Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Work-Related Activities of Single Mothers before and after Welfare Reform

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Work-Related Activities of Single Mothers before and after Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

How much did single mothers on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work after welfare reform? Has their work participation stopped increasing recently? Since the U.S. Federal Government established mandatory work requirements for most TANF recipients and minimum annual work participation rates for States in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, welfare recipients' participation in work-related activities became the central issue among both policymakers and researchers. Under the law, an adult TANF recipient generally is required to participate in "core" (1) and "supplementary" (2) work activities for at least 30 hours per week. (3) In response to PRWORA's requirement that recipients participate in work-related activities, there was a dramatic increase in adult welfare recipients' work activities, and the share of adults on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or TANF who were engaged in work-related activities for at least 1 hour per week in a typical month rose from 22.4 percent in 1996 to 43.1 percent in 2001. Many supporters of welfare reform viewed this increase in work participation as strong evidence of the success of PRWORA. In 2002, however, the weekly work participation rate decreased to 41.7 percent and then went to 41.2 percent in 2003 as the country's economy struggled to recover from the 2001 recession. (4)

This decline in work participation brought heavy criticism on the Federal Government's welfare reform effort as well as heated debates about how to raise work participation rates among people on welfare. Many argued that the Federal Government's minimum work participation rates were meaningless, especially because caseload reduction credits given to States and territories (except for Guam) effectively dropped their minimum participation rates to 10 percent or less. (5) Many also complained that a majority of States were able to protect families in their "separate State programs" from the Federal work requirements. Because 32 States established separate State programs and moved many families on TANF (especially two-parent families) into these programs, (6) PRWORA critics argued that the law in fact allowed for States not to have to increase the work participation rates of their welfare recipients.

Is it really true, as reported in the official TANF data, that nearly 60 percent of TANF recipients were not engaged in work-related activities even after the enactment of stringent work requirements? This study focuses on that question and attempts to find evidence that the often-cited numbers for work participation may be inaccurate because of the ways in which work participation rates were calculated. (7) First of all, the currently available participation rates do not include recipients in many of the 32 States with separate State programs, which very well might affect the overall participation rates. Second, because of the discretion given to States, the official participation rates were not calculated in a consistent way across the country. For instance, because States had the option of not including data on single-parent families with a child under age 1 in the calculation of work participation rates, it is not clear how many States actually disregarded those families in their calculations. This statistical issue is important because nearly all States exempted parents from work requirements for at least a couple of months following the birth of a baby and a substantial number of States exempted parents until their baby turned 1. Third, another example of inconsistency across States is whether they excluded families with disabled parents from their calculations. Although States were allowed to treat a two-parent family with a disabled parent as a single-parent family (thereby allowing the family to have a lower minimum work requirement), the Federal guideline on whether a disabled single parent should be included in the calculation was not clear. …

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