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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work
Rebecca M. Blank

How Many Women Are neither Working nor on Welfare?

Because of the time limits and sanctions that cause women to leave welfare, and because not all women who leave welfare for employment are able to keep their jobs, the share of women who neither work nor receive welfare has been rising. One recent study concludes that six years after welfare reform, as many as 18 percent of former welfare recipients were disconnected from both work and welfare.5 The well-being of this group of “disconnected” welfare leavers is of increasing concern.6

Table 1 shows that these disconnected mothers are becoming a greater and greater share of all low-income single mothers. In the first column, disconnected mothers are defined as those who report no work and no welfare income over the entire past year and do not report “schooling” as a primary activity. In the second column, disconnected mothers are defined more expansively: they are not in school, and they report less than $2,000 in earnings and less than $1,000 in public assistance over the past year.

Under both definitions, the share of disconnected mothers has risen sharply since the early 1990s. The share reporting no work and no welfare income rose 69 percent, from 11.6 percent to 19.6 percent, between 1995 and 2004. The share reporting only limited work or welfare income rose 56 percent, from 16.2 percent to 25.3 percent. As of 2004, between 1.4 million (by the first definition) and 1.7 million (by the second) low-income single mothers qualified as disconnected. Similar increases in the number of women not at work and not on welfare have also been reported in the national Survey of Income and Program Participation and in state-specific surveys.

Who are these disconnected mothers? Table 2 describes their characteristics as reported in 2004, using the same two definitions. Again, whether they report occasional or very low rates of work and welfare use or report being completely disconnected, the two groups look very similar. About half live in households with other adults: 23 percent with their parents, 18 percent with unrelated men. It is perhaps surprising that the share living with other adults, who may provide potential sources of income, is so low (though it is high relative to less disadvantaged adults). Fully half of these disconnected women have no other adults in the household to provide additional income. (However, while some observers argue that only single women living without other adults are truly “disconnected,” one should note that some single women may have difficulty holding jobs because they live with other adults who need care and attention.)

In 2003 these women’s personal income averaged around $4,300 (in 2000 dollars). Even though many resided with other adults, their average total household income was less than $20,000. Median incomes were well below average incomes, and for at least half of these women total household income was less than $13,000. Nearly 75 percent had household income below the poverty level. By contrast, 43 percent of “connected” low-income single mothers (that is, those who are working or on welfare) are below the poverty line, while their average household income is more than $27,000. In short, disconnected women live in very poor households, even taking into account their high likelihood of living with another adult. Even if they are receiving additional (unreported) economic help from family and friends outside their household, their resources are so low that they are still likely to be quite poor.

Fewer than half of these disconnected women are white, non-Hispanic; more than one-quarter are African American; another quarter, Hispanic. More than 70 percent have only a high school degree or less. Although only 3 to 4 percent report some sort of disability- related income, around 30 percent report disability or illness as the reason for not working, which suggests that a significant minority have some serious health problems.

By my estimate, there are approximately 1.7 million disconnected single mothers, based on the more expansive definition above. The estimated 40 percent of the single-mother TANF caseload that are long-term cases (I exclude child-only cases in this calculation) and the single mothers in SSP programs together add about another 500,000 disconnected mothers. These rough calculations suggest that some 2.2 million women who head families do not support themselves either with welfare or with their own earnings. That is not a trivial number. If these women have, on average, 1.8 children, almost 4 million children live in these severely economically challenged families.