Urban Wire Why are so many low-income single mothers unemployed and not receiving cash assistance?
Heather Sandstrom
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The percentage of single mothers disconnected from both jobs and cash assistance has increased substantially over the past decade, from about one in eight in 1996 to one in five in 2008. To better understand how they provide for their families without earnings, researchers at the Urban Institute and the University of Michigan interviewed 51 disconnected mothers—22 in Southeast Michigan and 29 in Los Angeles—who all had children under 18 living at home.

We asked the women why they weren’t working or receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, and discussed their previous work experiences, their perceptions of the TANF program, and their experiences with public benefits. Their answers varied by location and immigration status in particular, but we found that many did receive benefits from other public programs.

Time limits and high unemployment leave many disconnected

In Southeast Michigan, unemployment has remained well above the national average—8.9 percent compared to 5.9 in April 2014—years after the official end of the Great Recession. The single mothers we spoke with—even those with college degrees—could not find steady employment. Pauline, a mother we interviewed, believes her bachelor’s degree is actually keeping low-wage employers from contacting her, even though she will take any job she can find.

In Gina’s case, the time she took off to raise her children left a five-year gap in her resume that she believes turns off employers. And jobs in the Detroit area are scarce. A year ago, she lost her TANF benefits after hitting the state’s four-year time limit. Since then, she’s been making money by providing transportation to neighbors with her minivan.

Gina isn’t the only mother affected by time limits. One-third of respondents in Michigan hit the limit even though they couldn’t find work. Some women report opting not to use TANF because applying and complying with work requirements is a hassle.

TANF misconceptions keep some immigrant mothers from applying for benefits

In Los Angeles, 25 of the interviewed mothers were immigrants and most lacked working papers. Those who could work lacked experience; many described submitting application after application with no success. A few others couldn’t find affordable, high-quality child care or child care that fit their nonstandard work schedules. Subsidized early care and education programs have long waiting lists and private programs can be expensive, so some mothers decided it wasn’t worth working until their children were old enough to start school.

We also found that many immigrant mothers distrust or misunderstand the TANF program.  Within the immigrant community, there is a widespread misconception that any cash assistance received would have to be paid back by their children, would cost them a chance at college financial aid, or would require military service to pay back the debt to the government. Some believe that being on TANF can keep them from becoming citizens. They do not apply even though their citizen children could be eligible.

Yet these same women are comfortable applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and Medicaid.  The high uptake of these “safe” programs suggests a need for better linkages between programs and better information and outreach to dispel misconceptions about TANF.

Unemployed workers fill out applications during a jobs fair in Rockford, Ill. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

Tags Higher education Public service and subsidized employment programs Disabilities and employment Job training Unemployment and unemployment insurance Disability equity policy