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Career counseling strategies to facilitate the welfare-to-work transition: the case of Jeanetta.

Changes in welfare policy require recipients to find employment and created a need for effective career counseling strategies. Welfare recipients face both environmental and personal barriers that affect employability and career development. Issues such as the employment market, the availability of needed community resources, and the stress of being a single parent need to be understood before appropriate career counseling can occur. In this article, the author discusses possible barriers to career counseling and suggests effective career counseling methods for individuals who receive public assistance payments.


Changes in welfare policy require recipients to find employment and have created a need for effective counseling strategies. Welfare recipients face both environmental and personal barriers that affect employability and career development. First, I present a case study that outlines the barriers and difficulties that a client like Jeanetta faces, and then I suggest effective career counseling methods that can be used with clients who have been receiving public assistance.

Case Example

My name is Jeanetta. I am 24 and I have two kids. My oldest is a girl and she is 4, and my youngest, a boy, is just 6 months old. I have been on and off welfare since my oldest was born. I started working in fast food when I was in high school. After I got my diploma, I got a job as a waitress. I ended up getting pregnant about a year or so after starting that job. The work was okay, but I was on my feet all day. It got kind of hard to keep working while being pregnant, and the baby's father told me he'd help me out, so I quit my job. The father didn't stay around long, though--we were fighting a lot, anyway. So, that's when I first went on the system. When my oldest was about 3, I found a neighbor who would watch her and I got a job as a telemarketer. I didn't really like the work too much and about 3 months later, I got pregnant again. I continued to work for a few more months and then I quit.

You know, I love my youngest and I am glad he is here, but I didn't really want to get pregnant. I was kind of depressed during the pregnancy and didn't feel like I had much energy to do anything. This time the baby's father didn't even stay around for his birth. My grandmother died last year, too, and I just can't seem to get things done anymore. So I went back on assistance.

Right now the state is making me go to a job search program 30 hours a week. Only I had some problems getting there every day, so I didn't get my welfare check last month. I'm not sure what kind of work I can do anymore, but I've only got 10 more months until they cut me off. I was hoping to get some kind of computer training so I could work in an office. I really want to get a good job and leave the system.

I'm afraid I'm complaining too much. Some good things have happened to me. My kids are probably my biggest joy. I just love watching them grow, and when they hug me and tell me they love me, I feel as if nothing else matters. My church helps, too, and my oldest kid's father helps out. He comes and gets her a couple times a month and he pays some child support.

Application of the Ecological Model

Perhaps the most dramatic changes for individuals who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) have occurred at the macrosystemic level. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was passed in 1996. PRWORA increased the power that states have over designing their welfare policies and emphasized employment and self-sufficiency. Federal funds can only be used to provide a total of 5 years of aid over a lifetime to a family. Recipients are also required to sign a self-sufficiency contract that outlines their employment requirements. If they fail to comply with the contract, they may be sanctioned and not receive their monthly compensation (Children's Defense Fund, 1997).

When working with this client, the employment market must be considered. Many individuals on public assistance have few job skills. The low-skill jobs most former recipients obtain are also low wage and often do not include benefits (Brown, Ganzglass, Golonka, Hyland, & Simon, 1998; Danziger, Sandefur, & Weinberg, 1994). Thus, most individuals who leave welfare for work continue to live in poverty (Children's Defense Fund, 1998). In addition, low-income women also face macrosystemic influences of racial, sexual, and class discrimination that have been found to affect employment and wages (Corcoran, Duncan, & Hill, 1984; McAdoo, 1982).

In addition, low-income families are concentrated in inner-city urban neighborhoods, and an increase in violence and isolation are affecting low-income women's ability to create safe, supportive environments for their families (Peterson & Harrell, 1992; Wilson, 1987). This issue directly affects the microsystem or family level. Moreover, most individuals on public assistance are single parents. The combination of raising children alone with little income creates stress that is linked to higher than normal rates of depression, agoraphobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse (Bassuk et al., 1996; Jayakody, Danziger, & Pollak, 2000). In addition, as many as 65% of individuals on welfare have experienced domestic violence (Colten & Allard, 1997).

The availability of community resources is an exosystemic influence that has an impact on career development and employability. To obtain employment that provides an income over the poverty level, additional training is often needed (Brown et al., 1998). The availability of these programs--and whether they can be counted as a self-sufficiency activity--varies by county and state. In addition, low-income single mothers need additional support to maintain employment (McDonald, 1997). For example, most welfare recipients need to find employment that matches their skill level, that is on the city bus line, and that allows them to work during the hours when they can find affordable child care. If one of these supports is not available, they cannot maintain their employment (Brooks & Buckner, 1996; Brown et al., 1998; Children's Defense Fund, 1998). Thus, the mesosystem, which comprises the interrelations among two or more settings or support systems, can be the most important influence on career development for si ngle parents who receive public assistance.

Proposed Intervention With Client

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. However, these activities must be completed within the context of the ecological model (Cook, Heppner, & O'Brien, 2002).

Research has also found that low-income individuals may lack career and employment information (Blustein, Phillips, Jobin-Davis, Finkelberg, & Roarke, 1997; Healy, Mourton, Anderson, & Robinson, 1984; Manuele, 1984; Miller, 1982). Thus, helping clients locate information about job availability and career options in their particular community is an important activity. Learning skills such as job search, interviewing, effective communication, time management, and working as a member o f a team can also be valuable. In addition, career advancement (i.e., using an entry-level job to gain needed work skills and to advance to a higher paying one) needs to be discussed and taught (Brown et al., 1998).

One valuable exercise for welfare recipients is to explore the variables that affect their career choices. During individual and group sessions, I have used a simplified version of Bronfenbrenner's (1979) model to help clients understand the personal, family, community, and policy issues that affect their career development. The clients are often amazed, and sometimes angry, at all the competing roles and systems that they are required to negotiate without much support. They are also proud of their abilities to do so successfully.

Unfortunately, welfare recipients may not understand specific welfare policy requirements or their personal rights. This issue and others, such as a lack of support, mental health issues, personal stresses, discrimination, or poor educational backgrounds, also need to be explored. At times, psychological assessments are helpful to identify learning disabilities or mental health problems. Finding ways to decrease isolation and to gain positive supports is also helpful. Often a group modality is a superior approach because it allows participants to talk to other individuals who are in similar situations.

Various career counseling services would benefit Jeanetta. An assessment of her level of depression and encouragement to pursue personal counseling would be helpful. In addition, she might be able to use the support she received from her church to explore job possibilities, find child care, or receive emotional support. In a career group, Jeanetta could explore career information as well as reduce isolation. The career group should address issues specific to her needs, and suggested topics include identifying personal strengths and interests, understanding the job market, evaluating personal barriers, developing various strategies to handle those barriers, evaluating job and job training options, and making a plan to enter work or other employment activities. It is hoped that Jeanetta would leave the group with an idea of her personal strengths and barriers, a decrease in feelings of isolation and depression, and a plan to pursue a particular job or job training program.

Possible Problems and Issues in Counseling

The possible complications to effective career counseling are as varied and complex as the lives of the individuals on public assistance. Attendance at group or individual counseling sessions is often problematic. Competing priorities, such as ill children, the threat of eviction, other family members needing help, or simply a missed bus, lead to missed appointments. In addition, trust may also be an issue because of negative experiences clients have had with other human service programs. Gaining trust can be a slow process and one that may involve numerous phone calls or letters before engaging a prospective client.

Collaboration with other community programs and with the local welfare department is also helpful but complicated. Multiple problems need multiple solutions, and no single counselor or agency can do it all. However, caseworkers and job trainers may not understand the value of personal or career counseling. This is compounded by PRWORA itself, which emphasizes employment first. Thus, counseling (and even job training) may be seen as a luxury.

Counselors also need to be aware of their class, gender, race, and political biases. In addition, the work itself can be frustrating. Helping clients handle multiple barriers successfully can feel overwhelming to clients and to counselors. Therefore, the counselor will need to practice stress management, as well as teach it.

Final Comments

To help women like Jeanetta most successfully, career counselors need to understand the multitude of environmental and personal factors that influence career development for this population. Unfortunately, the changes in welfare policy have preceded informed scholarship. Thus, research and proven intervention strategies are lacking. Both are needed to inform policy and effective program development (Brown et al., 1998; Edwards, Rachel, & Dixon, 1999; Taskforce on Women, Poverty, and Public Assistance, 1997) The good news is that most welfare recipients want to work and "leave the system." Appropriate career counseling services can facilitate this process by helping clients evaluate their strengths, their personal barriers, and their options to ensure a successful transition from welfare to work.


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Donna L. McDonald, Portage Path Behavioral Health, Akron, Ohio. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Donna L. McDonald, Portage Path Behavioral Health, 340 South Broadway, Akron, OH 44308 (e-mail:
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Author:McDonald, Donna L.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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