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A person-centered perspective to welfare-to-work services: in pursuit of the elusive and the unattainable.

Because of changes in legislation regarding the U.S. welfare system, there is an urgency now that has never before existed, except perhaps during the Great Depression, for career counselors to advocate for those of their clients who are on welfare and for their minor dependents. E. B. Lent (2001) has revitalized the debate over the role Rogers's person-centered perspective should play in career development with welfare-to-work (WTW) clients. The usefulness of such an approach with today's clients was explored within the context of inherent limitations of Rogers's person-centered perspective. Potential ethical conflicts for career counselors working with WTW clients were identified.


In 1996 President Clinton signed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Among its provisions is a strict limit, for any given recipient, to receive welfare benefits for no more than 5 years, in the aggregate, across his or her lifetime, except for individuals determined to have a chronic physical disability, mental illness, or substance abuse problem. Provisions for temporary exemptions have also been built into the law. Because of the legislation, many welfare recipients have been forced to stop participating in adult literacy and job training programs due to the pressure placed on them to find employment. This initiative is known as "work-first" which, according to Brown (1997) "seek[s] to move people from welfare into unsubsidized jobs as quickly as possible, and job search itself is a central activity in these programs" (p. 4).

With the passage of PRWORA, the potential consequences of clients' failing to secure and maintain long-term employment became imminently more life threatening. Because of changes in legislation regarding the U.S. welfare system, which may ultimately affect more than 20 million Americans (Edwards, Rachal, & Dixon, 1999), there is an urgency now that has never before existed, except perhaps during the Great Depression, for career counselors to advocate for those of their clients who are on welfare and for their minor dependents.

There were three purposes of this article: (a) to examine the desirability and feasibility for career counselors to effectively use a person-centered perspective when working with welfare-to-work (WTW) clients, (b) to elaborate on the various roles career counselors might play in providing services to WTW clients, and (c) to expand on the counseling interventions that Lent (2001) and others have previously identified in providing career counseling to WTW clients.

Rogers's Person-Centered Perspective and Career Development

What typically differentiates a WTW client population from other client groups is the need for career counselors who are committed to facilitating, in a timely manner, realistic solutions that are firmly rooted in the clients' empirical reality. The needs of many WTW clients are different from the needs of other client populations because of the urgency WTW clients face in light of the pressure to secure and maintain employment or risk termination of their welfare benefits.

In the face of PRWORA, perhaps the most realistic goals to which economically and socially impoverished members of society might aspire are partial solutions to the problems of daily living and survival. Lent (1996, 2001) has eloquently presented to the profession an updated rationale for the use of a person-centered perspective in career counseling, in particular with WTW clients. Some scholars have contended "the person-centered approach is applicable in career and job-related interventions as an extrapolation of the counseling relationship" (Lent, 2001, p. 23). In 1996, Lent stated, "person-centered theory is the most effective stance from which to conceptualize career issues" (p. 110). In light of the PRWORA, one must wonder about the extent to which this still holds true.

Limitations to the use of a person-centered perspective in career counseling have been reported in the professional counseling literature for more than 40 years. For example, "Rogers did not specifically attend much to the area of career counseling" (Bozarth & Fisher, 1990, p. 46). Furthermore, according to Patterson (as cited in Bozarth & Fisher, 1990) "the client-centered approach to career counseling was more concerned with the attitudes of the counselor than that of the techniques used by the counselor" (p. 47). See (1986) believed that person-centered approaches are "relatively unconcerned with the external environment; yet the rehabilitation counselor is in constant interaction with the real world and spends considerable time coordinating community resources and delivering concrete services to the client" (p. 144). For the most part, the person-centered perspective has been considered only moderately appropriate to use with a limited range of work-related issues.

Bozarth and Fisher (1990) claimed, "The [person-centered] approach is one of total open inquiry with no intentions of treatment plans, treatment goals, or interventive strategies to get the client somewhere, or for the client to do a certain thing" (p. 51). In contrast, Lent recommended that career counselors diagnose (Lent, 1996); use structured assessment instruments; administer neurological and personality tests; assess clients' reading levels (Lent, 2001); and create "intermediate goals, such as making suitable career decisions" (Lent, 1996, p. 110). Such interventions deviate from a strict Rogerian point of view, because diagnosis and testing are clearly discouraged, in part because they seek to compare a client's performance with an external criterion, as well as to place the counselor in the role of expert as opposed to being an equal.

Rogers's Core Conditions

Rogers's (1957, 1980) core conditions (genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding) are the foundation of his person-centered perspective. In the following section, each core condition is defined, and then an example of potential limitations to its applicability with a WTW clientele is discussed. This analysis seeks to inform the reader of the extent to which each of these core conditions is likely to be feasible and readily attainable in working with a WTW clientele. Counselors need to distinguish between what may be desirable, but largely unattainable, and what is actually attainable.


Definitions. The basic premise of client-centered therapy, and by extension person-centered perspectives, is the "importance of the egalitarian and interactive relationship of the counselor with the client" (Bozarth & Fisher, 1990, p. 49). Bozarth and Fisher defined "genuineness (or congruency) ... [as] being integrated in the relationship; being real within the relationship" (p. 50). Boy and Pine (as cited in Lent, 2001) defined genuineness as "being a real person who is not playing a role" (p. 22) and is seen as a necessary condition for minimizing cross-class issues. According to Boy and Pine (1999), clients can perceive a counselor's genuineness and will respond to it by "communicating freely and openly" (p. 88).

Potential limitations. Context often defines roles. By the time a welfare recipient would have encountered a counselor whose job it was to facilitate her or his finding employment in a timely manner, the client would have typically experienced, for much of her or his life, representatives of other government bureaucracies (e.g., Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, public education, health care) and other public services (e.g., trash removal, street cleaning, and police and fire protection). Lent (2001) accurately pointed out that upon entering counseling, "clients could be suspicious, pessimistic, or anxious; service deliverers could feel incompetent or defensive; designers could be unaware of, or could misinterpret, issues related to social class that could interfere with program success" (p. 30). At a minimum, it would be reasonable for welfare recipients to be aware of the possibility that their welfare benefits could be terminated and homelessness, in some cases, might follow. Career counselors are limited in their ability to change clients' perceptions, especially in the short term and particularly with those clients whose past experiences accurately served to validate their skepticism.

The aspiration that career counselors committed to a person-centered perspective have of presenting themselves to their WTW clients as genuine--as opposed to playing roles--may be unrealistic, and possibly even disingenuous. Ironically, the likelihood that both participants in the counseling relationship may be playing roles, and that the counselor may not appear particularly genuine to the client, does not preclude the counselor from being of assistance. Clients are often savvy enough to extract from their encounters with mental health professionals and welfare workers only what is valuable to them and to reject what is not (see Booker & Blymer, 1994). To suggest otherwise would reflect a failure to display unconditional positive regard for one's clients and the decisions they make.

Unconditional Positive Regard (Nonjudgmental)

Definitions. A person-centered perspective requires counselors to operate from a value-neutral zone. Bozarth and Fisher (1990) defined "Unconditional Positive Regard ... [as] prizing the individual in a nonjudgmental way" (p. 51). Advice giving, despite career counselors having expertise about training and employment opportunities, is considered taboo. Self-determination, which itself is a culture-specific value, is primordial.

Potential limitations. Welfare, as a government-sponsored institution, can evoke value-laden emotions from members of the middle class. According to Edwards et al. (1999),
 the welfare system has been blamed for social ills such as an
 elevation in the number of children born to single mothers, the
 loss of a universal "work ethic," and a general loss of
 responsibility and self-efficacy among those receiving public
 assistance. (pp. 263-264)

Although reports of welfare fraud are often exaggerated, it may be unrealistic to expect some middle-class counselors not to view their clients with a degree of skepticism. WTW clients may benefit more from having career counselors who act on their behalf than from having career counselors who merely think well of them, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Precisely because WTW clients are likely to be sensitive to the stigma associated with being on welfare, advocacy for one's clients may be a more functional concept around which to organize WTW services than is unconditional positive regard.


Definitions. Empathy has captured the counseling profession's imagination, perhaps because it is so desirable but, at the same time, so elusive and unattainable. Bozarth and Fisher (1990) defined "Empathic Under-standing ... [as] understanding the person's world as if you were the other person" (p. 51). It stands to reason that the more dissimilar the client or remote the client's concerns from the counselor's personal experience, the less likely a counselor will be capable of effectively displaying some or all of the core conditions. It may be well beyond the capacity of most counselors to comprehend what falls far outside their own personal or professional spheres. Rogers's (1980) own assessment that active listening is exceedingly rare is very informative to the present discussion. He stated,
 This kind of sensitive, active listening is exceedingly rare in
 our lives. We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with
 real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very
 special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I
 know. (p. 116)

It should be noted that Rogers's (1980) use of the term active listening, as in the previous quotation, was in the context of his discussion of "empathic understanding" (p. 116). Therefore, for the purposes of the present article, these two terms, as well as empathy and empathic are used interchangeably.

Potential limitations. Empathy is perhaps the most problematic of the core conditions for the counselor. If Rogers found displaying empathy "exceedingly rare," the likelihood is that those less dedicated to a person-centered perspective, or less talented or skilled than was Rogers, are even less likely to successfully convey it. Empathy, according to Egan (1994) is the mechanism by which counselors convey to their clients that they are understood. Clearly, the counseling relationship is enhanced by the extent to which clients feel that they are understood, and it is even better if they, in fact, are understood. Stone (2001) expressed the need for counselors to determine if they both understood and responded empathically to their clients. Except in rare circumstances, for the most part, the human experience is severely limited in its capacity to feel what another person is experiencing--especially when there is a substantial disparity in terms of age, culture, disability, educational level, ethnicity, gender, language, physique, race, religion, residential location (i.e., urban, suburban, rural), sexual orientation (heterosexuals, gay men, lesbians, and bisexual women or men), socioeconomic situation, or trauma (Thomas & Weinrach, 1999).

On those rare occasions when counselors are accurately experiencing their clients' feelings, they may lack the verbal or nonverbal, culturally appropriate vocabulary to successfully communicate their understanding; Rogers's core conditions may not serve as an appropriate model. According to Beck (Weinrach, 1988), "many people, particularly macho men, are either intimidated or nauseated by any display of caring" (p. 162). Holland (Weinrach & Srebalus, 1990) believed that "most people want help, not love" (p. 66). There is no guarantee that when counselors accurately communicate their understanding, it is perceived as such by the intended recipient. It stands to reason that the obstacles for clients to feel understood may be exacerbated by cross-class and cultural differences between them and their counselors (Lent, 2001).

In summary, what makes a person-centered perspective so challenging for virtually all humans (including career counselors and their clients, and not just WTW clients) is the embracing of Rogers's notion of empathic listening--a phenomenon that is exceedingly rare to achieve. Although it is unquestionably desirable, for most humans it is regrettably elusive, if not unattainable.

Implications for Research, Training, and Practice With WTW Clients

Following are recommendations designed to center the debate on a broader definition of the various roles that career counselors might play in working with WTW clients in a diverse society.

* Research is needed to identify how a diverse WTW client population can best be served and by whom. The efficacy of all career counseling approaches and interventions needs to be frequently reevaluated in light of changes in client demographics, new legislation such as PRWORA, improved technology, and innovations in career development theory.

* The role of the career counselor needs to be expanded to include providing the kinds of support that WTW clients need. For example, McDonald (2002) identified several barriers that she believed career counselors could help WTW clients overcome. For example, Aid to Families with Dependent Children recipients, who are usually single mothers, need assistance to find employment that is within their current skill level, that is accessible by public transportation, and that allows them to find affordable child care during the times when they are working. McDonald (2002) contended that
 career counseling is an effective tool to help clients understand and
 negotiate the multiple factors that influence their ability to be
 employed. Therefore, the traditional career counseling activities of
 helping clients explore their interests, gain career information, and
 evaluate viable options still apply. (p. 328)

* Traditional counseling theories, such as Rogers's person-centered perspective, as well as the mainstream theories of career development, were never intended to address poverty or homelessness or to facilitate the wholesale shifting of welfare recipients into the workforce. Other approaches, which may have more to offer the career counselor working with WTW clients than does a person-centered perspective, need to be considered. For example, crisis intervention counseling theory (Janosik, 1994; Sandoval, 2002; Stewart, 2001) suggests that counselors should be more nondirective or democratic with clients who display the greatest internal and external resources and that counselors should be more directive with clients who display the least amount of internal and external resources or who are least able to deflect the impact of a crisis.

The application of this concept to WTW clients strongly suggests that there are times when the appropriate role for career counselors to play is one of being highly directive--something philosophically in-compatible with a person-centered perspective. In addition, some WTW client issues, such as homelessness, may be more accurately viewed in terms of crisis intervention or at-risk client issues rather than as typical career development counseling concerns. Although this distinction would likely make little difference to traditional person-centered counselors, it could make a big difference in how counselors from other theoretical orientations conceptualize and respond to their clients' concerns.

* It has never made sense for counselor educators to allocate large amounts of time and resources to teaching any interventions that were deemed "exceedingly rare" (Rogers, 1980, p. 116) for counselor trainees to achieve. Rather, counselor trainees should be taught those interventions that are most likely to be easily mastered, readily perceived as helpful by clients, and culturally relevant to those seeking counseling--all in a timely manner.

* Career counselors have the responsibility, in collaboration with their clients, to assess which services which clients want and need most and then set realistic goals. There will probably be occasions when clients will need life skills training, job skills, and reading instruction more than they will need counseling. Because it is the counselor's ethical responsibility to "respect the integrity and promote the welfare of the client" (National Career Development Association, 1991, p. 2), clients should not be provided with career counseling if their primary needs are elsewhere. (See Section B, Counseling Relationship, National Career Development Association, 1991, p. 2.) For example, the need to reduce illiteracy, or to arrange for child care, may well take precedence over treating issues of career indecision or intrapsychic conflict. The imposition of traditional boundaries probably works best with traditional clients and may be less effective with cross-class clients.

* Members of self-help groups often possess insights that are beyond the purview of many professionals, including counselors. Other welfare recipients may possess a nuanced understanding of how the welfare system works and how it can best be manipulated in their own behalf. For example, as an alternative to mandatory employment or involuntary homelessness, it is plausible that some welfare recipients may attempt to manipulate the system on the basis of mental illness, chronic physical disability, substance abuse, or other provisions in the law in order to qualify for an exemption to the 5-year lifetime limit to benefits. Although it would be unethical for counselors to encourage clients to defraud the welfare system, in reality such client behavior could be defended as a functional coping strategy, under the circumstances. Desperate circumstances justify desperate solutions.

* Career counselors must never abandon their primary responsibility to serve the ethical self-defined best interests of each client. Ideally, career counselors would avoid fostering government-sponsored social, moral, and economic values altogether and focus on the enlightened self-interest of the client. At a minimum, career counselors must fully disclose to their clients any personal biases or employer-driven agendas that might influence their impartiality. Clients should not be denied needed services nor should career counselors be placed in an untenable position between the constraints imposed by the ethical standards of their professional association and their job requirements.

The statement in The National Career Development Association Ethical Standards (1991) that
 The acceptance of employment in an institution implies that the career
 counselor is in agreement with the general policies and principles
 of the institution. Therefore, the professional activities of the
 career counselor are in accord with the objectives of the institution.
 (See Section A, General, p. 1)

does not adequately encourage career counselors to advocate for their clients if it means opposing their employers' institutional values. The American Counseling Association's (ACA) ambiguous prohibition against dual relationships that applies to counselors and those who employ them poses similar problems because its prohibition has a particularly negative impact on clients living in rural communities where there is a paucity of services in the first place. (See Section A.6 Dual Relationships, ACA, 1995, p. 3.)

* Counseling professionals should marshal their resources to operationalize ACA's definition of professional counseling: "the application of mental health, psychological or human development principles, through cognitive, behavioral or systemic intervention strategies, that address wellness, personal growth or career development, as well as pathology" (Professionalization Committee, 2001). A massive transformation of society, such as the amelioration of the poverty that affects more than 31 million Americans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000-2001), although highly desirable and morally imperative, is beyond the sphere of influence of the 465,000 counselors in the United States (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.). If the counseling profession were to abandon, or even diminish, its historical commitment to providing services directly to individuals, families, and small groups, it would create a void unlikely to be filled by equally qualified mental health professionals. If career counselors were to abandon the role they have traditionally played to the myriad of untrained individuals who provide career counseling services, the impact to clients, many of whom are economically disadvantaged, could be devastating.


Professions evolve. Ideas and concepts that once seemed innovative have often been relegated to generic status, been subsumed under other models, taken for granted, or abandoned altogether. Over time, few notions survive unchanged and unchallenged. New challenges, such as the WTW initiative, require new solutions. "The debate as to how to best provide services to [WTW] clients is not advanced by romantic visions, unbridled idealism, and utopian fantasies about the human condition" (Thomas & Weinrach, 2002, p. 315). More than 70 years ago, the well-known Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (1932), invoked "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The capacity to foster meaningful changes in the lives of WTW clients may well hinge more on the career development profession's ability to differentiate among courage, serenity, and wisdom than on precedence, tradition, ideology, or doctrine.


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Stephen G. Weinrach, Department of Education and Human Services, Villanova University. The author expresses his appreciation to Martin Gerstein, Kenneth R. Thomas, and Esther Weinrach for their valuable suggestions to the content of an earlier draft of this article. The author is grateful to Jesse Clancy, Bethany Coover, Shannon Dallahan, Betsy Scott, and Kristy Suriano who provided important editorial support. Sylvia Nisenoff, former librarian for the American Counseling Association, and Jacqueline Mirabile, Laura Hutelmyer, and Phylis Wright--all from the Villanova University Falvey Memorial Library--were generous in the research support they provided. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Stephen G. Weinrach, Department of Education and Human Services, Villanova University, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA 19085-1699 (e-mail:
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Author:Weinrach, Stephen G.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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