A group of mothers who have been under the radar are those who are low-income, not working, and are not receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits or government disability benefits. In research parlance, they are “disconnected.” And in real life, they deal with circumstances that present major risks for their children’s development.
In 2009, roughly 20 percent of low-income single mothers (about 1.2 million) were in this category at any point in time. Of these moms, 27 percent are disconnected for at least four months over the course of a year and 11 percent are disconnected for a year or more, mostly because they lose their jobs (but in some cases because they lose TANF or Supplemental Security Income benefits).
The vast majority of these mothers are in poverty—82 percent compared with 54 percent of all low-income single mothers. Some do receive assistance from other sources, though. About half participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. About a fifth receives government housing assistance and one-third receives child support.
These mothers usually face more than one challenge consistently found to affect children’s cognitive development, social adjustment, and behavior: poverty, limited education, mental or physical health problems or disabilities, substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal records, or lack of citizenship. Disconnected mothers are also more likely than other low-income single mothers to be caring for an infant or a very young child (birth to age 3), who are particularly vulnerable to negative consequences later in life from these very early experiences.
Interventions to improve the odds for their children are much-needed. Matching research to family needs suggests several steps that could help these families:
- Increasing and stabilizing income. The best way to do that is to prevent disconnection in the first place. For low-income single mothers who are working, this means helping them keep their jobs—for example, through investment in stable child care and in services to help them keep jobs, move up on the job, and find a new job quickly. For mothers who have lost a job, it means improvements in unemployment insurance to help them stabilize income right away. For mothers on TANF, states should reach out intensively to those at risk of being sanctioned in order to provide services to them and continue help for their children.
- Reducing income loss when mother and baby are particularly vulnerable, around pregnancy, birth, and infancy. Expanding paid family leave beyond the two states that currently provide it and designing a targeted TANF program for mothers of infants are two potential options
- Supporting and enhancing parenting through home visiting and Early Head Start. Treatment for maternal depression is crucial given its high prevalence among disconnected mothers and the risks it poses for children.
- High-quality early childhood education, as well as early intervention and special education for children with disabilities would enhance their development directly.
- Ensuring that children and their parents receive health insurance, food assistance, and other supports they are already eligible for is becoming a priority in some states and should be in all. Continuity in children’s Medicaid eligibility and in their connection to a pediatrician should be a priority for state policymakers. Automatically qualifying them when they receive SNAP would reduce the burden of reenrollment on both the states and the families. At the same time, only about half of disconnected mothers are enrolled in SNAP. Nationally, about two-thirds of eligible working parents with children participate in the program, so removing barriers to enrollment is particularly imperative.
- Children of noncitizen parents need better access to benefit programs available nationwide or as a state option. These include TANF child-only benefits and state policy options for Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and SNAP that provide maximum coverage to noncitizen parents with children. These parents may have legal status but could be excluded from health and nutrition benefits under complex state and federal policies, or they may be undocumented immigrants who fear coming into contact with government agencies, even if their citizen children are eligible for benefits.
Such policies would help both disconnected mothers and their children in the long run.
Depressed mother image from Shutterstock