single mom(WOMENSENEWS)–The $5 billion in emergency jobs funding that Congress approved in 2008 to help low-income people weather the recession has been spent by states in various ways.

Now, advocates are hoping that Congress will extend the $5 billion federal stimulus program that has created more than 200,000 jobs for low-income women and men struggling to support their children during the worst recession in seven decades.

Washington State Rep. Jim McDermott, chair of the Income Support and Family Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, predicted that legislation would be introduced in September when Congress returns from its summer recess, which began Aug. 9.

Florida, which had the sixth highest rate of unemployment in the nation during the recession, used $100 million of its stimulus funds to subsidize the creation of over 10,000 jobs throughout the state for parents with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Most jobs paid $9 to $14 an hour, although some of the managerial positions paid more.

Much of the state’s funds went to recipients of TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal aid program that Congress passed in 1996 that provides block grants to states to move low-income single parents from welfare to work. The amount of dollars in the block grants has remained constant and states have incurred extra expenses during the recession because more single parents are becoming eligible for TANF and current recipients have been unable to find jobs amid high unemployment.

"Many young single mothers on TANF got entry level jobs in customer service, clerical work, landscaping and other fields," said Robby Cunningham, spokesperson for the Tallahassee-based Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which administers the program in the state.

Parents in their late 20s and 30s who had considerable experience in construction, finance and tourism–all fields that were decimated by the recession–launched new careers in allied health, education and other fields that are expanding in Florida, said Cunningham.

Program ‘Provides Critical Safety Net’

No one is able to predict with accuracy how many of the program’s participants across the country will continue to be employed if the federal funds run out.

A one-year, $2.5 billion extension passed the House in May, but was filibustered in the Senate. A newer version has been a matter of hot political debate in Congress. The debate will pick up again when Congress returns from its summer recess.

"TANF helps struggling families with children get the services they need and deserve during tough times," McDermott said in an email interview. "While the current program is not perfect, it provides a critical safety net. I look forward to working with my colleagues this fall to provide extended funding for the program and will begin working in laying the foundation for a broader proposal that will improve access to the program and strengthen its capacity to respond to their needs."

Other states across the country have also used the federal funds for job creation. South Carolina spent $2.6 million to subsidize jobs for TANF participants at private employers like McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and CVS Pharmacy. To encourage the companies to retain the workers, the state required participating employers to sign an agreement to keep employees on after the six-month subsidy of employees’ minimum wage salaries were completed. Many of the participants were single mothers.

Mississippi used its $43 million subsidy to create more than 3,500 jobs. The state paid the full salary for the employees’ first two months and then gradually decreased the subsidy to one-fourth the salary during the following sixth months.

The state gave preference to companies with under 25 employees because Republican Gov. Haley Barbour believes that fostering expansion of small business is the key to a healthy state economy. Research has indicated that small businesses are most likely to employ poor women, so the subsidies may have helped single mothers in Mississippi Steps program retain their jobs. In most states, the program is known as TANF, but a few states like Mississippi have given it special names like Steps.

Tennessee Focuses on Perry County

Tennessee focused on subsidizing employment in Perry County, a small rural county of 7,600 people where the unemployment rate rose to 27 percent after two auto parts plants closed. About one-third of the 400 people who participated in the Perry County job creation program were women.

"We left no stone unturned and got the program up and running in only three weeks," said Donna Luna, the job program manager in Perry County. "We found jobs at 76 employers, everything from country clubs to insurance offices to hardware stores to trucking firms; even a pie company that added 12 employees to enable it to sell their products throughout the state. The participants earned an average hourly wage of $11."

Jan McKeel, executive director of the Columbia-based South Central Tennessee Workforce alliance, a nonprofit organization that has administered the program in parts of Tennessee, said that the alliance is determined to "keep the program going even if the federal subsidy ends Sept. 30 by finding new jobs for those who are let go."

"Two-thirds of the employers told us they would continue to employ at least one worker," said McKeel. "The program has boosted the chances of participants finding jobs. We had women who had only worked in customer service who acquired skills in bookkeeping, and other women who had worked in child care who found jobs in hotels and offices. As a result, they will have more employment opportunities."

McKeel said that the jobs program also prevented other workers from becoming unemployed because the participants spent their wages on food, housing and other necessities.

Illinois Creates More Than 35,000 Jobs

The $215 million Illinois program paid $10 an hour for a 30-to-40 hour work week for up to six months. The program exceeded the hopes of employers as well as participants. As of July, more than 35,000 jobs–more than double the state’s original goal of 15,000–were created.

Churches and other community organizations in the state sponsored outreach programs to acquaint young single mothers and other needy people with opportunities for entry level jobs. Businesses also supported the program. Female entrepreneurs like Christy Webber of Chicago were among the most enthusiastic supporters. Webber hired 11 employees to supplement the 200-plus work force in her landscaping business. She started out the business as a one-woman grass cutting service 20 years ago.

Veteran employers also responded. Founded in 1903, the De Normandie Towel and Linen Supply Company, a family-owned business in Chicago that services hotels, hired 19 single mothers to work in its laundry, even though tourism was down this summer.

"The most important legacy of the TANF program is hope," said Perry County’s Luna. "By helping individuals land jobs and employers expand their businesses, TANF proved that the challenges of the worst recession in 70 years are not insurmountable. As a result, both individuals and employers are in a better position to take further steps to rebuild their lives and the economy."

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Sharon Johnson is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

Office of Family Assistance: Approved Applications to TANF Emergency Funds: