Jul 10, 2023

Chapter 2: The compliance machine

Americans who turn to public assistance have something in common: They’re poor and vulnerable. But that's where the similarities end. There's a wide range of work experience and education among them — and often very different circumstances that landed them on welfare.

But when they walk through the door of a welfare office seeking cash aid, they often come up against a system primarily focused on ensuring that they meet work requirements mandated by federal law, whether the required labor is helpful for their particular circumstances or not.

A single mother of two from Chicago learned this the hard way. She had been working and taking classes to become an addiction counselor when her life fell apart. The father of her youngest child assaulted her so badly, it put her in the hospital. Worried for her safety and the safety of her children, she fled to Milwaukee and signed up for welfare, hoping it would live up to the promise of providing employment and self-sufficiency.

Instead, she ended up in a Kafkaesque maze of "job readiness" classes she didn't need, work assignments that earned her less than the equivalent of minimum wage and leads for warehouse jobs that didn't fit her resume. When her life hit another crisis, things hit rock bottom.

Host Krissy Clark examines the roots of this cookie-cutter regime and discovers that a fundamental part of the problem lies in how the landmark 1996 welfare reform bill measures success — which has little to do with helping participants gain family-sustaining employment.

This season of "The Uncertain Hour" tells the unheard stories of real people affected by the welfare-to-work industrial complex.

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