SSA Centennial - Employment and Poverty

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

-By Carl Vogel

It's hard to provide for a family without a job, and it's hard to build a better life without a good job. The importance of those basic facts was as apparent 100 years ago as it is today, and SSA's founding mothers knew that to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society, they would have to address issues of employment and welfare.

Edith Abbott published Women in Industry, a powerful analysis of the evolution of women's industrial work, in 1909. "A groundbreaking study of sex differences in the workplace participation of women," writes Joanne L. Goodwin in Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform. "It raised significant questions about occupational segregation, wage disparity, and what Abbott referred to as the 'industrial dependence' of unskilled women workers."

Abbott and Breckinridge used the book's findings and other reports from the School about the causes of delinquency in children to advocate for welfare payments to single mothers living in poverty, often working in conjunction with Julia Lathrop, who was then the head of the U.S. Children's Bureau. The women became known around policy and political circles in Chicago and Springfield for their steadfast insistence on the establishment of "mother's pensions" by the state to cure many of the problems that affected the city's poorest neighborhoods.

SSA remained involved with the issue after the New Deal made national public assistance a reality during the Depression. In the 1930s, SSA created a special program with the American Public Welfare Association to train the many state welfare officers needed to meet the new demand, and SSA's Harrison Dobbs was named as a welfare commissioner in Illinois in 1943. During the tumultuous 1960s, Professor Alan Wade partnered with then State Senator Abner Mikva to lead a group of SSA students and welfare recipients to Springfield to talk with legislators about increased public assistance.

SSA continues to maintain a strong interest in poverty, employment, and welfare issues, and important research by faculty members continues to have an impact. Associate Professor Evelyn Brodkin is a well-regarded expert on the current state of welfare policy, particularly her research on how political and institutional factors influence the policy implementation process. Associate Professor Susan Lambert presents the findings of her research on low-wage work to both local and national business and advocacy groups interested in improving workplace practices. Associate Professor Julia Henly has published extensively on issues of childcare and work. Lambert and Henly are breaking new ground by bringing issues of low-wage work into discussions of work-life balance and by examining the intersection of low-wage work and public policy.

"In addition to my academic scholarship, I try to position my work to a policy and program audience as well. I think about how the research I do can be packaged in different ways to have an impact at a policy level and at the program level," says Henly, who is in regular contact with groups such as Illinois Action for Children, a Chicago-based nonprofit with both advocacy and resource-and-referral missions that manages parts of the childcare system for the State of Illinois.

Together, Henly and Lambert are currently working on a field experiment at a major national retail chain to assess the effects on workers and stores of a workplace intervention intended to improve scheduling practices in entry-level jobs. Retailers are very interested in what the results will show, and Henly and Lambert have already presented data on scheduling practices to members of the National Retail Federation, as well as policy audiences.

"We don't do evaluations for a firm. We don't do consulting," Lambert says. "Instead, we provide hard evidence of the merits and potential drawbacks of innovative employer practices. We engage employers in discussion of new ways of conducting business that balance the goal of making a profit with that of making a living. We seek to develop knowledge that improves the prospects of low wage workers in Chicago and in the country."