Welfare-to-work and critique of the culture of poverty: The jobs program in Hartford, Connecticut

Date of Completion

January 1997


American Studies|Social Work|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare




This dissertation examines the ways in which ideas about poverty have informed public policy designed to alter the conditions of the poor. I begin by examining the development of three broad perspectives on the causes of poverty. Briefly, the conservative position purports that the poor are disadvantaged because they are unmotivated and prefer to rely on public assistance. Liberals hold that poverty is caused by structural inequalities that tend to debilitate the adaptive potential of the poor over time. Marxists approach poverty from a structural perspective that conceptualizes poverty as an inherent feature of the capitalist economy.^ Welfare recipients are among the most visible groups included in the "culture of poverty" in the 1960s and the "urban underclass" in the 1980s. As such, they have been targeted for rehabilitation for the past thirty years. The legislation that has mandated and enabled successive reforms has been inspired by both conservative and liberal perspectives. Conservatives recommend ending poverty by "attaching" the poor directly to the labor force, while liberals recommend developing their "human capital" through education and training in order to increase their employment potential.^ I examine the impact of these approaches through a case study of the social relations of welfare reform in Hartford, Connecticut between 1993 and 1994. I critique welfare-to-work initiatives from a Marxist perspective, and contend that this system cannot ameliorate poverty or succeed as welfare reform because it does not address the structural contradictions of contemporary capitalism. I find that the rules, regulations and procedures of the welfare and welfare-to-work systems erect numerous barriers along the "road to self-sufficiency." Women are forced to navigate exceedingly complex bureaucratic transactions without the aid of adequate information. And although the education and training programs provide some with vocational skills, labor market trends in Hartford mitigate against women finding permanent jobs paying a living wage. Their "human capital" is redundant in a recessionary economy. ^