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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Introducing the Issue
Ron Haskins Isabel Sawhill

Helping Very Poor Mothers

If all our proposals for reducing poverty were implemented, and were moderately successful, several million families would still remain in poverty—and would likely be more disadvantaged than those who escaped poverty. The article by Rebecca Blank of the University of Michigan focuses on the appropriate policy response to single mothers who face multiple disadvantages and have difficulty finding or holding a full-time job. Some highly disadvantaged women now remain on welfare, although this population is shrinking. Meanwhile, studies show that the number of single mothers who are neither working nor on welfare has grown significantly over the past ten years, and especially since 2000. Such “disconnected” women now make up between 20 and 25 percent of all lowincome single mothers, and reported income in these families is extremely low. These women often report multiple barriers to work, including low education, health problems, or a history of domestic violence or substance abuse. Counting both longer-term welfare recipients and disconnected women, Blank estimates that about 2.2 million women who head families are not able to find jobs or are unsuccessful in holding them; almost 4 million children live in these economically challenged families.

Blank proposes a Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program to provide greater employment assistance to highly disadvantaged women, as well as economic support. The program would recognize that some women may be able to work only part time or may be temporarily unable to work. It would supplement their earnings while also offering referral to services that address some of their work barriers. The support would be only temporary, and women would be regularly reassessed for their readiness to return to work or work more hours. Such a program would require intensive case management, regular reassessment, and referral to mental health and substance abuse services, job training, and subsidized child care. The program could piggy-back on state Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, serving their most disadvantaged populations while also bringing in women who are currently outside the TANF system. Blank estimates the cost of her proposal at roughly $2.8 billion, although some of these dollars are already being spent as part of the TANF program.

Probably the greatest challenge emerging from the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s is the problem of the so-called “hard to employ” population. Current TANF programs are not well designed to serve these women, many of whom have very limited earnings and no access to public assistance. Blank’s proposal suggests an approach that addresses the problems of highly disadvantaged women who cannot easily move into full-time employment and need greater assistance and support than are provided by traditional work-welfare efforts.