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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Single Mothers: Work and Welfare During 1996-2005

Source: Congressional Research Service.To see the chart, please go to:http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3656

Some 15 million U.S. women live in poverty, according to 2006 Census data collated by the Washington-based National Women's Law Center. Poverty rates are especially high among women of color, older women and single mothers. Black and Hispanic women are about twice as likely to be poor than white women. Roughly 1 in 5 elderly women are poor, as are 1 in 3 single mothers.

For many, poverty has worsened in recent years due to the shrinking economy, higher unemployment rates and the rising cost of fuel and food.

That is especially true in Milwaukee, now the seventh poorest city in the nation. Here, temporary homeless shelters have become permanent, food pantries are pleading for donations to meet demand and public schools now serve universal free breakfasts, Mallory said.

Like many other cities in the Rust Belt--the swath of industrial states that stretch from the Northeast through the Midwest--Milwaukee has seen a steady loss of jobs, many in the decent-paying manufacturing sector.

Economic Downturns Hit Women Hardest

Economic downturns hit women the hardest because they earn less then men; are more likely to work part-time; are less likely to be eligible for unemployment insurance; are less likely to have health insurance; and are more likely to leave their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities, domestic violence, or harassment or stalking.

Since the welfare overhaul, the number of recipients plunged as many found stable employment. At the same time, the number of single mothers who are unemployed and who receive no welfare assistance has doubled, from 16 percent in 1996 to nearly 33 percent in 2005, or 1 in 3 single parents.

Wisconsin's welfare provides unemployed single heads of households with children payments of up to $673 a month and the parent must participate in at least 40 hours of assigned work, work-related activities or training programs a week. That averages to about $4.20 an hour, considerably below the current minimum wage of $5.85 an hour, which is set to increase to $7.25 per hour next July.

Parents can apply for county-based programs to help them pay with child care, medical treatment and food. Some parents can work part-time for pro-rated benefits.

Proponents say the effort to move people from welfare to work has been a tremendous success, helping parents--especially single mothers--find stable jobs to support their families. The welfare overhaul, they say, has also helped women collect child support.

'A Signal Achievement'

"Welfare reform stands as a signal achievement, in my judgment, in social reform policy," Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt said in a 2006 speech marking the law's 10th anniversary. "The act brought significant improvements in the lives of many Americans by helping them break the cycle of dependency and encouraging them to pursue self-sufficiency."

He pointed to a 57 percent decline in the national welfare caseload between 1996 and 2006.

Nowhere has that been more evident than in Wisconsin, where welfare participation has dropped from 90,000 in 1996 to 6,400 today, said Reggie Bicha, head of the state's Department of Children and Family Services. In 2007, over 5,000 participants found work, with an average hourly wage of $8.54.

But critics say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

More single mothers are employed now than were in the 1990s, according to Liz Schott, a welfare expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But recent declines suggest a healthy economy--rather than changes to welfare--helps people transition to work, she said. And many of those now working are still poor because they do not earn enough to afford child care, transportation and other work expenses, she added.

Moreover, the government did not implement a mechanism to track those who left the system. Countless others are now homeless and living in extreme poverty, she added.

"This is going to catch up with us," Schott said. "We no longer have the very, very, very weak safety net that we used to have for poor families with children."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.

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