Methods: Utilizing a qualitative comparative case study design, both Bay-County and Central-County represent differences in employment and poverty rates. Across both contexts, three sources of data were collected. Firstly, twelve semi-structured interviews (six in each county) were conducted with heads of single-earner families currently enrolled in CalWORKs WTW program and secondly, participant observations of client-frontline worker interactions were undertaken during CalWORKs intake interviews and job-readiness workshops at each county. Thirdly, 47 WTW documents such as PowerPoint presentations of the job-readiness workshops and flyers given out to clients about how to get and keep a job were collected. All interviews were, with informed consent, recorded and transcribed for analysis. Interviews, observation notes and documents were analyzed using the qualitative data analysis software MAXQDA.
Findings: With respect to CalWORKs client experiences, even though Bay-County had more robust job opportunities compared to Central-County for clients, the benefits received through CalWORKs was offset by the high cost of living in Bay-county. For instance, a single mother of three children despite working 20-hours a week did not have the means to continue paying her rent beyond the aid received from CalWORKs. On the other hand, in Central-County due to the dearth of job opportunities, clients are made to feel “invisible” by accepting precarious and abusive work conditions in order to fulfill their subsidized work requirements. Across both counties despite CalWORKs frontline staff striving to stabilize such families, worker discretion and bias played out in a few ways. For example, promoting the narrative of how clients ought to “adjust their cost of living” or move out of the county, thereby placing the onus on clients to make the decision especially as most subsidized CalWORKs employment opportunities are minimum wage.
Conclusion & Implications: The study highlights that CalWORKs adopts a supportive, empowerment-oriented model towards single-earner families. However, families across both labor markets are vulnerable to continue being in low-paid, minimum wage jobs without being offered sufficient support for upward economic mobility. Practice and policy implications include, a) adjusting client benefit levels according to the real costs of living in counties; b) enlisting vocational training for clients based on the specific labor market contexts beyond low-paid, minimum wage jobs; c) exercise greater control over subsidized employment work opportunities for CalWORKs clients in order to ensure fair labor standards and prevent precarious and abusive working conditions and; d) provide more opportunities for human capital investment in clients.