Academic journal article The Future of Children

Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work

Article excerpt


Rebecca Blank explores a weakness of the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s-the failure of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to address the plight of so-called "hard to employ" single mothers and their children. TANF has moved many women on the welfare caseload into work, but the services it provides are not intensive or flexible enough to meet the needs of women with multiple disadvantages who find it difficult to get and keep full-time employment.

Blank notes that many of these women have lost welfare benefits because of their failure to find work. Increasingly, studies show that the number of single mothers who are neither working nor on welfare has grown significantly over the past ten years. Such "disconnected" women now make up 20 to 25 percent of all low-income single mothers, and reported income in these families is extremely low. Disconnected women are likely to report multiple and serious barriers to work, including low education, learning disabilities, health problems, or a history of domestic violence or substance abuse. Counting both longer-term welfare recipients and women who are neither working nor on welfare, Blank estimates that about 2.2 million women who head families are not able to find jobs or, if they do, cannot keep them. And almost 4 million children are in the care of these severely challenged single mothers.

Blank proposes a Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program to provide more effective employment assistance and other supports for these women and their children. The program she proposes would recognize that some women might be able to work only part-time or be temporarily unable to work. It would supplement their earnings while also offering referral to services that both address their own work barriers and provide help for their children. The support, however, would be temporary. Women would be regularly reassessed for their readiness to return to work or work more hours. Such a program, Blank notes, would require intensive case management. Estimating the cost of such a program is difficult, she explains, because costs would depend heavily on the number of women who participate. But she offers a rough estimate of $2.8 billion, some of which is already being spent as part of the current TANF program.

Welfare reform efforts during the mid-1990s led all fifty states to increase the scope of welfare-to-work programs and require more welfare recipients to participate in them. Although most of the adult caseload entered employment during the years following reform, some women continue to receive welfare benefits-through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program-while remaining jobless. Although recent changes in welfare reform law will intensify the demand that women receiving TANF move toward work, not all the unemployed women now on TANF will be able to make the transition to work. And a fast-growing share of single mothers has already left welfare (either voluntarily or involuntarily) but is not working. By my estimate, 20 to 25 percent of all low-income single mothers (those with household income below 200 percent of the official poverty level) fit in this latter category in 2004.

In this article I examine the issues faced by women who have multiple barriers to work and for whom substantial work, at least in the short run, is difficult. These hard-to-employ women are increasingly being moved off TANF in response to growing demands that welfare recipients begin work. They are largely not eligible for disability assistance through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, because although their ability to work is seriously impaired, they do not meet SSI's strict disability requirements. An increasing number of highly disadvantaged single mothers thus cannot access either welfare support or SSI.

To meet the needs of these women, I propose that states design a Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program to assess family needs, set realistic and limited work requirements (providing at least partial support), and link these women to other services that can help them address the issues that limit their access to employment. …

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