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Families Coping without Earnings or Government Cash Assistance

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Document date: February 01, 2003
Released online: February 01, 2003

Assessing the New Federalism Occasional Paper No. 64

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

About the Series

Assessing the New Federalism is a multiyear Urban Institute project designed to analyze the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states, focusing primarily on health care, income security, employment and training programs, and social services. Researchers monitor program changes and fiscal developments. In collaboration with Child Trends, the project studies changes in family well-being. The project aims to provide timely, nonpartisan information to inform public debate and to help state and local decisionmakers carry out their new responsibilities more effectively.

Key components of the project include a household survey, studies of policies in 13 states, and a database with information on all states and the District of Columbia, available at the Urban Institute's web site. This paper is one in a series of occasional papers analyzing information from these and other sources.


Executive Summary


The Sample

Why Aren't These Families Working?
Health Barriers
Lack of Jobs
Care of Children
Attending School
Lack of Transportation

Why Don't These Families Receive Cash Assistance?
Program Factors
Personal Reasons for Not Participating

How Do Families Cope without Jobs or Cash Assistance?
Government Support
Noncustodial Parent Support
Help from Family and Friends
Help from Charities
Side Jobs

Sample Coping Strategies

What Do These Families Say about Their Well-Being?

Responses to "How Could the Government Make Things Better?"
Health Insurance
Better Welfare System
Other Work Supports
Other Needs

Summary and Policy Implications
Food Assistance
Health Care
Child Support



Appendix A. Methods

About the Authors

Executive Summary

This study is based on qualitative interviews with 95 extremely poor families (cash income below 50 percent of the federal poverty level) living without employment income or government cash assistance. The interview sample was drawn from a set of 275 families identified during the 2002 National Survey of America's Families. The study was designed to understand why some families live outside the government cash income support system despite extreme poverty.

Among respondents, 64 percent were single parents living alone, and 94 percent were mothers living with their children. The racial and ethnic composition of the sample was fairly balanced across whites, blacks, and Hispanics, with just 5 percent of the sample falling outside these categories. Respondents lived in 26 different states, but more than half lived in the South. Barriers to employment—such as poor health, limited work experience, and low education levels—were common among respondents. Respondents reported substantial economic hardship; for example, 68 percent worried about or experienced difficulty in affording food for their families.

During the interviews, participants discussed why they were not working or receiving welfare and how they managed without these sources of income. They also described recent experiences with in-kind government assistance programs (food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid), the well-being of their children, and how government policies could improve their lives.

Top Reasons for Joblessness

The three top reasons respondents cited in explaining their lack of work were poor health, job scarcity, and a desire to stay home to care for their children.

Discussions about particular reasons for not working revealed the complexity of factors that interfere with employment. About half the adults in the sample reported very poor mental or physical health, and untreated chronic health problems presented serious barriers to work for those without health insurance. Lack of transportation prevented respondents living in small towns without nearby job opportunities from pursuing work. Low skills and education also limited many respondents' employment opportunities. In discussing the desire to stay home to care for children, respondents often elaborated by discussing their inability to pay for child care or their lack of trust in local, affordable providers.

Welfare Experiences

About four in 10 parents did not participate in TANF because of program factors (hassles, sanctions, and time limits); others gave personal reasons (especially pride or a preference for child support in lieu of cash benefits) for not participating.

Welfare generated more dissatisfaction than any other government assistance program. Most respondents with prior welfare experience (about half the sample) talked about "infeasible" or "unreasonable" work or class attendance requirements. Respondents complained that unpaid work (in exchange for a welfare check) did not lead to a job, and many said that they would "rather find a job outside of welfare." Respondents who could not meet TANF work requirements often cited health issues and a lack of child care as top reasons. Many relayed stories about "impossible paperwork" and "rude caseworkers." Those who lost benefits because of sanctions or time limits often did not fully understand the rules or their eligibility for future assistance.

About half the families with no prior welfare experience expressed a sense of pride and a desire to live without this type of government assistance. (Notably, many of these parents participated in other government assistance programs.) Most single parents preferred child support to welfare, even when it was minimal, informal, and sporadic. A few parents' immigration status made them ineligible for benefits.

Complex Supports

These families coped by combining in-kind government support, child support, help from family or friends, "side jobs," and charity.

Families' incomes were fragile and complex. According to respondents, government assistance often required multiple caseworkers to assess and collect documentation on living arrangements, other income sources and expenses, and proof of job search. In addition, government assistance often hinged on "good behavior" and proof of the absent parent's income. Child support depended on the absent parent's often erratic employment and willingness to support his or her children. Help from family members was typically sporadic, and support from charities was often rationed. About one-third of the sample had income from side jobs, but these jobs seldom paid more than $100 per month.

Help with housing costs was one of the most important ways families coped; three-quarters of the sample received this kind of support. Among those not receiving government housing assistance, housing support consisted of shared housing with extended family members or friends; contributions to or direct payment of the rent by former spouses; or access to housing owned by family members, who charged little or nothing for rent. Families that had their housing costs covered could manage with food stamps or a little child support. All families also said they were resourceful about keeping their expenditures low; many talked about just "living without."

Assessments of In-Kind Government Assistance

Families often expressed appreciation for in-kind government supports, but a significant share reported difficulties retaining food stamps.

About half the respondents currently receiving food stamps (53 percent of the sample) had positive things to say about the program. Others expressed frustration about paperwork requirements and recertification processes. But these respondents were determined "to get it right," because the benefits were critical to their family's well-being. About half the respondents who were not currently receiving food stamps were former recipients who had their benefits terminated because they failed to meet the program's paperwork requirements or had missed appointments with administrators. Some were not sure why they lost food stamps, but cited probable reasons such as owning a car or failing to meet their state's "food stamp work requirements."

The five student respondents reported having given up on most government assistance programs. In most states, welfare, food stamps, and child care assistance carry a work requirement. These mothers talked about the challenges of taking care of their children, and said they found it impossible to work and go to school at the same time.

Respondents reported experiences with government housing assistance and Medicaid that were quite different from welfare and food stamps. Families held housing assistance in high regard, and many without this assistance talked about hoping to become eligible in the future. Families in public housing, however, worried about the safety of the environment for their children and hoped to qualify for a Section 8 voucher so they could move to another area. Experiences with Medicaid and state children's health insurance programs were also positive. However, some respondents' misinformation about eligibility probably prevented them from applying for this benefit.

Participant Outlook and Policy Wish List

Remarkably, most respondents expressed positive attitudes about their ability to make ends meet and about their children's well-being.

Parents reported plans for the future, and many took comfort in their religious beliefs. Some said that money was "not an issue when you don't have it." Most parents reported that they "lived for their children" or "put their children first." While they expressed frustration about not being able to get their children the right clothes or worried about neighborhood safety, most had learned to cope. One out of five parents talked about serious behavioral issues with their children. Extreme poverty, however, was not the source of these behavioral problems. Rather, nearly all of these children were in an unstable family situation resulting from a recent divorce or the unexpected absence of a parent.

When asked how government policy could make their lives better, respondents most frequently mentioned wanting more job opportunities, health care for parents, and a better welfare system.

Parents wanted jobs so that they would not need to depend "on the government to take care of them." Some talked about needing education and jobs. According to one mother, the "government was not making any sense... you can't get the high school education... and you can't get a job that pays... so this just leave' you sitting out in the cold." Parents wished they had health insurance. One mother said she needed "free insurance, like welfare... for a little bit, just to get healthy, and then be able to go out and get a job." Not surprisingly, given their experiences with welfare, parents wanted a system that treated them with more dignity. They also said that fewer requirements would allow them to "better themselves" and to take care of their children during the limited time that they received welfare.

Lessons for Policymakers

Respondents' discussions about joblessness and the challenges of poverty confirm that jobs and a strong safety net are essential for helping very poor families manage. They also highlight some weaknesses in basic needs and income support programs that merit state policymakers' immediate attention. Improved access to food stamps and health care, including a better understanding of how these programs work, would boost low-income families' well-being and employment prospects. A less threatening child support system and welfare programs that prevent families from leaving before they are self-sufficient would help to establish a more stable floor of income for families with children.

Food assistance. Even very poor families are only entitled to one support—food stamps. However, respondents' varied opinions about the program demonstrate how accessibility to this support varies widely and depends on state-by-state program rules. Some states have made getting recertified easier and have eased requirements of frequent wage documentation. Other states, however, primarily focus on reducing benefit errors. Respondents show how overly stringent reporting and documentation requirements can discourage applicants and act as a barrier to access for very low-income families. The 2002 Farm Bill enacted new program options that allow states to simplify income and resource definitions and adopt semiannual reporting requirements (Dean and Rosenbaum 2002). States that adopt and advertise these new rules will help low-income families successfully access food stamp benefits.

Health care. Respondents also demonstrate why health care must be on the list of critical work supports. Untreated, chronic health problems often lead to insurmountable work barriers. Currently, Medicaid eligibility rules for parents vary widely from state to state. Some states limit coverage to parents with incomes below one-third of the poverty level, while a handful of states have expanded coverage to parents with incomes above the poverty level (Kaiser Family Foundation 2002). In this time of state budget deficits, opportunities to expand low-income parents' coverage will likely be limited (at least without further federal financial incentives). Until better economic times, states can use existing outreach programs to ensure that parents understand the new eligibility rules. Some interviewees, for example, apparently did not understand that Medicaid eligibility is no longer contingent on welfare receipt.

Child support. Respondents' fears about establishing formal child support agreements highlight low-income parents' distrust of the child support system. Many women said they would not pursue formal child support arrangements out of fear of losing support altogether. State programs that take into account the needs of custodial and noncustodial parents and that transfer child support collections to families rather than reimbursing welfare programs would encourage greater participation in the formal system. Formal child support arrangements, in turn, would establish a more solid income base for custodial-parent families.

Welfare. Respondents' interviews also raise concerns about state welfare programs' work requirements and exemptions. Respondents who could not meet work requirements, including many with significant health problems, gave up on the program. Requiring parents to work a set number of hours when they have a health condition that makes such work impossible, or to repeat training courses or job searches that have proven ineffective in leading to employment in the past, all to obtain a relatively small cash benefit, leaves struggling parents with little reason to participate in the TANF program. Yet if the primary goal of TANF—to assist needy families—is to be achieved, states should recognize health conditions, transportation problems, and very limited skills as barriers to work that may justify delaying work requirements. They must develop services that meet the needs of families with these barriers and inform them about the resources available to help them. Based upon respondents' reports, this approach would likely move these families in a positive direction with respect to work and earnings.

This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


This report is part of the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism project, a multiyear effort to monitor and assess the devolution of social programs from the federal to the state and local levels. Alan Weil is the project director. The project analyzes changes in income support, social services, and health programs. In collaboration with Child Trends, the project studies child and family well-being.

This study was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The Assessing the New Federalism project is currently supported by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The Ford Foundation.

This paper is dedicated to the parents who gave their time to tell us about their stories of endurance. The authors would also like to thank Katherin Ross Phillips for her help with the project's design, and Jennifer Holland, Robin Koralek, Molly Whitehead, Sandy Padilla, and Tracy Von Iams for their help with the data collection.

Topics/Tags: | Families and Parenting | Governing | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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