Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Relationship between Private Safety Nets and Economic Outcomes among Single Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Relationship between Private Safety Nets and Economic Outcomes among Single Mothers

Article excerpt

This article examines the relationship between private safety nets and economic outcomes among 2,818 low-income single mothers in three U.S. counties in the 1990s. I define private safety nets as the potential to draw upon family and friends for material or emotional support if needed. Using a combination of survey and administrative records data collected for the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies, I find that human capital deficits, depressive symptoms, and low self-efficacy are associated with having less private safety net support, suggesting that social network disadvantages compound individual-level disadvantages. I also find that mothers with strong private safety nets worked more, earned more, and were less reliant on welfare compared with mothers with more meager private safety nets.

Key Words: barriers to work, perceived support, safety net, single mother, social network, welfare.

Social scientists have long recognized that social networks play an important role in providing financial and in-kind support to poor families and have documented the accumulation of disadvantages associated with social isolation (Edin & Lein, 1997; Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1987, 1996). Still, policy debates about the causes of poverty and welfare dependence often polarize into two competing camps: those who emphasize individual causes such as intellectual or motivational deficits (e.g., Murray, 1984) and those who emphasize structural causes such as a lack of well paid job opportunities, affordable child care, or health care (e.g., Wilson, 1996). Scholars and policymakers have often overlooked or underemphasized the role that social networks of family and friends can play in supporting employment and in reducing reliance on welfare. Yet, common sense suggests that people who have social networks of family and friends to help out in a pinch will be better able to weather economic crises following divorce, illness, or job loss and consequently may be more able to sustain or find employment and less dependent on welfare programs.

Borrowing from Edin and Lein (1996), I use the term private safety net to represent potential support from social networks that a family can fall back on in times of need. Prior research (including Edin & Lein) has typically measured private safety net support as actual financial or in-kind support provided by social networks. In contrast, my research defines private safety net support as the potential to draw on support from social networks in times of need. Importantly, by examining perceived availability of social network support, my analysis avoids the problem of conflating the availability of social network support with the need for this support.

Welfare is often referred to as a safety net, a metaphor implying that welfare operates as a form of social insurance against events such as divorce, illness, or job loss (Burt, Pindus, & Capizzano, 2000). Similarly, I conceive of private safety nets as a form of insurance. In this paper, instead of measuring ongoing, continual assistance from networks, I am interested in whether having a private safety net to fall back on in emergencies and special circumstances is correlated with economic outcomes.

Surprisingly, little research has analyzed the relationship between private safety nets and employment or welfare. A simple scenario illustrates how private safety net support, available when needed, may influence employment, earnings, and welfare receipt. Imagine two single mothers who were formerly on welfare but who are currently employed and not receiving welfare. Both mothers have a child who gets sick and as a consequence cannot be cared for by his or her usual child-care provider. One of these mothers gets emergency child-care assistance from a friend or family member and goes to work. The other mother does not have family or friends to call on to provide emergency child care and thus misses work and gets fired. …

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