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The plight of working-poor families: Low-wage labor and weak safety net

April 27, 2010 By Stacy Forster

Book cover image: Both Hands Tied


In their new book from the University of Chicago Press titled “Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market,” co-authors Jane L. Collins and Victoria Mayer present their analysis of the political and structural forces that shaped the lives of working-poor families by examining the experiences of 33 women living in Milwaukee and Racine, Wis.

“Both Hands Tied” tells the story of how these women and their children coped as sweeping welfare reform codified in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act made cash assistance both temporary and contingent on work outside the home.

Collins, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Mayer provide the backdrop for the families’ struggles-the dearth of manufacturing jobs that historically employed men in good-paying jobs, the growing number of women serving as breadwinners for their families and the harsh realities of employment in the low-wage labor market — and shares the mothers’ work-history narratives in their own words.

The authors delve deeply into the women’s daily lives to tell the story of their struggles to balance child care and wage-earning in poorly paying jobs with inflexible schedules — and the moments when these jobs failed them and they turned to the state for additional aid. They also put the stories in the context of profound shifts in the nation’s politics and economy. “Both Hands Tied” provides a stark but poignant portrait of how welfare reform, combined with other societal changes, affected poor, single-parent families, often leaving them in desperate straits.

Joe Soss, Cowles Chair for the Study of Public Service at the University of Minnesota and research affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW–Madison, says of the book, “‘Both Hands Tied’ is critical social science at its best. I know of no book that is more successful in drawing the lived experiences of the poor into dialogue with the structural and political forces that are shaping their lives.”

Collins is the Evjue Bascom Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies and a research affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW–Madison. Mayer is assistant professor of sociology at Colby College.