Not Such a Happy Day for Millions of Single Mothers

May 12, 2012

You can find more recent figures on single mothers (and single fathers) here.

An old post of mine on the plight of single mothers gets into my top-10 viewed list week after week. So Mother’s Day seems like a good time to check on how they’re doing.

One thing we know for sure is that there are more of them than there used to be. Much head-shaking — and finger-wagging — from the conservative family values types.

Yet far from all single mothers had their children without benefit of clergy. About 55% are separated, divorced or widowed, according to an update from Legal Momentum.

Still, more women are having children outside of marriage. Some are in committed same-sex relationships who can’t get married in the states they live in. Some are content to live in domestic partnerships with the men they love — at least, for the time being.

Many, I would guess, don’t see marriage as a smart economic move — at any rate, not marriage to the fathers of their children.

Some single mothers are surely doing fine — economically, at least. Juggling household and parental responsibilities with a full-time job is tough, even if income isn’t a problem.

And even if an employer provides generous paid sick and family leave. As of 2010, only 58% of private-sector employees had access to any paid sick leave at all. Whether they could use their leave to stay home with a sick child or thrash out a day care problem is unclear.

The bigger story, I think, is that a large percent of single mothers aren’t doing fine by any economic measure. In 2010, says Legal Momentum:

  • Two-fifths of all single-mother families were poor, according to the very low thresholds the Census Bureau uses.
  • The poverty rate for single-mother families was nearly three times greater than for the population as a whole — 42.4%, as compared to 15.1%.
  • At any given time, about two-thirds of single mothers were employed outside the home, but only two-fifths of them were employed full time, year round. A quarter were jobless the entire year.
  • The median average income for single-mother households was less than $25,000 — actually only $24,487, according to one of the Census Bureau’s many data tables.
  • A third of single mothers spent more than half their income for housing — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standard for a “severe housing cost burden.”
  • Not surprisingly then, three-quarters of homeless families were headed by single mothers.

There’s no simple explanation for these sorry figures.

Legal Momentum mentions delinquent child support payments. Only a third of single mothers received any child support in 2010, and for them, the average was $300 a month.

A number of other factors Legal Momentum cites are work-related. They include scarce employment — still the case now — and occupational segregation in low-wage “women’s work,” e.g., home health aides, restaurant wait staff.

Closely related are our very low minimum wage rates, even in the 18 states that have set rates higher than the federal minimum — still a mere $7.25 an hour and losing purchasing power all the time.

Another work-related factor is unaffordable child care, which can eat up a huge chunk of income — more than many single mothers can earn.

Still another factor is our unemployment insurance system, which tends to exclude people who work part-time or intermittently, especially in low-wage jobs.

All these factors reflect public policies — some more directly than others.

Pride of place, for Legal Momentum, is our “restrictive and stingy welfare program,” a.k.a. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

I’ve frequently vented about problems built into the TANF law and regulations, often drawing on briefs Legal Momentum has issued.

The single-mother poverty brief I’m using here captures one aspect of ending welfare as we knew it. While about two-thirds of single mothers received food stamps in 2010, barely more than a quarter (27.1%) received cash assistance from TANF.

The cash left them and their children desperately poor. Maximum benefits for a family of three were below 30% of the federal poverty line in all but eight states — and above 50% in none.

About half of all mothers today will spend at least some time as the sole custodial parent. If today is typical, nearly a quarter of all mothers are in this situation.

We could make a happier Mother’s Days for millions of them, if the political will were there.

No further comment necessary, I trust.


Let’s Recall Poverty Before the Safety Net

January 16, 2012

Huffington Post blogger Dan Morgan looks back nearly 50 years to tell us what poverty was like in his early reporting days.

This is an important, timely post because it reminds us of how poor people lived — and died — before the creation of today’s safety net.

Here in the District of Columbia, Morgan found “people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes.”

Found a penniless woman with no coat to brave the cold weather for a trip to the social service agency. A blind man who made the trip, but was living with his nine children in an unheated place because the agency wouldn’t — or couldn’t — help him buy fuel.

In California, Morgan met a family that had lost three babies to dehydration while picking cotton there in 1936.

Still dreadful conditions 20 years later, he writes, when Michael Harrington chronicled farm worker poverty in that agriculture-rich state.

Morgan cites some evidence that safety net programs have lifted Americans out of poverty.

For example, the official poverty rate for seniors dropped from 28.5% in 1966 to 9% in 2010, at least partly because the federal government started indexing Social Security retirement benefits to cost-of-living increases.

Two other examples based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. You can see them in this nice infographic from the Half in Ten campaign.

But Morgan’s main point is that safety net programs have changed the quality of poverty.

In other words, poor people, by and large, don’t suffer the same acute, life-threatening deprivations as they did before we began building the network of programs that make up today’s safety net.

Morgan focuses on what may be our biggest success — federal nutrition assistance programs.

“Clinical malnutrition,” he writes, “has given way to what government and private agencies call ‘food insecurity.'”

“Poor nutrition, not malnutrition is the biggest problem” now, says anti-hunger expert and advocate Joel Berg.

And indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 figures, children in only 1% of American households sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them.

WIC alone, Berg estimates, has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

“Progressives,” Morgan concludes, “should not be timid about extolling this achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it” because safety net programs “enable millions more people to participate in the great American market,” e.g., by using food stamps to buy groceries, vouchers to pay rent to private landlords.

Many conservatives do appreciate the safety net, Morgan says. But, even by his own showing, many don’t.

For example, he quotes Newt Gingrich, whose latest tome notes that the 2009 poverty rate was about the same as when the War on Poverty began. “What did we get in return?” Newt asks — a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

We hear the same thing from the Republican Study Committee, which counts a large majority of House Republicans as members.

“Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare,”* it says. “Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

This is the send-up for its broad-gauge attack on virtually the whole range of federal programs that constitute the safety net.

And RSC member Paul Ryan, who chairs the influential House Budget Committee, has personally championed radical safety net cuts.

As we head into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget season, both the administration and Congress will be looking for ways to reduce non-defense spending by $54.7 billion.

“The safety net will be a fat target,” Morgan warns.

Some major programs won’t get hit by the automatic cuts the failure of the Super Committee will trigger. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, since Congress is perfectly free to change them — or the law that partly protects them.

Other programs are wide open, as the Congressional committees and subcommittees parcel out the mandated reductions.

We often focus on defects in the safety net — people who aren’t served, people who are but not sufficiently. This is still important.

But, taking a leaf out of Morgan’s book, I feel we urgently need to show how much good safety net programs do — and to revive the history of what poverty in America was like before them.

* This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of “welfare”.

DC Councilmember Wants To Cut Off Welfare Benefits When Kids Skip School

July 12, 2010

Seems that bad ideas never die. They just come back in new guises. Thus we have DC Councilmember David Catania recycling the notion that poor parents should lose their public benefits if they don’t take specific steps to ensure their kids get educated.

Two years ago, Councilmembers Kwame Brown and Marion Barry proposed a bill that would have denied benefits to TANF parents unless they attended all PTA and parent-teacher meetings. Only exceptions were absences for “legitimate reasons” that could be documented.

No apparent awareness of the full range of barriers to compliance, e.g., non-emergency personal and family health problems, lack of child care, language barriers. But advocates raised them, and the sponsors had second thoughts.

Now Councilmember Catania wants to impose tougher financial penalties on parents whose children skip school, including (here it comes again) loss of welfare benefits. Maybe ultimately some jail time too.

“We’ve been soft on this issue too long,” he says. Let’s take our cue from what they do in Pima County, Arizona. Arizona is so enlightened on solutions to complex policy issues.

I’ve never been a parent. But my distinct impression — based on, among other things, my own youthful behavior — is that parents have relatively limited control over what their kids do and don’t do once they reach the age where chronic truancy is feasible and, to some, attractive.

Councilmember Catania apparently thinks otherwise. After all, the proposal is grounded in the notion that a large number of parents just shrug their shoulders when they’re told their kids didn’t show up for classes. If we wield a big enough stick, they’ll act on the problem.

What, I wonder, are poor parents supposed to do. Even if they’ve got the time and wherewithal for transportation to take their kids to school, what can they do to make sure they’ll stay there? If they tell their kids how important it is to get an education, will those given to truancy listen?

Catania’s plan won’t just punish parents for behavior they probably can’t control. It will punish all the children in the family. It will also exacerbate conditions that conduce to truancy, e.g., acute financial problems, instability, family stress and resulting frictions (or worse).

Well, this is an election year. And here in the District, Councilmember-candidates have seized on the very real problem of juvenile delinquency as a way of demonstrating their get-tough bona fides.

Perhaps when the dust settles, Councilmember Catania will realize that plunging troubled kids into destitution isn’t a way to get them back in the classroom — let alone engaged in learning.

Poor Families Worse Off Under Welfare Reform

September 2, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about a range of problems with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). A new report by Legal Momentum puts the spotlight on one of them–the program’s egregious failure to provide poor families with enough for even their most basic daily needs.

This in itself is no news to anyone who’s been following the issue. But Legal Momentum’s state-by-state figures are new–and, to my mind, shocking.

Here in the District, the City Council recently decided, once again, to eliminate a small benefits increase for TANF families. So let’s see what the report tells us about how things stood for a D.C. TANF family of three, as of July 2008.

  • The family’s benefits were $428 per month–just $2 more than the median state benefit.
  • They were 29% of the federal poverty line–the same as the state median.
  • Combined with food stamps, the benefits still left the family at just 56% of the FPL–a lower percentage than in 21 states.
  • The real value of the benefits* was 23% less than when welfare reform was passed–1% less than the state median loss.

In short, D.C. families that depend on TANF have nowhere near what they need to stave off acute hardships. And they’re fairly representative of TANF families throughout the country.

For Legal Momentum, the solution is to reform TANF when it’s reauthorized next year so that states are required to provide benefits “at least sufficient to raise family income to the official poverty line.”

This, of course, would be a whole lot better than what we’ve got now. But it wouldn’t give TANF families enough to live on. Consider that, if the requirement were in place now, our D.C. family of three would be entitled to about $1,526 per month–or about 29% of the Economic Policy Institute’s basic budget for a parent and two children in the Washington metro area.

Still, it’s probably as much as–if not more than–we can get Congress to consider. Benefits that would provide poor families with enough for a reasonably decent, safe, healthful standard of living would require a fundamental change in our social values.

And the ongoing disintegration of health care reform shows that we’re nowhere near ready for that.

*  Real value compares July 2008 and July 2006 benefits as percentages of the applicable FPL.

TANF Cuts Holes In the Safety Net

July 22, 2009

Back in 1996, then-President Clinton and the Republican Congress agreed to “end welfare as we know it.” And, indeed, they did.

The old welfare program–Aid to Families with Dependent Children–guaranteed benefits to all families whose resources were below state-determined eligibility levels. The replacement–Temporary Assistance for Needy Families–set a maximum lifetime participation of five years and generally linked receipt of benefits to participation in work-related activities.

States receive their federal TANF funds in a block grant. Within certain limits, they can establish their own eligibility standards, set their own benefit levels and otherwise administer the program as they see fit.

A recent report by Legal Momentum documents the results:

  • Since 1996, the number of welfare recipients has decreased by almost two-thirds, mainly due to less participation by poor single women with children.
  • The percentage of poor children receiving welfare dropped by 62% in 1995 to 24% in 2007.
  • In 2004, more than 1.7 million single-mother families had annual incomes–benefits and earnings combined–of less than $3,000.

The last figure here points to a serious problem with benefit levels. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2008 benefits were less than 50% of the federal poverty line in all but one state and less than 25% of the FPL in 20 states.

Both the Legal Momentum report and a 2006 review of TANF by CBPP identify a range of problems underlying the low participation rates. They include:

  • The lifetime limit, which applies even to beneficiaries who are trying to find jobs or have serious barriers to employment, e.g., mental and physical health problems. (States can waive this limit for 20% of cases, but beyond that have to foot the whole bill.)
  • Incentives to reduce caseloads. These include a caseload reduction credit that allows states to avoid penalties for failing to meet their work participation quotas and the fact that states are allowed to use unspent TANF funds for other programs.
  • Various practices that control the caseload, e.g., intake procedures that deter participation, case closures unrelated to loss of eligibility.
  • Full family sanctions, which terminate assistance to an entire family when the adult(s) don’t comply with work activity requirements.

And then there’s the whole matter of work-related activities. Current rules require that half a state’s TANF recipients be actively engaged in preparing for work, looking for work or actually working for at least 30 hours per month. (Hours can be lower for a single parent with a very young child. Both the quota and hours are higher for two-parent families.)

But what counts as work preparation is highly restrictive. For example:

  • “Job search and readiness” activities are limited to six weeks per year. Substance abuse and mental health treatment and rehabilitative services count as activities of this sort.
  • Enrollment in vocational training is limited to 12 months and can’t include participation in a program leading to a four-year or advanced degree.
  • Only 30% of recipients can be participating in vocational training at any time–unless, of course, they’re doing it in addition to their officially-sanctioned work-related activities.
  • Study time for permissible training doesn’t count as a work-related activity.
  • Participation in adult education and/or ESL courses counts only if related to a specific occupation or job. Homework time for these courses doesn’t count unless supervised.

No wonder that TANF “graduates” generally don’t achieve ongoing employment at wages sufficient to lift them out of poverty. The figures are, to my mind, truly damning. For example:

  • A fairly recent three-city study found that only 26% of “caregivers” who left TANF were working and that their wages averaged $7.44 per hour.
  • According to a soon-to-be-published study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and So Others Might Eat, only 45% of D.C. TANF recipients who got a job were still working six months later and at an average wage of $9.00 per hour.

Bottom line is that TANF should provide a safety net for poor families and a pathway out of poverty. And it doesn’t do either nearly as well as it should.

Legal Momentum has produced an agenda for reforming TANF when it’s reauthorized next year. I expect we’ll see others. But what we need first and foremost is a wholesale rejection of the “welfare mother” stereotypes that got us this mean program to begin with.

Aid to the “Deserving Poor”

February 14, 2009

Back in the Elizabethan Age, when the first public poverty program was created, poor people were officially divided into three categories:

  • The deserving poor–those who should receive in-kind or cash assistance because they were unable to work due to age or illnesss
  • The deserving unemployed–those who should be put in workhouses or, if very young, given apprenticeships because they were able and willing to work but couldn’t find jobs
  • The undeserving poor–those who should be beaten or subject to worse punishments because they had recourse to begging

What brought this to mind was a recent article in the New York Times that focuses on the debate over the economic recovery package and our somewhat schizoid view of welfare.

As the article says, right-wing Republicans view tax relief for low-income people–but not for businesses–as welfare. It’s unearned support that stifles initiative or, in the inimitable words of Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, “reward[s] idleness and penalize[s] marriage.”

But what about the vast majority of policymakers–and we who elect them? We seem to agree that low-income children, elderly people and people with severe disabilities are “deserving poor.” We also seem to agree, up to a point, that this category includes other low-income people. Hence, food stamps and housing vouchers.

But in many states, unemployment insurance is reserved for low-income workers who aren’t at the bottom of the income scale. So are other important benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Tax Credit. Both these credits kick in only when a worker earns more than a specified minimum and increase with his or her earnings. Do we have a spice of the “undeserving poor” mentality here?

I think there’s no question we do when it comes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Virtually all adults in the program are subject to reduced benefits unless they continuously engage in activities designed to get them jobs that pay enough to lift them above the income eligibility cut-off. They also have a maximum lifetime eligibility of five years. If you don’t find and keep a job that can support you and your family, you’re going to suffer.

So we seem conflicted about whether poor people who are working and those who are able and willing to work but unemployed are “deserving” or instead prone to idleness like the Elizabethan beggars. We gear tax credits to galvanize workers into boot-strapping themselves up the income scale. We put conditions in TANF to ensure that recipients don’t just sit home and watch TV.

We wouldn’t need these carrots and sticks. But, if the economy keeps spiraling downward, some of us may be subject to them anyway–perhaps already are. And that could do a lot to move us, as a nation, toward policies that treat all low-income people as deserving of a decent standard of living–and respect.