will, and missing basic benefits, including health insurance and retirement plans.  Still, administrative mechanisms were designed to ‘motivate’ participants to accept and maintain these jobs despite continued poverty; benefit sanctions are levied against those who fail to meet such obligations.  However research suggests evidence of potential discrimination as sanctions are influenced by local political conservatism and consequences that exacerbate poverty, including lower incomes, increased material hardship and truancy.

Alternatively, while several researchers agree that the EOA was not perfect, many argue that individuals living in poverty, particularly within communities of color, benefited from it.  For instance, African Americans assumed political leadership roles and impacted key community changes through its Community Action Programs.  Moreover, researchers suggest the EOA offered those living in poverty the ability to identify their needs and provided them more authority over their future through civil rights equal to those of others. 


This systematic review offers an overview of scholarly literature on the implementation and outcomes on TANF and the EOA as well as implications for future social work advocacy.  Results demonstrate the need for social workers to advocate for guaranteed income rights regardless of individual characteristics or employment as an assured federally-administered poverty-level income would free them to direct services to those most in need.  This will require a great deal of skill and energy to organize citizens and pressure politicians; however results suggest that such efforts are necessary.