Before there was Clinton-Gingrich Welfare Reform in 1996 there was Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice’s “Work First” pilot program in 1995.
That year, the Clinton administration granted the Republican governor a waiver to implement a new work requirement in six counties that Fordice claimed would result in 50 percent of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients getting off welfare and into jobs within three years.
One of the targeted counties was Harrison County, where Reverend Carol Burnett was running a literacy program for low-income women in east Biloxi. Burnett—one of the first women United Methodist ministers in Mississippi—would later serve as director of the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) Office of Children and Youth in a Democratic administration.
“The women in this program were just trying to learn basic literacy skills, hoping they would be able to continue their education and get decent jobs in the future,” Burnett tells me. “Under the first President Bush women were allowed to pursue education while receiving welfare support. But the Mississippi pilot program changed that.”
Women were quickly forced out of literacy and other education programs to work as security guards, shrimp pickers, fast food workers, in poultry plants or at other low-wage jobs.
“We’re talking about low-wage jobs without the possibility of promotion, since the women didn’t have the education level needed for promotion,” says Burnett. “And a lot of seasonal jobs that were obviously short-term too.”
A 1996 report from graduate students at the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Social Work indicated that women were also forced from GED programs, and two-year associate degree programs, in order to take Work First jobs. Some did so despite lacking access to childcare—even when working night shifts—so children were placed in situations that increased their risk of suffering abuse or neglect.
“How feasible is it to expect mothers to care for children, work in a minimum wage job, and obtain an education on their own time with unreliable or no transportation, and no child care provided?” the report authors asked. “Most analysts agree that post-secondary education targeted to living wage jobs would provide a more realistic pathway out of poverty for mothers and their children.”
When public hearings were held to assess the Work First program and whether it should be rolled out statewide, Burnett shared the report with state legislators.
“We were telling them that this was a terrible idea, that it would be devastating,” says Burnett. “That it was locking poor women into low-wage work that would keep them mired in poverty.”