How Welfare Reform Left Single Moms Behind

Nearly every government program has grown over the past few decades, except the one that helps poor, unmarried parents.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Rosa Pena, a 24-year-old single mom in Arizona, told the New York Times “I’ll do what I have to do,” to stay alive, including sell the groceries she buys with food stamps. Other poor women the paper interviewed in 2012 said they sell clothes for extra cash or reluctantly move back in with violent boyfriends. “One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number ... ‘I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,’ she said."

If they can't find work, they have few other options. Payments from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, but more colloquially referred to as welfare), once a last resort for single mothers, have declined precipitously in the past two decades, even as other government programs have grown.

In a forthcoming study for the journal Demography, Robert Moffitt, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, details how the poorest single-parent families—80 percent of which are headed by single mothers—receive 35 percent less in government transfers than they did three decades ago. Meanwhile, government spending on older and disabled adults has increased.

“We know now that there has been a large increase in total government support to low income families since 1986, but the distribution of that support has dramatically changed,” Moffitt said in a recent presentation at the Population Association of America, where he serves as president.

In 1935, Congress created three safety-net programs aimed at alleviating poverty: Social Security, which is for the old and disabled, Unemployment Insurance, which is for those temporarily out of a job, and Aid to Dependent Children, whose name was later changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The latter is what we typically think of as “welfare”—cash transfers intended to help widows with children.

Food stamps, which go to low-income families or individuals, were added in 1964, and in 1975 came the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, which goes to working families with a certain level of income.

AFDC was never flawless—it excluded black women until the 1960s—but it did become an important lifeline for poor mothers throughout the 1980s. By 1992, the majority of AFDC recipients were single mothers, rather than widows.

As more women entered the workforce, however, society began to sour on unemployed single mothers. Those drawing government benefits were derided as “welfare queens.”

“The expectation was that since middle-class women are working and supporting their families, that low-income families should be doing the same,” Moffitt told me.

In 1996, former President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” and AFDC morphed into TANF—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. A five-year time limit was introduced, and mothers were required to work 30 hours per week or risk losing their benefits. States’ funds were capped, pressuring them to slice welfare rolls.

The effect was that thousands of single moms were promptly shoved off the program: “The legislation reduced the number of poor single mother families served by 63 percent within 10 years, effectively removing it as an important program in the nation’s safety net for the poor,” Moffitt writes.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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