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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families
Ariel Kalil Rebecca M. Ryan

Making Ends Meet: Mothers' Sources of Support in Fragile Families

In their 1997 study of low-income single mothers, Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein provided an answer to the question posed above: how do mothers in fragile families make ends meet? They found that unwed mothers seldom survived on income from paid work or welfare benefits alone.20 Rather, the vast majority relied on a range of economic supports, including cash and in-kind benefits from public programs and help from relatives and friends. Despite substantial economic and policy changes since that time, Edin and Lein's findings still describe reality for many mothers in fragile families. Although most unwed mothers are employed, most also rely on public programs like welfare, food stamps, and public housing even as the numbers receiving cash assistance have declined. Moreover, as mothers in fragile families support children increasingly outside the welfare system, many are turning to private sources of support to ease their economic strain. In this section, we summarize the role that each income source and safety net plays in mothers' lives and what is known about how, together, they form fragile families' complex income packages.

With rising employment and declining welfare participation over the past fifteen years, unwed mothers' income packages have hinged increasingly on their own earnings. Thus, although mothers' earnings are relatively low, they nevertheless represent a significant share of mothers' total household income. In ongoing work with FFCWS data, Qin Gao and Irwin Garfinkel have parsed the proportion of mothers' total income package that comes from various sources, including own earnings, others' earnings, and cash and in-kind public benefits (see figure 1).21 Among these sources, unwed mothers' own earnings account for nearly a third of the average household income package. Although exact estimates vary by subgroup of unwed mothers and income calculations, it is clear that mothers' own earnings make up an increasingly important part of fragile families' income.

Most mothers in fragile families also depend on other household members to make ends meet, which is one reason why cohabiting and doubling up is so prevalent. Data from the FFCWS suggest that on average, income from cohabiting partners constitutes a quarter of the total household income package. That may be why cohabiting mothers in fragile families report slightly higher household incomes and somewhat lower levels of economic hardship than single mothers (although cohabiting mothers also earn more money than single mothers because of their higher levels of education).22 Moreover, most unwed mothers in fragile families who are not cohabiting with romantic partners live with other adults who contribute earnings to the household income, as noted. The similarity of rates of employment across living arrangements suggests that most unwed fathers cannot support their families independently or that cohabiting men (and other adults) do not contribute enough of their income to reduce mothers' economic burden.23 However, mothers' reliance on others' earnings also indicates that most do not shoulder the breadwinning responsibilities alone.

Public Programs
Most mothers in fragile families also depend on some type of cash or in-kind public benefit to make ends meet. Using data from the FFCWS, Julien Teitler, Nancy Reichman, and Lenna Nepomnyaschy found that one year after a nonmarital birth, 94 percent of the mothers were receiving some form of public support (see table 2 for unwed mothers' rates of receipt across public programs). According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), a national survey that provides information about the income and public program participation of individuals and households in the United States, 44 percent of all unwed mothers, who include never-married and divorced mothers, and 67 percent of never-married mothers participated in at least one government program in 2004.24 Mothers' participation varies by specific program and by family composition, as does the role each plays in families' overall income packages. In this section we review these patterns, dividing public benefits into cash and in-kind benefits.

Cash Assistance Programs The most direct source of cash assistance for low-income families is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which, as part of welfare reform in 1996, replaced a federal entitlement to cash benefits with time-limited, work-based assistance. Although welfare rolls have declined overall, TANF still serves an important economic function for many mothers in fragile families. According to data from the FFCWS, nearly one-third of unwed mothers received TANF benefits during the year following a nonmarital birth.25 Rates of TANF participation were higher among mothers not cohabiting with the child's father than among cohabiting mothers, a pattern also found in an analysis of data from the 2001 Current Population Survey.26 Still, according to both data sources, rates of TANF participation for cohabiting mothers resembled those of noncohabiting unwed mothers more than those of married mothers, suggesting that TANF plays an important role in the economic lives of fragile families regardless of family structure.

Despite fragile families' relatively high TANF participation rates, cash payments account for a small portion of their average income. Gao and Garfinkel estimate that among all unwed mothers in the FFCWS sample, income from TANF accounted for less than 5 percent of mothers' total income package, with in-kind benefits providing the lion's share after mothers' own earnings.27 Among unwed mothers in the sample who received TANF or food stamps (most participants who receive TANF also receive food stamps), employed mothers received on average $2,500 and unemployed mothers received approximately $3,500 from TANF in the year after their child was born.28 Lower TANF participation rates and the low value of TANF benefits may explain in part why unwed mothers are increasingly dependent on other forms of cash and in-kind public benefits.

As TANF caseloads plummeted after the mid-1990s, the numbers of low-income families, and unwed mothers in particular, receiving the earned income tax credit (EITC) substantially increased. The EITC, a refundable tax credit for low-income workers, disproportionately benefits families and single mothers. Its average value has increased substantially, from $601 in 1990 to $1,974 in 2007.29 Because the credit is refundable, an unwed mother whose credit exceeds her taxes receives the difference in cash. Because it is a tax credit, payments increase with income up to a point, encouraging low-income unwed mothers to work even at very low-wage jobs. Janet Currie characterizes the EITC as a crucial part of unwed mothers' "invisible safety net" because it makes work pay, or at least pay more than it otherwise would.30

Because of the substantial value of the EITC for low-income families and its widespread use, the EITC likely constitutes a significant portion of working mothers' overall income package. According to estimates from the 2001 March Current Population Survey, the EITC represented 12 percent of net income for those in the lowest income quintile of unwed mothers.31 According to Gao and Garfinkel's estimates, the EITC accounted for nearly one-third of unwed mothers' average cash benefits in the FFCWS, a significant proportion even if cash benefits overall accounted for a relatively small share of the total income package.32 This finding underscores the importance of stable work for mothers in fragile families: losing employment today means losing not only one's income, but also a significant tax credit.

In-Kind Assistance Programs In her 2006 book, The Invisible Safety Net, Janet Currie concludes that in-kind benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid constitute the most essential, though largely invisible, part of the public welfare system. She argues that in-kind benefits often make up the difference between low-income families' household earnings and what it costs to buy family essentials like food, shelter, medical care, and child care. For mothers in fragile families, in-kind benefits are the most commonly used public programs and represent the largest share of household income from public sources, contributing as much to mothers' income packages as their earnings. In Currie's words, these programs form "a broad-reaching and comprehensive net that especially protects young children in low-income families." 33

The largest provider of food assistance to low-income families is the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The value of food stamps depends on household size and income, but the allotment is typically substantial enough to deflect a family's spending away from food to other essentials in a meaningful way. Thus food assistance serves a particularly important purpose in unwed mothers' economic support systems.

Changes in food stamp participation rates over the past ten years indicate the program has become a more important source of support for fragile families—and increasingly so since the economy entered into recession in 2007.34 In the FFCWS, nearly half of unwed mothers received food stamps one year after a nonmarital birth, with higher participation rates among noncohabiting mothers.35 Indeed, Teitler and colleagues estimated that unwed mothers in the FFCWS who received food stamps and were employed received about $2,000 on average in yearly benefits, and those who were unemployed received about $2,500. The same mothers received on average $2,500 and $3,500, respectively, in TANF benefits, suggesting that for mothers who receive either type of benefit, food stamps represent a substantial portion of mothers' total in-kind benefits—less than Medicaid and housing assistance but as much as other sources of food assistance and more than child care assistance.36

Food stamps may help mothers in fragile families by helping to keep household consumption consistent during times of relationship instability. According to a study by Daphne Hernandez and Kathleen Ziol-Guest, unwed mothers in the FFCWS were more likely to enroll in the food stamp program after exiting a cohabiting union and more likely to leave the program after entering a cohabiting union.37 If food stamps help most when they offset income lost after a union dissolution, mothers in fragile families may depend on them more than other unwed mothers owing to their higher levels of relationship turbulence.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program serves fewer families overall and has a lower dollar value than food stamps, but it may play a more important economic role for mothers in fragile families because it helps families with young children secure foods with high nutritional value.38 Perhaps for this reason, more than 80 percent of unwed mothers in the FFCWS reported receiving WIC one year after the focal child's birth,39 compared with about half who reported food stamp participation and 66 percent who reported receiving Medicaid. According to Gao and Garfinkel, WIC benefits made up a sizable portion of fragile families' total in-kind benefits, similar in proportion to housing and food stamps. Together, WIC and food stamps made up a larger portion of fragile families' in-kind benefits than housing assistance.40

Janet Currie hails the expansion of publicly funded health care coverage for low-income children over the past fifteen years, largely through Medicaid and the State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), as "a tremendous success story." Of all in-kind assistance programs, public health insurance is by far the most widely used among unwed mothers, with 28 percent participating in either Medicaid, Medicare, or other public insurance in 2008.41 As with other public programs, mothers in fragile families are more likely to receive Medicaid than are unwed mothers overall. In the year following a nonmarital birth, 70 percent of all unwed mothers in the FFCWS received Medicaid.42 Again, as with other programs, mothers in cohabiting relationships were less likely to receive Medicaid than those in noncohabiting relationships or those with no relationship with the child's father.

Because public health insurance covers expenses that are by definition irregular, it is not as clear how Medicaid affects unwed mothers' economic support systems. However, a few points are clear. First, because a mother in a fragile family no longer needs to receive welfare to have her child covered by Medicaid, the current public health insurance system does not discourage work—or the income that comes with it—the way it did before welfare reform. Second, patterns of cycling on and off Medicaid or SCHIP coverage, often called "churning," suggest that many mothers apply for Medicaid when their child needs specific medical services, ones she could not afford without insurance. In this way, public health insurance allows, and thus encourages, families to keep their incomes above the poverty line, and can in many cases defray very high medical costs for families living at the economic margins. Assuming average annual Medicaid payments for each eligible household child, Gao and Garfinkel estimated that Medicaid payments constituted the largest single share of unwed mothers' in-kind benefits.

The goal of public housing assistance is to reduce housing costs and improve housing quality for low-income families. Because housing often makes up a substantial portion of the typical family's budget, housing assistance by definition should represent an essential part of single mothers' economic support system. It also ensures that recipients' living conditions have at least a minimum standard of quality, despite public concern over the health and safety conditions in housing projects. Housing assistance, however, is not an entitlement, and many poor and low-income families who want and need housing assistance cannot get it, making it a system that works well for those who win assistance, but that leaves many out entirely.

Among mothers in fragile families, housing assistance plays a role similar to TANF benefits. More than a quarter of all unwed mothers in the FFCWS received some type of housing assistance in the year after a nonmarital birth, compared with about one-third receiving TANF, and many who received one form of assistance also received the other.43 Thus, although most mothers in fragile families do not receive housing assistance or welfare, for those who do, housing assistance constitutes a significant proportion of their in-kind benefits. Not surprisingly, cohabiting mothers are less likely to receive housing assistance than mothers who live alone, or with family, presumably because cohabiting mothers' higher household incomes enable more of them to afford housing or because more of these households are ineligible for assistance. Thus, housing assistance, like TANF benefits, is a particularly important source of income for mothers who live without romantic partners or other adults.

Of all forms of in-kind assistance, however, child care may be the most crucial to fragile families' economic well-being even if its cash value is not always as high as that of housing or food assistance. With the new work requirements and time limits for cash assistance under TANF, nearly all low-income mothers must work. Child care is expensive, particularly for young children. Although poor families pay less for child care than wealthier families, they spend a larger share of their income on it than other families (25 percent compared with 7 percent), at least among those who pay out-of-pocket for care.44 Without public assistance to help pay for child care, full-time employment would be untenable for many mothers in fragile families.

Acknowledging this dilemma, the federal government has substantially expanded funding for subsidized child care since putting welfare reform into place. Much of the funding flows through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a consolidation of various child care subsidy programs for low-income families and now the federal government's largest child care program.45 Mothers can use the subsidy to pay for either center- or home-based care, including, in many states, care provided by relatives. The federal government also funds Early Head Start and Head Start, center-based interventions for poor and low-income children from birth to age five. Finally, states such as Oklahoma, Georgia, and New York now provide universal prekindergarten (UPK) programs to all children regardless of economic status. In 2002, an estimated 13 percent of poor families with preschoolers received some kind of government help to pay for preschool, and this percentage may undercount children in publicly funded preschool programs like UPK.46

Government-funded child care helps mothers in fragile families in two key ways. First, it reduces their out-of-pocket costs for care—costs that the vast majority could not likely afford. Using data from the FFCWS and a sample of mothers on a wait list for child care subsidies, Nicole Forry found that subsidy receipt reduced mothers' monthly child care costs by more than $250 and reduced the share of household income spent on child care by 10 to 14 percentage points.47 In a study of nine experimental evaluations of twenty-one welfare and employment programs, Lisa Gennetian and her colleagues found that programs offering enhanced child care assistance prevented mothers' child care costs from rising even though their work hours increased, unlike programs that did not offer enhanced child care assistance, and reduced child care expenses for mothers of preschoolers.48 For families at the economic margins, these cost savings may make other child-related needs, such as enriching children's home learning environments, far more affordable.

Second, and perhaps more important, subsidized child care allows mothers to work when they might not otherwise be able to do so. Using data from the 1999 National Survey of American Families, David Blau and Erdal Tekin found that child care subsidies increased employment among unwed mothers by as much as 33 percentage points and reduced unemployment by 20 percentage points.49 Subsidies not only increase the likelihood mothers will work but they increase the hours worked and employment duration, both because assistance makes care more affordable and also because it can decrease child care instability.50 For instance, a substantial proportion of mothers in the FFCWS report having their child care "fall through" so that it disrupted their work schedules.51 But, using the same data, Nicole Forry and Sandra Hofferth found that child care–related work disruptions were far less likely among child care subsidy recipients.52 For lowering costs of care and promoting stable employment, subsidized child care plays an essential role in many mothers' economic support systems.

Despite its potential benefits, not all eligible mothers receive child care assistance. Child care subsidies are a block grant rather than an entitlement, and many states can cover only a fraction of those mothers who are eligible.53 Moreover, research suggests that many eligible mothers do not apply for subsidies because they are either unaware of the program or unable to navigate its administrative complexities.54 These dynamics produce the seemingly incongruous result of long waiting lists and low take-up rates for child care subsidies in many states. Head Start is not a reliable alternative for many of these mothers because it has never been funded adequately to allow all eligible children to participate. Universal prekindergarten programs offer an attractive and dependable option but serve only preschool-aged children and are available in only a handful of states. Consequently, mothers often turn to private sources of child care among their friends and family. These arrangements, often called kith and kin care, no doubt help mothers economically and emotionally if the arrangement is free or low-cost and if they trust the provider to keep their child safe. However, quality in these arrangements is typically lower than in center-based programs.55 As a result, with or without government-funded child care assistance, many mothers in fragile families are often left with few affordable, high-quality child care options.

Private Support
Edin and Lein's study of low-income single mothers described how the costs of working often outweighed the benefits.56 Although most mothers they interviewed could get jobs (83 percent had some formal work experience), many had a hard time making ends meet because costs of child care, medical care, transportation, housing, and clothing for work increased when they left welfare. Overwhelmingly, those working mothers whom Edin and Lein identified as "wage-reliant" turned to cohabiting relatives or boyfriends and other relatives and friends to provide extra cash, essentials like diapers and food, free child care, and access to transportation. Edin and Lein see these forms of private economic support as the "private safety net" that mothers often need in addition to earnings and the public safety net of welfare, food assistance, and housing assistance.

Although the expansion of work supportive programs like the EITC and child care assistance has improved the trade-off between work and welfare for unwed mothers, private safety nets still play a crucial role in fragile families' economic survival. According to research from the FFCWS, the vast majority of unwed mothers received financial or instrumental help from partners, relatives, or friends in the years following an unwed birth. For example, Teitler and colleagues report that 96 percent of unwed mothers received cash or in-kind support from private sources, with 86 percent receiving help from the children's fathers and 64 percent from family or friends (see table 2).57 Employed mothers were just as likely to receive help from private sources as were unemployed mothers, and most mothers in both groups received both public and private support of some kind. For all unwed mothers in fragile families, private support was the most common form of economic help received next to own earnings and WIC food assistance, suggesting that private safety nets are essential regardless of employment status.

Although the vast majority of mothers in fragile families receive private economic support, the source and availability of support vary by mothers' relationship status. For instance, data from the FFCWS suggest that cohabiting mothers relied more often on their partners for cash assistance, in-kind gifts, and instrumental help with child care and transportation than on other family members, whereas single, or noncohabiting, mothers relied more often on family and friends, particularly when they had no relationship with the father.58 Mothers' fertility patterns also affect the overall availability of private support. Kristin Harknett found that unwed mothers in the FFCWS with children by more than one man reported significantly less available support than those with children by one man.59 She concluded from these patterns that smaller, denser kin networks offer stronger private safety nets than broader, weaker ties of the kind multipartnered fertility might bring. Thus, assuming sources of support are relatively interchangeable, multipartnered fertility puts mothers in fragile families at greater risk for low levels of private support than does nonmarital childbirth itself.

Cash Assistance Cash assistance from private networks is a small but important part of many single mothers' economic support systems. Edin and Lein found that among the 165 wage-reliant mothers they interviewed, nearly half received some cash from private networks in a typical month, excluding nonresident fathers, with an average of $140 from family and friends and $226 from boyfriends among those who received any help.60 More recently, Melissa Radey and Yolanda Padilla estimated that nearly 30 percent of unwed mothers in the FFCWS received cash from family or friends, excluding fathers, three years after a nonmarital birth, with the average being $1,172 a year or about $100 a month.61 Typically, this cash is used to make up the difference in a given month between earned income, cash assistance, and the money needed to buy food, pay rent and utilities, or cover emergency expenses like car repairs. Other studies suggest that although many unwed mothers rely on cash assistance from social networks periodically, the size of private cash loans is typically small, accounting for no more than 5 percent of mothers' income.62 In this way, cash assistance from private sources may help mothers cope during stressful times but does not fundamentally change their economic circumstances.

In-Kind Assistance A more common form of private support from family and friends than cash loans is in-kind assistance like presents for children and household items. Mothers in Edin and Lein's study reported regularly receiving household essentials like diapers and groceries as well as coveted clothes and toys for children from family members, boyfriends, and nonresident fathers.63 Recently, in a qualitative study of mothers participating in the New Hope Project, a work support program for low-income families in Milwaukee, Eboni Howard found that material assistance was the most prevalent—and perceived to be the most helpful—type of informal support mothers received.64 In the FFCWS, most nonresident fathers who were romantically involved with the mother bought children clothes, toys, medicine, or food at least sometimes, although fathers' in-kind assistance, like informal child support, was much less frequent when parents were not romantically involved.65 In-kind contributions not only fill in essential gaps in the monthly budget, but also allow mothers to provide their children with nonessential items that enhance their own and their children's subjective sense of well-being.

Instrumental Assistance In addition to direct forms of private cash and in-kind economic assistance, single mothers often rely on their private networks to provide instrumental assistance they might not otherwise afford. Edin and Lein emphasized the importance of emergency and regular child care that relatives provide. This care was most often provided by children's maternal grandmothers and was both low-cost and potentially preferable to the low-quality center-based care available in poor communities.66 The vast majority of unwed mothers in the FFCWS—86 percent of cohabiting mothers and 91 percent of single mothers—reported someone in their social network would provide child care in an emergency, a necessity when regular child care arrangements fall through. Family and friends also provide mothers with transportation to and from work, which, for many mothers, can mean the difference between keeping and losing a job. Using data from the FFCWS, research by Michelle Livermore and Rebecca Powers67 and also by Melissa Radey 68 found that mothers who received social support from family and friends to save money were more likely to be employed than mothers who received no such support, even when the mothers being compared had similar employment records in the previous year. Kristin Harknett reached similar conclusions examining employment patterns in a sample of former welfare recipients.69 Overall, all of these forms of assistance—cash, in-kind economic support, and instrumental assistance—may serve two important economic purposes: to make ends meet and to facilitate employment.

Instability of Private Support Although most mothers in fragile families receive some kind of help from social networks at some point, private forms of support differ from public benefits in that they are often unpredictable and inconsistent. Using both quantitative and qualitative data from the FFCWS (the latter drawn from a subsample of the larger study), Sarah Meadows documented the mismatch between unwed mothers' expectations of financial and instrumental support from family and friends and their actual receipt of it.70 Approximately one-third of unwed mothers expected their social networks to provide financial and instrumental assistance in an emergency but did not receive help when they needed it, an experience strongly linked with the emergence of major depression five years after an unwed birth. To the extent that poorer mental health can undermine mothers' employability, the unpredictability and inconsistency of private support networks can place mothers in fragile families in double jeopardy.

Mothers in fragile families make ends meet by relying on many different sources of income and support. The vast majority are wage-reliant, in Edin and Lein's terms, meaning that the largest share of their income comes from own earnings. But because unwed mothers' incomes are low on average, most also depend on earnings from cohabiting partners and relatives. Mothers' and others' earnings, combined, make up more than half of the average household income in fragile families. Such dependency on others' earnings means that mothers' total incomes rise and fall with the economy. For families without wealth or assets to help weather unexpected adversity, instability could precipitate income shocks and financial crises with grave consequences for mothers and children.

To mitigate these shocks, the vast majority of mothers in fragile families rely on at least one public benefit. Since welfare was reformed in 1996, cash assistance, such as TANF, has become a less important source of income for fragile families, while in-kind assistance, such as food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid, has become more important. Thus, although roughly one-third of mothers in fragile families received welfare in the year after a nonmarital birth, cash assistance accounted for little of their average income package. By contrast, in-kind benefits accounted for nearly a quarter. More than cash programs, the invisible safety net of in-kind benefits safeguards mothers and children against the worst outcomes of life at the economic margins.

To close the economic gaps left by earnings and public support, mothers in fragile families sometimes receive help from partners, family, and friends. Periodic cash, in-kind, and instrumental assistance from private networks can prevent financial crises in times of need, and stable forms of assistance, such as child care, can promote job stability. In these ways, private support is essential to unwed mothers' economic survival. However, unlike public support, private safety nets are not always consistent and dependable. Thus, assistance from private sources may help mothers cope during stressful times but may not fundamentally improve their economic circumstances unless it is offered consistently and over long periods of time.