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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 public conversation about women for whom welfare-to-work efforts have failed is long overdue. These women do not always evoke public sympathy. They are likely to live in poor neighborhoods, to have a history of drug abuse or sexual abuse, and to face ongoing mental or physical health problems. Public willingness to help them would be low if they lived on their own—just as there is little public interest in helping low-income men with these same problems. But these women are also mothers whose economic instability, poverty, and joblessness affect their children’s life opportunities. Policymakers’ concerns about this population are evident in the growing interest in research and demonstration projects aimed at the hard-to-employ. As findings from evaluations of the demonstration projects become available, they should be used to inform the design and implementation of new programs such as the one proposed here.

The relative lack of information about this population creates policy challenges. High on the policy agenda must be a database that provides better national information on the extent of long-term welfare use and the problems faced by the more disadvantaged women who leave welfare. The growing number of women who report no work and no welfare support is particularly troublesome. To develop effective policy prescriptions, it is essential to know more about who these women are and how they and their children are coping and surviving.

The success of welfare reform over the past ten years demonstrates that low-income women want to work and provide better futures for their children. A surprisingly large share of women has left welfare and entered the labor force, far greater than even the strongest supporters of welfare reform predicted in 1996. Yet some parents require more assistance than others. Although shortterm job search assistance has been effective for many former welfare recipients, it is not effective for all. Greater attention must be given to the needs of mothers who face serious barriers in entering the workforce and whose need for ongoing support may continue even if they are successful in finding low-wage work.