Dynamics of Being Disconnected from Work and TANF

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Document date: May 31, 2011
Released online: September 12, 2011


This paper analyses the economic well-being of low-income single mothers who "disconnected" – that is neither working nor receiving public assistance benefits (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) or disability benefits). We find that the percentage of disconnected single mothers increased over time. These mothers are extremely poor and are more likely to have challenges that make work more difficult than other single mothers. In addition, many mothers remain in this situation for a year or more. Some are helped by living with other family members or cohabiting and through receipt of public food and housing benefits.

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Upon creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) in 1996, millions of single mothers left public assistance for work, caseloads fell and the labor force participation and earnings of single mothers increased substantially (Blank 2002). Yet a number of national and state studies began to note that a significant minority of former recipients left welfare without employment. Other studies noted that despite gains in earnings and income for single mothers on average, the poorest single mothers, in particular those not cohabiting, did not see similar income gains (Haskins 2001, Zedlewski 2002). Over the same period, TANF take-up rates (the percent of mothers eligible for TANF that actually receive benefits) also fell (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2008), raising concerns about the well-being of eligible, nonparticipant families and why they are not participating. A number of studies explored the circumstances of these families without work or welfare—often referred to as ―disconnected‖ families in reference to being disconnected from the labor market and public assistance programs.

Given the potential for hardship for these families with children without earnings or means-tested cash benefits, policy makers and researchers raised questions about how many of these families there are and what are their economic circumstances. By definition, they are not using certain benefits, but are there other benefits or income sources that they are receiving? Are there characteristics of these families that distinguish them from other single mothers, such as personal barriers that make work more difficult? Is this state of being disconnected a relatively temporary phenomenon or are some families chronically disconnected?

This paper addresses these questions using longitudinal data that allows observation of families’ changing circumstances over time. Specifically, we address the following questions:

  • What is the size of the disconnected population and how is it changing over time?
  • What are the characteristics of disconnected low-income single mothers and do they differ significantly from other low-income single mothers? Do they have different living arrangements that might help them to cope economically? Are they more likely to have personal barriers to work?
  • How are disconnected low-income single mothers doing economically and how does this compare to other low-income single mothers? What are their income levels and sources of income? What other public program benefits do they receive?
  • How long do low-income single mothers remain disconnected? What are the differences between those with shorter and longer spells of being disconnected?
  • What factors are associated with movements into and out of disconnectedness? What are the more common reasons for single mothers beginning and ending spells of being disconnected?

We present in this summary the key findings in each of these five question areas and then provide a brief summary of the implications for policy and further research. We start with a brief summary of our definitions and context.

End of excerpt. The entire paper is available in PDF format.

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

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