In the thirteen years since welfare reform was enacted, many people have moved off welfare and into jobs. Some have exited poverty altogether. Many remain on welfare, however, or have used up their time on welfare but continue to face significant challenges to steady employment. This population is disproportionally made up of single mothers, often dealing with obstacles to work such as low levels of education, substance abuse, mental illness, and poor health. States offer, to varying degrees, supports such as child care, transportation, and job training — assistance that is critical to these women’s employment prospects.
The current recession has forced states to reduce expenditures, so work support programs are vulnerable to being cut. For example, cash-strapped California has offered women on welfare with young children the option of foregoing work requirements in return for giving up child care and other work supports. Interestingly, few women have accepted this offer thus far, so California may even require some mothers to take the welfare check without work requirements or supplemental programs. While economically beneficial for California in the short term, this policy could counteract anti-poverty measures in the long run. California’s action also could influence other states, furthering a policy that works against providing single mothers critical support as they make their way off cash assistance and into work.
As an article in The Future of Children’s Anti-Poverty issue explains, child care assistance helps families stay in jobs and have more disposable income. Although low-income families purchase less expensive care than higher-income families, child care comprises a larger portion of their expenditures. Since child care is necessary for working parents, so also are the subsidies to low-income working mothers, who would otherwise not be able to afford to have someone watch their children. In addition, employment assistance is necessary for mothers facing barriers to work such as mental and physical health problems or substance abuse.
One benefit of welfare-to-work programs has been an increase in mothers’ take-home earnings, which can improve family circumstances in many ways. Work coupled with child care subsidies, transportation assistance, Medicaid, and other such programs offers low-income mothers an opportunity to meet their families’ basic needs.
For mothers encountering multiple barriers to work, leaving them able to work only in a limited capacity if at all, cash assistance and work supports are critical. Unfortunately, California’s short term need to cut support programs could hurt vulnerable women just starting to make their way into some level of self-sufficiency.