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

Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work
Rebecca M. Blank


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.

The new program would be more flexible than either TANF or SSI and would serve highly disadvantaged women both on and off welfare. Recognizing that some women cannot move into full-time employment, it would allow for partial work waivers, while continuing to demand that women work as much as they are able to. Recognizing that barriers to work can change over time, it would make waivers temporary and would regularly reassess the women’s ability to work. The program would cost about $5,200 per woman served, though precise costs would depend heavily on the nature and availability of special services (such as job training, mental health programs, or substance abuse programs). Assuming that the program operated in all fifty states and that it were used by one-fourth of the low-income single mothers who appear to have difficulty finding work (a maximal participation assumption), it would cost around $2.8 billion a year. Only a portion of that estimate represents new spending; some of these women would receive funding through TANF, and some of the services that would be provided through the new program are already funded from other sources.

The new program would provide services to women and children in some of the nation’s poorest families—families that are increasingly disconnected from public support of any kind. It would enable states that wish to provide some type of safety net for these families to balance ongoing work requirements with the recognition that at least some single mothers face formidable barriers to work.