The purpose of this study is to explore how ideologies about work and education are enacted and negotiated in educational programmes for welfare recipients. Data for this study were collected over a six-month period in two publicly funded educational programmes for welfare recipients in a southern state of the USA. Data consisted of interviews, classroom observations, official documents and curriculum materials, and informal conversations with teachers and students. It was found that although teachers and students at times problematized official discourses in their interviews, these discourses were usually upheld when ideologies were enacted and negotiated in the classrooms. When students raised questions in class and sought to discuss problematic issues, they were discouraged from doing so by teachers, who quickly led discussions back into 'safe zones', thus upholding official discourses of the programme. The findings raise questions concerning the ability of these programmes to solve unemployment problems, and raise issues about whose interests these programmes are serving.