If America's efforts to turn welfare-dependent single mothers into self-sufficient wage-earners are to bear fruit, reformers will need to understand the actual circumstances of such women. A new study, by Kathryn J. Edin of Rutgers University and Laura Lein of the University of Texas at Austin, to be published by the Russell Sage Foundation provides just such details.
The study--based on six years of close observation and multiple interviews with some 400 representative low-income single mothers in Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, and South Carolina--upsets a number of popular views. Rather than being passively dependent on welfare checks and averse to work, for example, almost half of the welfare recipients in the group supplemented welfare with covert work--usually legitimate jobs off the books. And nearly 9 of 10 received some help from family, friends, boyfriends, and absent fathers.
Such strategies, the researchers found, are essential for economic survival, since benefits have fallen sharply in real terms in recent decades (chart). The welfare families surveyed had average monthly expenses of $876 in 1991, of which 70% went for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and transportation. Yet their welfare incomes, via Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps, averaged just $565.
What's more, Edin calculates that in order to leave the welfare rolls without lowering their living standards, the mothers studied would need an extra $190 a month for work-related costs (including transportation, child care, and clothing), plus $128 for higher rents (lower housing subsidies). That comes to some $16,000 a year--far above the $10,000 or so low-wage year-round workers could expect to earn in 1991.
Such numbers explain why most welfare recipients who leave welfare for work return to welfare for another spell. While 65% of the welfare moms interviewed had worked in the past five years, many said that they were simply unable to make it financially in the low-wage, dead-end jobs available to them.
Indeed, a majority of the women studied had repeatedly tried to leave welfare for work. And most (86%) voiced intentions to do so permanently if they could obtain child care and adequate training to improve their economic positions. The bad news, say Edin and Lein, is that the current labor market and the training programs available to them seem woefully inadequate to provide the decent-paying jobs they need to become self-sufficient.