Why aren’t more welfare parents becoming economically self-sufficient after participating in the LA County Welfare to Work Program, GAIN (Greater Avenue for Independence)? What has happened to these parents since entering the labor market after GAIN? The answers to these and other questions are presented in “Prisoners of Hope,” a report originally requested by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on December 19, 2000.
How do people change their lives? What kinds of help do working poor parents need to lift their families out of poverty? What obstacles do they face in trying to get a sustaining job? More than eight thousand people answered these questions through a survey undertaken to learn directly from working welfare parents and other poor families about the problems they face and the kinds of help they need to become self-sufficient.
The informal economy produces legal goods and services that are not effectively regulated. Such activities can give rise to abuses by employers who fail to respect basic labor, safety, immigration, and tax laws, leaving workers without rights. By definition the informal economy is hidden "under the table" and "off the books." However, by comparing different sources of employment data we can identify industries where a significant share of jobs appear to be unreported. Industry characteristics such as worker demographics can also be used as an additional indicator of informal employment.
In his 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail Martin Luther King, Jr. described the despair of people “smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” It is important to understand the extent to which this image of entrapment still describes the wage-earning lives of the working poor as they try to support their families.
The loss of a welfare safety net for most adults for most of their lives makes the quality of jobs available to the working poor and their success in finding and keeping jobs increasingly important. The economic and civic life of the Los Angeles region will be shaped by connections that are made, or fail to be made, between the growing ranks of working poor and opportunities for steady, sustaining, productive employment.
Welfare reform raises the prickly question of what mix of understanding, support and pragmatic pressure is needed to move welfare recipients into employment. Many workers are scrambling to keep the wolf from their own doors in the face of industry restructuring, rapid technological change, and intense pressures to increase corporate profits.