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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

Why Aren't These Women Working?

A growing research literature has been trying to determine why some women can successfully enter work and why others either do not move into work or do begin to work but cannot hold a stable job. The findings suggest unambiguously that women who do not move into stable employment are disadvantaged along a number of dimensions. Researchers have identified six primary barriers to work.7

First, women who stay on welfare or cannot find stable employment have less education— and more learning disabilities—than those who find and keep work. Second, these women are more likely to have past or current problems with substance abuse.8 Third, they have higher rates of depression and other forms of mental illness, as well as more physical health problems.9 Fourth, they tend to have younger children or larger families, or both, and they are more likely to be caring for someone with health issues, either a child or another relative. Fifth, they are more likely to report a history of domestic violence or a current relationship that involves domestic violence.10 Finally, many live in central cities, where welfare caseloads have fallen less than in other parts of the country.11

Most welfare leavers who have trouble finding or keeping employment face one or more of these problems. One study finds that more than half—57 percent—had multiple barriers to work, compared with only 17 percent of those who had found work.12 A series of indepth assessments of a small group of single mothers who were about to exceed time limits in one county in Minnesota found that all had some combination of serious cognitive limits, mental and physical health issues, a lack of community and social networks, and limited management and decisionmaking skills.13 Such evidence explains why these long-term TANF recipients have not moved into employment and suggests why they are likely to be jobless after their TANF benefits end.

The success of welfare reform, together with the growth in the number of disconnected women, may be compared to deinstitutionalization and the growth of homelessness during the early 1980s. As Christopher Jencks has suggested, efforts during the 1970s to stop the warehousing of mentally disabled adults in substandard state hospitals appeared at first to be “successful” because the disabled were initially taken in or helped by families.14 But over time such help became harder to maintain, and homelessness rose within this population. Likewise, the initial success of efforts to move low-skilled single women out of welfare and into employment may not have been sustainable for the more disadvantaged welfare leavers. Over time, families may grow less willing to provide help to single mothers who cannot keep jobs, and disadvantaged women who initially find jobs (for example, in a very strong economy in the late 1990s) are not able to keep them. The result could be an erosion of employment gains among disadvantaged welfare leavers and a rise in the share of women disconnected from both work and welfare. This particular story remains to be proven, but it provides one interpretation for the rising numbers of disconnected women in recent years.