Rural women remain vulnerable to joblessness

November 29, 1999

BLACKSBURG, VA - Low-skilled female workers in rural areas are likely to lead a return to welfare roles in a future economic downturn, an eventuality for which social service agencies should prepare, according to a Virginia Tech study.

"We need to closely monitor this group," said Bradford Mills Jr., one of the authors of the study. "They are very vulnerable to changes in the economy. They struggled to get off welfare even when the economy was booming. When the economy turns down - which it will do eventually - they can expected to be the first affected."

The study, "How Welfare Reform Impacts Non-metropolitan and Metropolitan Counties in Virginia," was written by Sarah Bosley, a graduate student, and Mills, an assistant professor, both in Virginia Tech's Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. The study was published by Virginia Tech's Rural Economic Analysis Program ( ).

It compared the factors that affected the ability of single females to enter the workforce in highly urbanized areas in Northern Virginia with those in rural areas of far Southwest Virginia. Though the study looks specifically at welfare caseload, employment, census and other data specifically for those localities, Mills said the study offers insights that other regions of Virginia and other regions of the South ought to find useful.

The study did not examine the provision of social services; rather, it investigated the economic factors against which the largest and most vulnerable group of welfare recipients has struggled to enter the job market.

Virginia has traditionally had a relatively low welfare caseload, due to the large number of military bases in the state and to its proximity to Washington, D.C., with its high demand for labor. Many rural parts of the state, however, suffer from chronic high unemployment.

Between 1993 and 1996, welfare roles in the state dropped from 3 percent of the population to 1.4 percent. Mills said a portion of that drop can be attributed to welfare reform, but part of it is due to the strengthening of the economy during the same period.

States and the federal government began implementing welfare reform in the mid-'90s. The federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was replaced by The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. In addition to this, Virginia's reform program, Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare, enacts some of the strictest work eligibility requirements in the nation. It requires most welfare recipients to begin work within 90 days of receiving benefits or lose program eligibility. They are also limited to 24 months of benefits in any five-year period, and a 60-month lifetime eligibility.

"Many single female-headed households with children, the primary recipient group of public cash-assistance payments, stand to be significantly impacted by these new eligibility requirements," the study notes.

Single female heads of households face more barriers to entering the workforce than other groups. The study also found that transportation and the presence of children in the household of a single female create greater barriers to entering the workforce in rural than metropolitan areas.

"Some of these factors can be overcome by women in Northern Virginia, but in the rural areas they become binding constraints," Mills said. The study suggests this is due to lack of extensive public transportation and the more diffuse provision of public services in rural areas.

In neither region did the average wage paid to women rise to a "minimum living wage," the amount of money calculated as necessary to maintain a household. That wage was calculated at $9.85, higher than the federal minimum wage.

The Northern Virginia localities included in the study are Falls Church, Fairfax City, and Fairfax County. The localities in Southwest Virginia included are the cities of Galax, Bristol, and Norton, and the counties of Bland, Grayson, Smyth, Wythe, Carroll, Washington, Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise.

Virginia Tech

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