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Both Hands Tied

Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom in the Low-Wage Labor Market

Both Hands Tied studies the working poor in the United States, focusing in particular on the relation between welfare and low-wage earnings among working mothers. Grounded in the experience of thirty-three women living in Milwaukee and Racine, Wisconsin, it tells the story of their struggle to balance child care and wage-earning in poorly paying and often state-funded jobs with inflexible schedules—and the moments when these jobs failed them and they turned to the state for additional aid.

Jane L. Collins and Victoria Mayer here examine the situations of these women in light of the 1996 national Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and other like-minded reforms—laws that ended the entitlement to welfare for those in need and provided an incentive for them to return to work. Arguing that this reform came at a time of gendered change in the labor force and profound shifts in the responsibilities of family, firms, and the state, Both Hands Tied provides a stark but poignant portrait of how welfare reform afflicted poor, single-parent families, ultimately eroding the participants’ economic rights and affecting their ability to care for themselves and their children.

264 pages | 16 halftones, 8 line drawings, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Economics and Business: Business--Industry and Labor

Sociology: Individual, State and Society, Occupations, Professions, Work, Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations

Women's Studies


“This is a definitive book. Collins and Mayer connect the hard experiences of particular women buffeted by changes in U.S. welfare policy with a broad and illuminating account of the economic and political forces that have transformed welfare in the United States. Read this book to understand what welfare reform is really about.”

Frances Fox Piven, City University of New York (CUNY)

"Both Hands Tied is critical social science at its best. I know of no book that is more successful in drawing the lived experiences of the poor into dialogue with the structural and political forces that are shaping their lives. What does it mean to be a worker, a citizen, and a parent in the lower reaches of American society today? How has the turn to paternalist welfare provision, rooted in work enforcement and behavioral regulation, affected poor women’s struggles to achieve better lives for themselves and their children? By combining powerful narratives and incisive social analysis, the authors provide answers to these questions that are as troubling as they are persuasive. Brimming with insight and beautifully written, Both Hands Tied is an important piece of scholarship that pulls back the curtain to reveal a national disgrace.”

Joe Soss, University of Minnesota

“This book is bold, ambitious, and scholarly, and paints an alarming picture of disadvantage and marginalization of a group of women in the 21st century. I warmly recommend this important and ground-breaking work.”

Work, Employment and Society

Table of Contents

List of IllustrationsAcknowledgmentsPreface1 Introduction: The Connection Between Welfare and Work2 Welfare Reform’s Context: The Growth of the Low-Wage Service Sector3 Welfare Reform’s Content: Building Connections Between Work and Welfare4 Tying the First Hand: The Solitary Wage Bargain5 Tying the Second Hand: Challenges to Economic Citizenship6 Both Hands Tied: The Race to the Bottom in the Low-Wage Labor Market7 Conclusion: Untying the HandsAppendix A. Description of Interview ProcessAppendix B. Interview ProtocolAppendix C. Economic Composition of SampleAppendix D. Industrial Composition of Milwaukee and RacineAppendix e. Wisconsin Works (W-2)DocumentsNotesReferences



Labor and Labor Movements section, American Sociological Association: Distinguished Scholarly Book Award

National Women's Studies Association: Sara A. Whaley Prize

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