Washington Outlook/Congress/White House

Single Moms' Poverty Spikes After Welfare Overhaul

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The ranks of poor single mothers have grown since the 1996 welfare overhaul that weakened their safety net, and 30 percent now live with neither job income nor public assistance.

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Lisa Craig

MILWAUKEE (WOMENSENEWS)--In 2001, Lisa Craig snuck out of her home in Chicago and boarded a bus for Milwaukee with her three children, leaving behind an abusive husband, a stable job and most of her possessions.

The elimination in 1996 of federal welfare entitlements had its roots here in Wisconsin, where voters in the 1980s were angered over perceptions that poor Chicago "welfare queens" were heading north to take advantage of more generous programs. But Craig headed north because she had family there to help her.

After a short stay with her sister, Craig took her children--aged 1 to 8--to a homeless shelter. In order to receive a monthly welfare payment of about $600, she entered a three-month training program with the hope of a landing a job at the end of it.

But the training didn't pay off. She didn't find full-time employment until 2006, when she was hired as a retail clerk at Goodwill, which paid enough to cover her $600 rent but not much else. The job lasted only until last November and she has been looking for another since.

Over the years, Craig has made ends meet with the help of Wisconsin Works, or W2, the state's overhauled welfare system. But she is "disenchanted" with the program because it has not lived up to its promise of helping her obtain long-term employment. "They need to come up with something else," she said in an interview.

Craig is caught in the public policy experiments that began in Milwaukee in 1987 when Gov. Tommy Thompson tied welfare payments to behavior, including requiring recipients to engage in work-related activities, not need. Thompson stiffened the requirements in 1994. The country took notice as Wisconsin welfare rolls plummeted.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton teamed up with a Republican Congress to enact the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a welfare overhaul reflecting much of the new policies in Wisconsin. The law was reauthorized in 2006.

Advocates working on behalf of single mothers say the law, which ended government's obligation to provide minimum support to impoverished single heads of households, has exacerbated poverty.

"It definitely has played a role in the demise of the city," said Sangita Nayak, an organizer with 9to5 National Association of Working Women, an advocacy group based here.

12 Percent of Women Are Poor

In 2006, 12 percent of Wisconsin women lived in poverty, compared to 9.7 percent of men, according to census data.

Advocates see some rays of hope that life will improve for the city's poor. In April, voters elected the only woman to the 15-member city council; in May, a philanthropist gave $50 million to boost low-income neighborhoods; and in June, the state opened a new department to improve the life of children and families.

But without the welfare benefits, poor women are giving up on government to help them survive, said Joyce Mallory, a former program director at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in Madison. "A lot of people just stop trying," she said. "They just figure, 'Hey, I'll try to get by. I'll do whatever I have to do.'"

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