Hidden punishment: New social work faculty member explores how workplace policy and practice undercut labor wins

What happens after lower income workers, particularly parents of young children, make a labor win? How do increased wages affect their experience of material hardships? How do improved working conditions, like having access to paid time off, affect parents’ ability to care for their children in a way that feels right to them? The answers may seem obvious – things are better, right? By using a critical lens and listening to the lived experiences of workers, Wayne State University School of Social Work Assistant Professor Kess Ballentine has found that even in “pretty good” lower wage jobs, individual and structural discrimination complicate the potential benefits of these labor wins and punish lower wage workers for accessing improved labor conditions.

Prior to joining the School in fall 2021, Ballentine worked as an elementary special educator, and as a research interviewer and data technician on a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded study of group home care for children with mental health and behavioral disorders. Ballentine has also worked as a domestic violence advocate and a community program developer. She earned her Ph.D. and a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Doctoral Certificate from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021. Ballentine also obtained a Master of Social Work while at the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. While at Pennsylvania State University, Ballentine earned a Bachelor of Science in Health Policy and Administration and was a Schreyer Honors Scholar with a Minor in Economics. Through her education and practice, Ballentine has gained insight into the fields of education, mental health, and child welfare and is now applying this knowledge as an engaged researcher on efforts to improve family and child well-being among lower-income families in the heart of Detroit.

Ballentine’s work examines the complicated realities of implementing progressive labor policies in the community, including how labor affects the way a parent interacts with child-serving systems, such as school or child welfare agencies.

By understanding the pros and cons of each policy for parents of young children, we can better determine how to intervene and what next “win” we should pursue through the labor movement or through other lines of social justice advocacy. - Social Work Assistant Professor Kess Ballentine, PhD

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, those making $16 per hour and below qualify as low-wage. This equates to 38% to 42% of American families (U.S. GAO, 2017; National Employment Law Center & Economic Policy Institute, 2019). Ballentine’s dissertation, “You Have No Idea What It Takes: An Examination of How Low-wage Single Parents Navigate Work and Home,” investigates institutional barriers to family well-being for these low-wage earning parents using interviews with 21 single parents working in relatively good (e.g., annual raises, health insurance, paid time off), lower-wage health care jobs. Ballentine examined how specific policies and practices in workplaces, schools, and community programs interacted and affected the participants in the study, who were primarily Black, single mothers. “Women, particularly Black and Brown women, are disproportionately working in the low-wage job sector, and my study found that while many policies in these ‘pretty good’ jobs were beneficial, the benefits were undermined by racism, sexism, and poor job quality. This work has implications for social workers and other advocates of social justice focusing on racial, gender, and economic equity.”

Many more children experience material hardship than just those identified as living in poverty, with nearly 1/3 of American children experiencing material hardship in households earning more than 200% of the poverty line (Rodems & Shaefer, 2020). The majority of Ballentine’s work takes her into the heart of the urban community to amplify the voices of working parents in lower-wage jobs and their children who suffer in silence. In many instances, these parents experience individual and structural discrimination that help reinforce oppression and make it more difficult for them to engage in their children’s lives by increasing their stress, depleting their emotional resources, and requiring long hours. Ballentine plans to continue her research in Detroit to support ongoing and developing social justice efforts to promote individual and family well-being among lower-income families. “I have worked in a range of systems, including public special education, child welfare, child mental health, and community organizing, in Durham, NC and Pittsburgh, PA. I plan to draw on these practice experiences to help our students develop the necessary skills to participate in social justice work and leadership in the urban environment.”

Joining an urban institution committed to working hand-in-hand with community members and organizations to build just and sustainable cities has been a perfect fit for Ballentine’s community-engaged scholarship and teaching. “In Wayne State and the Detroit community, I feel I am in the company of many others who are working toward creative, progressive solutions to promote equity. As a social work professor, I am excited to help students not only understand the complex history and social forces that brought social work and Detroit to the present moment but also build key practice skills necessary for engaging in social justice work.”

Learn more about Ballentine on her faculty profile.

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