The passage in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act may well mark the single most consequential social legislation of this decade, especially for rural southern families, for it marked a fundamental shift in the welfare system in the U.S. No longer focused on hardship relief, cash assistance now has a work-first focus, with mandatory work requirements and lifetime limits for recipients. Underlying this legislation have been four assumptions about the nature of the labor market and welfare recipients' characteristics and opportunities. This article examines the utility of these assumptions, especially in the context of the regional and spatial inequalities that pose serious challenges for southern rural welfare recipients in making the transition from welfare to work. Particular attention is given to determining the level of earnings that would be required by an employed single mother with two children to be able to live independently of any further assistance. The implications of this analysis for welfare recipients, especially those in the rural South, are considered.

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