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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

A Proposed Policy Response

Public attention over the past fifteen years has focused on moving women into work. It has not yet adequately addressed the reality that some women are not making this transition. It is time to rethink policy for women who face such serious disadvantages, and often so many of them, that full-time and steady employment is not possible. As noted, increasingly these women are losing access to welfare. Many have already left TANF, in part because of sanctions and time limits, and recent changes in the law will only accelerate this process.

Most women in this group also lack access to SSI, the primary federal low-income disability program (the poor elderly do qualify for SSI). During the 1990s, states made a concerted effort to move as many women (or their children) as possible onto SSI, in part because the program is funded primarily by federal dollars, whereas nearly half of welfare dollars are paid by states. To receive SSI, one must meet low-income eligibility standards, have a medical disability that will last at least twelve months, and be unable to engage in “substantial gainful activity” (as defined by a monthly earnings amount). Essentially, an SSI applicant has to prove that she is largely unable to work. Although SSI participants are encouraged to work if they can, not surprisingly a very small share of the SSI caseload does work.17

Policy analysts have increasingly been recognizing the need for some sort of temporary or partial disability system that allows people to receive partial support (for problems that limit work but do not create complete disability) or temporary support (for problems that may not be permanent but that limit work in the short term).18 Such an approach is widely used in European social welfare systems and in private disability systems in the United States. The current public U.S. disability system for low-income people does not recognize that “disability is a dynamic process rather than a static classification.”19 I propose that states create a Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program to assist hardto- employ low-income mothers.

States must address the needs of the growing population of disconnected mothers and their children who are receiving support neither from TANF nor from SSI. Women who are not receiving TANF benefits are less likely to receive other services for their children or themselves, including food stamps and Medicaid.20 States must also address the needs of long-term TANF recipients who need more help in moving to employment than most short-term job search programs can provide. Helping these women deal effectively with their barriers to employment can move them toward greater economic self-sufficiency and reduce the need for states to impose time limits or sanctions. In short, my proposed program could serve both disadvantaged women in the TANF caseload and women outside TANF who have not found stable employment. (Some other lowincome family heads who are not single mothers might need and be eligible for the services provided by this program. For convenience, I discuss the program as if it were available solely to single mothers; in reality, it is likely to be used primarily by them.)

A state Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program would, like TANF, demand that its clients work as much as possible, but it would provide economic stability and support to highly disadvantaged families. It would have more flexibility than TANF. For example, it would recognize that many of these women may be able to work part time or irregularly even if they cannot work full time; that the circumstances that create work barriers may change, necessitating changes in levels of support; and that these families must be linked with medical and economic supports both to prevent extreme poverty and to ease the severity and duration of the barriers that keep the mothers from work.

What would such a state program look like? It would begin by assessing (and later, as appropriate, reassessing) the family’s health problems, the mother’s personal and skill limitations, and the family’s overall economic situation. Then, if TANF or SSI support was not feasible, it would determine eligibility. Two key questions would be how much work could realistically be expected and how long support should be provided before a reassessment is in order. The program would determine whether barriers to work should be considered full time or partial and would provide support for the family (at the level of TANF monthly benefits) accordingly. For example, a woman whose work barrier is judged to require a 50 percent work waiver would be eligible for 50 percent of the TANF benefit, based on the assumption that she is able to work part time. The program would then refer the mother to other available services, such as mental health services, substance abuse services, counseling on domestic violence, job training, and subsidized child care. Caseworkers would also assist families in applying for programs such as food stamps, the federal nutrition program for infants and children, or Medicaid. Finally the program would involve case management. A caseworker would regularly assess how the family is doing with regard to employment, child well-being, and the use of services.

A client could enter the program in many ways. The TANF system could refer its more disadvantaged clients who have not found jobs. It could also refer people who have lost TANF eligibility either through time limits or through sanctions. Some states may want to refer some new TANF applicants to this program, rather than enrolling them in TANF. The SSI program could refer people turned down for SSI assistance who are not on TANF. People not connected to any public assistance programs could also request help. Some of these clients might receive support in the program through TANF block grant funds and some could be funded out of other dollars.

I would propose setting up the program as a separate funding and program stream that states would administer as part of their TANF-related programs. On the one hand, program participants would be outside the standard TANF caseload counts; they would not be subject to TANF rules on time limits once they had a waiver, and they would not be counted as part of the state’s caseload that is subject to forty-hour work requirements. On the other hand, participants would continue to face work requirements (either current and part-time or forthcoming at the end of their waiver) and could be sanctioned if they do not participate in mental health or counseling services to which they are assigned or if they do not fulfill their (part-time) job search or employment expectations.

Three examples will show how various clients might interact with this system. In the first, a mother who is caring for a partly disabled preschooler is initially given a full work waiver. Once the child reaches school age, the mother is given a partial work waiver and expected to find work that allows her to be home outside school hours.

In the second, a mother who was sanctioned off TANF a year ago but has not been steadily employed is initially assessed and found to have a history of substance abuse. States with substance abuse programs may want to refer her to such a program and to reassess when she has completed it. Some states may be willing to provide a partial waiver but require part-time work. Other states may link her with food stamps and Medicaid and make sure the children are adequately cared for, but refuse additional help given her earlier TANF sanctions.

In the third, a mother who left TANF with a job but has since worked only sporadically is initially assessed and found to have depression and low cognitive functioning. A caseworker might want to make sure she receives medical services for her depression. She may receive a temporary partial work waiver, providing at least part-time support, but face re-assessment of her employability after receiving treatment for depression.

Clearly, different state responses are possible in each of these situations, depending on funding capability and the availability of other services. Not all low-income single mothers will be employable in the short run or even in the long run. Some may best be served by being placed in the 20 percent of the TANF caseload that can be waived from time limits. But even highly disadvantaged women can be encouraged to work at least part-time and as regularly as possible. Some women may receive partial benefits over an extended period, with a partial work waiver under this program.

The primary advantage of this system is that it would provide states with flexibility to respond to families for whom current welfareto- work efforts are not adequate. The system recognizes that not all family heads are able to move into full-time employment and supports them even in some circumstances where TANF funds cannot be used. It recognizes that family circumstances change over time and that women who have trouble holding a full-time job this month might be able to do so in the future. It also allows states to assist and recognize disabilities that are less permanent and severe than those covered by SSI.

A disadvantage of the program is that it would establish a new TANF category with somewhat complex case management. The diversity of needs within this population, however, necessitates extensive case management with multiple service linkages. After all, the greatest value of the program is the flexibility that allows different responses to families with different needs. Still, the primary new part of this program is the assessment and determination system at the front end. The services it would provide are already available within all states, although there may be limits on how many clients can be served. Services such as payment of benefits and monitoring of work and income levels are standard in TANF programs, and many states already do extensive front-end assessment of new TANF applicants. Women who were referred to additional services would be using existing services for mental and physical health care, substance abuse treatment, or job and child care assistance.

I have described this as a state-specific program responding to the needs of a growing population that is not being served by TANF or SSI. (The details of how the program would interact with TANF requirements would need to be worked out for women who receive some funding from TANF sources.) However, the program could also be more nationally focused. Changing the SSI program over time to allow for more partial or temporary disability determinations would reduce the need for the program.

In states that have 50 percent of their TANF caseload in full-time work activities, as required, the remaining 50 percent of the caseload could be assisted with the assessment and services described in this program. In fact, a woman on TANF might be referred to this program as her work “assignment” by her TANF caseworker. In this sense, the line between TANF cases and cases under the Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program might be quite blurred; the two groups should overlap.

Finally, this program could also cover people who are not in families with minor children (and not part of the TANF or ex-TANF population). One could imagine using a partial and temporary work waiver system to help adults in such households who have become disconnected from employment, particularly single men who may be struggling to escape from homelessness or drug abuse problems. The American public has traditionally been reluctant to provide much support to adults who are not caring for children or who are not seriously disabled, however, so expanding the program in this way would take some change in public attitudes.