The Lowest End Of The Income Spectrum Is A Dangerous Place For Mothers To Be

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All Juell Frazier wants, as she puts it, is “to do the right thing, make sure that my family gets what they need.” For her, that means getting a stable job and someday finishing the degree she was pursuing last year. But she’s been unemployed on and off for the last five or six years and the last job she had was in May — a temporary position as a community coordinator.

On top of the hardship of going without a regular paycheck, Frazier, a single mother of two young daughters, has also encountered times during her spells of unemployment when she was cut off from welfare, or, as it’s called in her state of Massachusetts, TAFDC. In her most recent job, she only worked two days a week for $15 an hour, but even so, her welfare benefits were eventually phased out. Then, when her job was over, she found herself without welfare or a paycheck.

To survive, she had to cobble things together from a variety of sources. She was still able to get food stamps and Medicaid health coverage. She relied on family and friends to help out. She decided to make plates of food to sell for some money. “You know, just doing anything to put yourself out there to help someone or just be somewhere to give a hand and receive something at the same time,” she said.

She knows other people who have ended up in the same position who made more drastic choices. “Some people can go extreme where they get into the criminal side of things, have to risk their life just to make it,” she noted. “I’m not into all of that.”

But it hasn’t been easy on her or her children. “It’s hard, hard when you’re financially in a hard place and unstable,” she said. “I try to make sure that at least my kids are happy. That’s what I go on for, go on to make sure they’re happy.”

Frazier’s experience is one that appears to be increasingly common for people at the bottom of the income scale. In a new research paper from Kristin S. Seefeldt and Heather Sandstrom published by the Russell Sage Foundation, the authors note that about 12 percent of all low-income mothers had neither a job nor welfare benefits in 2004, which jumped to about 20 percent by 2008. “The number of families with children who are without work and without cash welfare benefits has been growing over time since the implementation of welfare reform in 1996,” said Seefeldt.

The authors examined what happens next: how these women manage to survive with no source of cash all their own. They conducted interviews with a sample of unmarried mothers who fit that bill in Los Angeles and southeast Michigan in 2013, asking them how they made ends meet. The women generally had gone with neither work nor welfare from between six months to as long as eight years, with most of the spells ongoing.

They found that nearly all of them — except one woman in Michigan — got food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Program. Everyone who qualified for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, program also got that benefit. Meanwhile, half of the women in Michigan got housing assistance. These public benefits, however, are far more limited than the cash that recipients of welfare can expect. “You can’t pay rent with food stamps,” Seefeldt noted.

To gain some more income, the authors found that these mothers resorted, generally, to other strategies: cohabitating with a working partner, relying on former partners and family members to cover major expenses, doubling up in housing with another family, seeking out informal work, and relying on Social Security Disability Insurance payments for their children if their children were disabled.

Among the women in Los Angeles, all of whom were Latina or Hispanic and many of whom were immigrants, the most common tactic was to live with an employed partner. Doing so didn’t necessarily lead to comfort, however. “Although these relationships brought these women more economic security than they were likely to have had otherwise, their situations were not always stable,” the authors write in the paper. Their partners often worked low-wage and irregular jobs, making about $12,000 a year or less. Many of the women in Los Angeles also lived with parents or other family members, although the arrangements were sometimes temporary, emergency solutions.

It was more common for the mothers in Michigan, who were all African American except for one person who was white and another who was biracial, to rely on former partners and family members. The children’s fathers in half of these cases paid for their kids’ costs. Fewer women in the group doubled up in their housing.

Relying on partners, though, can still leave women vulnerable. They could end up unemployed, land in prison, be deported, or even die. Being dependent on others often took an emotional toll. “It was a very precarious position to be in,” Steefeldt said. Meanwhile, doubling up with others led the women to live in very crowded and sometimes unsafe conditions.

Many of the women across both locations also supplemented their families by finding informal work as child care providers, housecleaners, hair stylists, or by providing transportation or selling food to neighbors.

A few cases took extreme measures, what the paper calls “last resort.” One woman sold her plasma, going so frequently that the donation center gave her a debit card it loaded with cash from the trips. Other women in Michigan, Steefeldt said, “were putting themselves at risk of sexual violence if they were relying on men they didn’t know very well to help them out, or putting themselves at risk because of the need to commit fraud in order to get any kind of cash in their hands.” These behaviors — or even just the general instability of their lives — also put them at risk of having their children removed from their homes.

The challenges these women face stem back to the welfare reform bill passed in 1996, which turned Aid for Dependent Families and Children into today’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. While there have been no studies to link the issues facing these women to this change, it certainly seems to be related. Reform instituted both strict work requirements as well as lifetime limits. That means that recipients have to either work or search for a job to qualify, and if they are on the rolls too long they will simply be cut off. While originally all of those caps were around five years, some states in the intervening years have made the limits even harsher, with Arizona recently going the furthest by kicking people off after just 12 months. “Because of the work requirements, because of the time limits, there has been a group of people who have been left behind,” Steefeldt said. About one in eight single mothers had neither a job nor welfare in 1996 and 1997, compared to one in five in 2008.

Women in this situation can face “severe deprivation,” the paper notes, earning just $535 in median income. Even when the income of other household members is included, the figure only rises to $18,000, below the poverty line for a family of three. They are more likely to face a food-related hardship like having to skip meals or running out of food, as well as to experience disadvantages in health and substance abuse. “These women had significant amounts of stress and depression, their children were facing developmental delays,” Sandstrom noted. “They were very isolated.”

And while their paper only looked at a small sample of about 50 women, “we think there are many more women out there like this,” Sandstrom said.

It all belies how threadbare the social safety net has become. While food stamps was able to respond to increased need during the recession, with rolls rising by 45 percent, TANF actually dropped in a third of states, and since it was implemented extreme poverty has risen. “We have a safety net now that’s fairly work-based,” Steefeldt said. “But what do you do when there is no work?”

Frazier found out how strict the work requirements to get welfare can be. In 2014, she was going to school, working toward a Bachelor’s degree. Then she got a letter saying that her education wouldn’t count toward the requirement of working or looking for work. “I was doing what I was supposed to, I was then told to drop out of school or I would lose my benefits,” she said. So she dropped out.

Today she spends her time working with the Witness to Hunger program at Drexel University, which advocates for the poor, volunteering, and looking for a job. “I’m a single parent trying to make it work, make ends meet, trying to go to school, raising two kids, making sure…their needs are met, my needs are met, trying to have it all lined up,” she said.

The one thing she wants, but doesn’t have, would make everything align. “If I had a stable job and the money’s flowing constantly… It could be okay. It could be okay.”