What Happens If You Have No Welfare and No Job?

A new report looks at the devastating lengths single moms go to when they have neither employment nor cash assistance.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the welfare reform of the 1990s led to many poor mothers being kicked off welfare rolls. While some poor adults could still receive help from food stamps and disability insurance, the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" dramatically cut how much cash aid they could collect. The hope was that they would find work, but many didn’t.

Meanwhile, spending on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, the only cash assistance program that non-disabled, non-elderly, poor single mothers are eligible for, has dropped precipitously: It was lower in 2007 than it had been in 1970.

That left me wondering—what happened to the moms who had neither jobs nor cash assistance through TANF, which comes with strict time limits?

The Urban Institute recently released a fascinating new qualitative study that aims to answer that very question. Relying on 90-minute interviews with 29 unmarried women in Los Angeles and 22 in southeast Michigan, the nonprofit examined the lives of these so-called “disconnected” women—meaning they get neither income from work nor TANF money. (About one in eight low-income single mothers was disconnected in 1996, when welfare reform was first implemented, but about one in five was disconnected in 2008.)

The study authors found that most of the Michigan women had been on TANF at some point, but a third had hit the 48-month time limit. Others didn’t apply for the program because they found the paperwork daunting, or they were already on food stamps and thought they couldn’t collect more than one type of government benefit at at time. Most of the Los Angeles women had never used TANF, and many of them falsely believed enrolling in the program could disadvantage their families in bizarre ways—such as leading to the forced military conscription of their sons.

The 22 women in Michigan had primarily worked in low-wage and government jobs, but they had since been fired, laid off, or had to quit because of childcare and transportation issues. Many said they had trouble finding work because of the lack of opportunities in the area. Public transportation wasn’t an option—“it did not reach available jobs, was infrequent, or did not run at necessary hours,” the report authors write.

The Los Angeles women were mostly Latina, and they cited language barriers and a lack of working papers as reasons for not being able to find jobs. Some also opted not to work when they realized that childcare costs would eat up the majority of their small paychecks.

“Women also had issues arranging care with hours that matched jobs’ unpredictable or nonstandard hours, finding care for multiple children or children with special needs, and accessing public programs such as Head Start, prekindergarten, and child care subsidies, which had waiting lists,” the report authors write.

To get by, these women drew on food stamps, the WIC nutrition program, and Medicaid (the health insurance program for the poor), and they worked odd jobs, like cleaning homes and cutting hair. Most of the Los Angeles women were living with the father of one of their children, but “but several relationships were maintained for the sake of financial stability and not intimacy, which threatened mothers’ mental health and feelings of security.”

The most devastating part was learning how the women tried to eke out a living without a regular source of income:

  • The jobs they were qualified for were not in any way flexible: They paid close to minimum wage, had unpredictable schedules, and did not include paid sick or family leave. Several of the Michigan women worked for temp agencies. They would show up after an hours-long commute, only to be told that there was no work that day and that they should return home. The L.A. women said they were discriminated against because of their status: “They want to pay me super, super, super cheap, because the people know the situation and know that you can’t go around complaining,” one said.
  • They pieced together side jobs to get by: One L.A. woman sold cooked corn—a popular local street food — for five hours a day. She said she liked it because it was otherwise too hard to find “a good boss who will give you time to be with [her kids].”
  • Childcare was a major hurdle: Several women said they didn’t trust the local babysitters and unregulated day-care facilities. They faced long wait-lists for childcare subsidies, and babysitters, when available, were hard to schedule because the moms worked irregular hours. “It was horrible because I was struggling with babysitters for my girls. The babysitters, they would quit on me,” one said. This was similar to the transportation catch-22: Several women said they could not search for work further away because they had no car, but they needed a job to buy one. 
  • TANF was described as more arduous to enroll in than other programs: The women found the enrollment process for food stamps, WIC (the nutrition program for new moms), and disability insurance easier than the one for TANF. One woman described her TANF enrollment appointment as lasting from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, and several mentioned they had their TANF benefits cancelled for reasons they couldn’t understand. One said she didn’t like the stigma associated with receiving TANF: “At first I didn’t really like the cash aid ‘cause I guess a lot of people talk about it. They say it’s just for lazy people that don’t wanna work or stuff like that. It’s not that I don’t wanna work ‘cause I do wanna work, but I can’t find a job.” A few Michigan women also said TANF’s employment program, Work First, didn’t actually help anyone get jobs and prevented them from picking up their kids from school on time.
  • Housing was cramped, informal, and unstable: “After Gina lost her job in Michigan in 2008, she applied for TANF, but it took several months for her to be approved. In that time, she lost her housing because she could not pay the rent,” the report authors write. Her story deteriorated from there: She and her five children lived in eight different places in two years. When they moved into a hotel, one of the kids was removed from Gina’s custody after Child Protective Services was tipped off. “We had stayed in a hotel room and everything. I felt like that was better than hopping from house to house, you know what I’m saying? But the judge didn’t agree with that,” Gina said. When Gina finally found an accommodating landlord, “the house looked as if it might be abandoned, with the front steps crumbling, pieces of siding ripped from the structure, and a front door that appeared to be coming off of its hinges. Inside, the house contained almost no furniture, just a television and the kids’ toys. And, Gina had recently found out that the house was in foreclosure and she would have to move again.”
  • They have no spending money: The women talked about how they had eliminated virtually every discretionary expense from their lives, including cable, movies, and restaurants. “We really don’t have no expenses because there’s a lot of things we can’t do. Get our hair done, all that. That’s like out the window. Like now, they need summer clothes, and now I’m just figuring out what’s the next move for that,” one woman said.
  • They’re depressed: One-third of the women in the sample showed visible signs of depression and anxiety, while nearly all of them told the interviewers they were “stressed out.” Two said they had experience domestic violence, and one was in a relationship she considered unsafe.
  • They rely on dangerous “last resort” sources of income:  “Gina sold plasma on a regular basis; she was such a regular that she had a debit card from the donation center that would be loaded with cash after each trip,” the report authors write. “Jean moved back into the home of her emotionally abusive ex-husband.” One woman said she relied on male friends to pay for her groceries, but then had to fend off their sexual advances: “He wants to stay the night, and thinking he’s gonna get over. No, you’re not gonna get over on me. Just because you bought me eight rolls of tissue paper [laughter] and some dish rags and stuff, you’re not gonna get over.”

It’s not clear there’s a perfect policy solution here. Many of these women want to work, but jobs, particularly in southeast Michigan, are scarce. Better access to childcare, transportation, and housing would obviously help, but the jobs these moms are qualified for don’t pay enough to afford those things.

Encouraging them to “get married” also won’t do the trick, since many of the L.A. women said their husbands had been deported, and others are already trapped abusive, loveless relationships of necessity.

I knew there was no way being kicked off welfare and not finding employment could be good, but this is still a pretty sobering look at life as a woman with kids, no husband, no job, and no cash assistance. The entire report is at the Urban Institute website and is worth a read.