An illusion of difference: Reconstituting women on welfare into the working poor

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marjorie L. DeVault


Women, Working poor, Welfare-to-work, Institutional ethnography

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology | Women's Studies


As central as employment and training programs have been to the goals of welfare reform, there has been little attention to the everyday activities of these programs and the people attending them. This study draws attention to the practices of one such program. By means of participant observation, I attended approximately one third of three ten week nursing assistant training programs, each conducted by the same nurse trainer in a small city in Upstate New York. I met and worked along side a total of twenty-eight women trainees, mostly mothers receiving welfare benefits.

Relying on Dorothy E. Smith's (1987) method of "institutional ethnography," I make problematic the treatment of caring work as women's labor and the differences between welfare and work, and paid and unpaid labor. I draw attention to the complications created by circumstances of poverty in the women's negotiations of family and work demands and considered the trainees' engagement of formal and informal aspects of classroom instruction. From my observations of the women's field placement in a nursing home, I consider the differences between the work the trainees performed at home and in the work place, and between the work of caring for patients and other heavy and hazardous paid work performed more often by men. The women's reactions to the program at the end of the ten weeks and at several intervals there after showed how the relationships between the women helped them cope with and challenge power relations at home and on the job.

Finally, I demonstrate how the nurse trainer's translation of what needed to be accomplished in the program occurred as a final layer among policies and protocols, and happened at a variance allowed by the several institutions guiding her interpretation. The exploitation and servitude of poor non-white women trainees in a nursing home occurred as part of everyday medical operations so that reconstituting women on welfare into the working poor might be recognized not as an outrageous action against particular groups of people but as a welcomed outcome of a government's concern for justice.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.