Unemployed Mother's Day

May 09, 2011 | The New York Times |  Link to article

Yesterday, many of the nation's mothers enjoyed roses, breakfast in bed, donations in their name to needy families elsewhere in the world or other treats. But plenty of mothers needed something that their families couldn't give them - jobs.

"Work first!" was the rallying cry behind sweeping changes to public-assistance programs for single parents enacted 15 years ago, with the establishment of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF (pronounced TAN-if). So what happens when paying jobs aren't available?

Single mothers are still more likely to be employed than married mothers, for the obvious reason that they depend more heavily on their own earnings. But it's harder for them to find jobs, in part because they find it harder to make child-care arrangements.

Unemployment rates among single mothers have long surpassed those among married men and women. In 2010, their unemployment rate averaged 14.6 percent, compared with 6.8 percent among married men and 6.3 percent among married mothers.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research emphasizes that women have historically had less access than men to unemployment benefits. Most states restrict eligibility to those who experience involuntary job loss and exclude those who quit for reasons such as loss of child-care assistance or the need to tend to a sick family member. Until recently, most states excluded part-time workers from coverage.

Yet unemployment insurance has become an increasingly important source of assistance for single mothers. In a detailed analysis of changes in benefit receipt between 1990 and 2005, H. Luke Shaefer, Liyun Wu and Elizabeth Phillips, researchers at the University of Michigan, found a distinct pattern: After TANF was established in 1996, low-educated single mothers who lost jobs became more likely to receive benefits through unemployment compensation than through "welfare" (means-tested cash assistance).

Concerted efforts to limit access and reduce benefits have made such welfare payments increasingly irrelevant to the actual welfare of single mothers and their children. A recent summary by the public-interest group Legal Momentum showed that program enrollment - more than 80 percent in 1995 - had declined to only about 40 percent of eligible families by 2005. Only 21 percent of all poor children were enrolled in 2009 (the latest year for which data are available). Annual TANF benefits remain below the poverty level and typically amount to less than $5 per person per day.

While access to food stamps (a form of near-cash assistance) has improved, inflation has eroded the combined value of TANF and food-stamp benefits by about 23 percent between 1996 and 2010 in the typical (median) state. These benefits add up to less than the poverty level in all states.

Whatever public program single mothers rely on to help them through a jobless spell, they face strict time limits: Federal rules impose a lifetime limit of 60 months for TANF and 99 weeks for a spell of unemployment insurance. Several states enforce stricter restrictions.

As high levels of average unemployment persist, these limits seem increasingly draconian.

Single mothers are not the only Americans desperate to find either a job or some assistance to feed their families.

Why not provide publicly subsidized jobs for single parents - and others - willing and able to work?

A recent study of public job-creation efforts for low-income parents by LaDonna Pavetti, Liz Schott, and Elizabeth Lower-Basch and co-published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for Law and Social Policy showed that several states used fiscal stimulus funds effectively to this end.

Some subsidized programs exceeded their goals: Illinois intended to place about 15,000 individuals in subsidized jobs and ended up placing more than 30,000. More than 60,000 applied - poignant testimony to the desire for jobs.

Public job-creation efforts could be scaled up, if more legislators would support them. That "work first" slogan should be aimed at them, rather than at single mothers.

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