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.
Recent welfare reform legislation mandates that aid recipients become employed and economically self-sufficient. The allowable interval of continuous assistance is limited to 24 months for current recipients and 18 months for new recipients, with a lifetime limit of five years on welfare. At least 150,000 current welfare recipients in Los Angeles County must move into the workforce, securing at least partial employment by December 1999.