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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Falling Through the Safety Net: Low Income Single Mothers in the Jobless Recovery
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When President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill that created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in 1996, the country was poised to benefit from one of the strongest labor markets in decades. Now Congress is preparing to reauthorize TANF, but rather than being on the brink of robust labor market growth, the country is mired in a jobless recovery. Because of this weak job market, low-income single mothers are having a much harder time finding work than they did in the first four years of welfare reform.1 The unemployment rate for low-income single mothers has risen more than the overall rate, and their real incomes—low to begin with—have fallen. Historically, when the economy hit a recession, the social safety net caught those families with few resources who were exposed to the vicissitudes of a downturn. Yet the national TANF caseload has not increased, and low-income single mothers actually received less from public assistance, on average, in 2001 than in 2000.2 While the U.S. unemployment insurance system picked up many job losers (Primus 2002), it is unlikely that former welfare recipients made it onto those rolls (Boushey and Wenger 2003). Yet the debate over TANF reauthorization continues to pay insufficient attention to the facts about the labor market and the safety net’s inadequate response to the needs of low-income, mother-only families. First, it appears clear that TANF is not functioning effectively in the current recession, as public assistance income has fallen even while jobless rates among the target population have risen sharply. Second, rather than recognizing that the current labor market is less able to absorb TANF recipients, the bill that recently passed the House of Representatives imposes stricter work requirements on participants. Instead of fixing the holes in the safety net that have become apparent in the recession, the bill raises the barriers to participation in TANF and provides inadequate funding to meet the growing need for income support. And when the economy eventually revives and unemployment begins to fall, this bill will still exacerbate the difficult situation faced by low-income single mothers. (Authors)
Washington, D.C.