October 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Employers' Perceptions of Welfare Reform: Implications for Cooperative Extension Personnel

Federal legislation passed in 1996 mandated that each state establish welfare-to-work programs and required that recipients work or lose benefits after 2 years and a life-time limit of 5 years. This article discusses the perceptions of selected employers who were interviewed regarding factors contributing to their participation in welfare reform and affecting welfare recipients' entry into the workforce. Conclusions from the interview data related to willingness of employers to hire welfare recipients and to the importance of providing support for new employees, fostering cooperation among employers and agencies to provide education and training, examining welfare policies, and providing affordable child care. Implications for Cooperative Extension professionals are described.

Bernice B. Wilson
Extension Urban Specialist, Resource Management
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Alabama A&M University,
Normal, Alabama
Internet address: bbwilson@acesag.auburn.edu

Daisy L. Stewart
Associate Professor
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia
Internet address: daisys@vt.edu

The purposes of this study were to examine employers' perceptions of factors related to their participation in a welfare reform program, Initiative for Employment Not Welfare (VIEW), and to identify factors that they felt affected the entry of welfare recipients into the workforce.

Employers have a key role in that by employing former welfare recipients, they can provide economic security and contribute to family stability. Cooperative Extension, through its programs in workforce preparation and financial education in particular, could be supportive in welfare reform by helping individuals to secure employment and effectively use their income to contribute to family well-being.


The methodology for this research consisted of personal interviews with 12 Virginia private-sector employers who participated in VIEW. These employers were located in two counties and one small city in rural Southwest Virginia. The key interview questions that were used as a basis for discussion were the following.

  • What information and/or materials about welfare reform did you or your staff hear or read that influenced your decision to participate in Virginia's Initiative for Employment not Welfare (VIEW)?
  • What were your reasons for hiring VIEW participants?
  • What specific incentives do you receive for hiring a welfare recipient?
  • What are some things that you think would affect the entry of welfare recipients into the workforce?
  • Do you require a person to have a high school diploma or GED before applying for employment in your business?
  • Overall how would you describe the job skills of welfare recipients you have hired or considered hiring?
  • How would you describe the previous work experiences of welfare recipients you have hired or considered hiring?
  • What job training do you provide for your employees?
  • How do factors such as childcare and transportation affect employment success of former welfare recipients?
  • In what ways do you think VIEW will assist with helping welfare participants enter the workforce?

Analysis and Interpretation of Data

The data in the study were compiled using a categorical aggregation analytic strategy. Categorical aggregation is the process of piecing together bits of information gathered about an issue and organizing it into an orderly research interpretation. A coding procedure was used to mark or denote recurring topics. NUD.IST, a qualitative research computer program, was used in the data coding process.

The data were organized and sorted as gathered to facilitate progress and coherence based on each issue. The data were analyzed using analytic categories in keeping with McCracken's (1988) philosophy, which allows the investigator to account for all of the formal characteristic of the topic under discussion. The results are reported using assertions.

Discussion of the Findings

The findings from this study suggested that most of the factors that emerged from the data were similar to those identified in the review of literature. Interviewing 12 employers who had participated in welfare reform provided insight into their perceptions of factors that encouraged them to participate in VIEW and factors that affected the entry of welfare recipients into the workforce.

Because this study was conducted with only 12 employers, all of whom had participated in VIEW, the findings cannot be generalized to other employers who participate in welfare reform. They are even less relevant to those who have not chosen to participate.

Factors Encouraging Employer Participation

The first section of the interviews related to factors that encouraged employers to participate in a welfare reform effort. The themes that emerged from employers' responses were:

  • Mass media,
  • Social services agencies,
  • Virginia Employment Commission (VEC), and
  • Other relevant observations by employers.

The methods most often used to notify employers about welfare programs were coordinated by the federal and state governments. In this study, employers indicated that they learned about VIEW through state and local agencies, but also from other sources.

Mass Media

Most of the employers in this study became familiar with VIEW through mass media, which had a major influence in encouraging employers to participate in VIEW. Most often, employers learned of the VIEW program via television, radio, or newspapers.

Social Services Agencies

Positive interaction between social services agencies, the Virginia Employment Commission, and temporary agencies, and the desire to be supportive of welfare reform efforts played an important role in encouraging employers to participate in VIEW.

Virginia Employment Commission (VEC)

Respondents indicated that the VEC sometimes distributed information to them about VIEW. Knowledge gained by reading this information motivated the employers to participate in this welfare reform program. Previously, employers were not familiar enough with VIEW to employ welfare recipients through this program.

Other Relevant Observations by Employers

Education and knowledge about VIEW encouraged employers to participate. Other items mentioned were a desire to help the welfare reform initiative and a need for workers. Respondents indicated that some employers may benefit from sensitivity training to help them become aware of the value welfare recipients can bring to their business. Only two respondents indicated that tax credits encouraged them to participate, so it is likely that some employers were not aware of their eligibility for tax credits.

Factors Affecting Workforce Entry

The second section of the interviews involved factors that these selected employers felt affected the entry of welfare recipients into the workforce. This study's results and the review of literature (Block & Noakes, 1988; Martin & Tolson, 1985; Wilson, 1987) indicated that welfare recipients can make good employees. The employers who were interviewed for this research reported that the following characteristics affected welfare recipients'successful participation in the work force:

  • Qualifications,
  • Employability skills,
  • Work experience,
  • Education and training,
  • Support system or monitoring plan,
  • Welfare policies,
  • Childcare, and
  • Lack of funds for transportation and appropriate clothing.


Many employers participated in VIEW because the program involved qualified people who had the prerequisites for the available jobs that employers needed to fill. Findings from this study further indicated that employers realized that some former welfare recipients were good workers despite the fact that their skills were limited. This paralleled the statement of the National Alliance of Business (1997) that the greatest barrier to work for welfare recipients is skill deficits.

Employability Skills

The findings from this study support the review of literature in noting that employability skills (such as interpersonal abilities, attendance, work ethic, appearance, attitude, and behavior) can affect the entry of welfare recipients' into the workforce. Vobejda (1996) indicated that employability skills of welfare recipients often leave something to be desired and gave as examples the frequent lack of positive attitudes, ability to deal with office politics, and capacity to handle workplace conflicts.

Employers want people who are committed to work to the extent that they not only come to work, but also report on time and are appropriately dressed. The attitude and behavior demonstrated to an employer by a person who is seeking a job weigh heavily in the employer's decision to hire that individual.

Work Experience

Employers will hire welfare recipients who have no work experience, but they naturally prefer an individual who has a successful work history. If the individual is committed to wanting to work, employers will waive the work experience requirement in lieu of a positive attitude.

Findings from this study also suggest that employers want employees who do not present a high level of risk; frequent employee turnover costs employers money. Because of this, employers are somewhat hesitant about hiring people who have a limited or sporadic work history.

Education and Training

Employers need people who are willing to participate in training to become qualified for the jobs that are available. Findings also suggested that employers are willing to provide necessary training and most often have to make it available for new hires.

Employers believe that more training programs are needed to help welfare recipients enter the workforce. For instance, employers requested that Cooperative Extension, social services, or other agencies teach the necessary employability skills before these individuals are required to seek employment.

Support System or Monitoring Plan

Employers in this study indicated that a support system or monitoring plan should be provided by social services agencies, possibly in partnership with Cooperative Extension, to follow up participants once they are on the job. Employers cited cases in which this has been a positive factor in making a smooth transition from welfare and work. Other community agencies or institutions could also be involved in providing this service.

Welfare Policies

Employers in this study indicated that, based on their experiences, current welfare policies may effectively prevent participants from working full-time, yet that full-time work is needed if the participants expect to reach a level of self-sufficiency.

The administration of the welfare policies seems to acquire different interpretations and meanings as the policies are implemented. If welfare recipients periodically leave jobs to prevent a loss of benefits such as health care, they lose the opportunity to acquire work experience and possibly training that would help them progress beyond entry-level, minimum-wage positions.


Gabe and Falk (1995) stated the cost of childcare may deter some mothers on welfare from taking a job. The findings from this study supported this information from the review of literature.

The consensus among all employers in this study was that the limited availability of affordable childcare was the most serious factor affecting the entry of welfare recipients into the workforce. One employer speculated that the government should encourage employers to provide an on-site or subsidized childcare center by granting some type of incentive to employers who do so.

Lack of Funds

Several employers interviewed for this study indicated that a lack of funds could inhibit the ability of welfare recipients to work regularly by limiting their options regarding transportation and appropriate clothing for the job. The findings from this study showed an almost equal division of opinions among employers relative to the transportation issue.

A transportation system was available to welfare recipients in one locality included in this study, but some respondents indicated that this system was not reliable. Some employers reported having to provide transportation for employees in order to ensure their attendance to carry out the day-to-day operations on the job. Other respondents indicated that welfare recipients did not have the money to buy job-related clothing such as uniforms.

Other Findings

Employers in this study did not specifically mention the loss of government-provided health care benefits due to employment. It is questionable, however, whether employers will pay the cost of health insurance for minimum-wage or entry-level employees, or pay wages sufficient to offset loss of these benefits.

Based on the review of literature, many employers of former welfare recipients are paying between $5.75 and $6.00 an hour (Churchill, 1995; National Alliance of Business, 1997). Employers in the predominantly rural area included in this study paid wages that were somewhat lower than this. One employer in this study stated, "Nobody can live on $5.25 an hour, especially if they are a single parent."


The respondents in this research were interviewed at length, and certain responses that were made repeatedly were considered to be themes. In this section, assertions that might be drawn from those themes are discussed.

Based on the interviews conducted for this study, it can be asserted that employers need workers and are committed to hiring welfare recipients if sufficient support is rendered once the recipients are hired. The support may come from Cooperative Extension, social services, the employment commission, or other institutions or agencies.

Employers are willing to provide some education and training to welfare recipients if they demonstrate good employability skills. Though employers prefer workers who have had work experience, they will hire welfare recipients who have had limited workforce participation.

This study's employers believe that welfare policies that govern welfare recipients' employment and benefits hinder the ability of these individuals to achieve self-sufficiency for themselves and their families.

Important barriers to successful employment for welfare recipients include lack of affordable childcare and funds for transportation and appropriate clothing.

Implications for Cooperative Extension Professionals

The relationships among the welfare system, Cooperative Extension, and employers are longstanding, but continually need attention to be successful. The review of literature indicated that research about employers' attitudes toward welfare reform is very limited. One of Cooperative Extension's supporting roles could be that of conveying research-based information about welfare reform to employers.

Employers in this study expressed commitment to hiring welfare recipients if adequate support is available once welfare recipients are hired. Extension personnel can play an active role in promoting partnerships relative to welfare reform with other agencies, businesses, industries, and volunteers, and where applicable can develop partnerships with other states.

The results of this study provide direction for mentoring and training programs that can be offered through Cooperative Extension, public education, and other agencies to assist welfare recipients in becoming productive members of the workforce and successful in all aspects of their family responsibilities. Examples of program content suggested by the results include financial management, decision making, parenting, and human relationships for the workplace.

Cooperative Extension could work with other community groups to sponsor educational and discussion sessions for employers regarding their role in welfare reform. Professionals from Cooperative Extension and job training agencies should develop ongoing interaction and collaboration with employers as they plan programs and curricula to prepare welfare recipients for employment. Employers can help with planning, developing, and improving job training and educational programs for welfare recipients.

Where employers do not have resources to create training programs of their own, communities are going to have to coordinate efforts to prepare people for work. Cooperative Extension can be the catalyst to making this happen. Cooperative Extension and employers could establish partnership training programs for welfare recipients. Employer/Cooperative Extension partnership training programs could be inclusive of employers related to various areas of Extension programming.

Findings from this study can provide useful information to help prepare people for the world of work. Cooperative Extension, through its financial management education programs, could serve the wishes of employers in helping their employees improve their use of financial resources, thus reducing stress that can limit productivity.

Workforce-preparation programs can enhance the qualifications and employability skills that employers identified as influencing welfare recipients' successful participation in the workforce. Extension programs that focus on family and youth could be supportive to employers by strengthening the support system that employers indicated would be important in helping welfare recipients make a smooth transition between welfare and work.

Additionally, Cooperative Extension can develop a partnership with social services agencies to provide work experience through its volunteer program. Welfare recipients who have not been successful in securing paid employment could do volunteer work in Cooperative Extension facilities and programs to gain valuable work experience that will make them more employable.

Extension personnel can educate legislators and others about Cooperative Extension's accomplishments and educational programs relative to financial management, survival skills, job preparedness, job enhancement skills, and career development. This could result in opportunities for the increased support and funding for both urban and rural Extension programs.

Cooperative Extension can also inform legislators of employers' concerns about welfare policies as it educates them about other issues affecting the American people. Professionals should develop a continuing education plan through which Cooperative Extension can provide to its constituencies the information needed to make informed decisions to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and the society.


Berkowitz, E., & McQuaid, K. (1988). Creating the welfare state. New York: Praeger.

Block, F., & Noakes, J. (1998). The politics of new-style workfare. Socialist Review, 18(3), 31-58.

Churchill, N. (1995). Ending welfare as we know it: A case study in urban anthropology and public policy. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 24(1), 5-35.

Gabe, T., & Falk, G. (1995). Welfare reform: Implications for work and welfare, the role of work incentives and work requirements. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.

Martin, J.H., & Tolson, D.J. (1985). Changing job skills in Virginia: The employer's view. Charlottesville: Tayloe Murphy Institute, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Occupational Information Coordinating Committee.

Mayberry, B.D. (1989). The role of Tuskegee University in the origin, growth and development of the Negro Cooperative Extension System 1881-1990. Tuskegee Institute, AL: Brown Printing Company.

McCracken, G. (1988). The long interview. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

National Alliance of Business. (1997, March). Washington Legislative Update. Washington, DC: Author.

Trattner, W.I. (1975). From poor law to welfare state: A history of social welfare in America (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press.

Vobejda, B. (1996, September 22). Welfare's next challenge: Sustained employment. Washington Post, p. A1, A2, A12.

Wilson, W.J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.