Temporary Assistance for Needy Families' logo.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ logo.

As the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act marks its twentieth anniversary, researchers are still exploring the impact of this law, called “welfare reform.” Although this law’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program helps some groups of poor people, it leaves others without any stable cash support. One group seriously at risk consists of low-income single mothers with children who end up with no incomes from either welfare or paid jobs. Researchers call them “economically disconnected.”

Why Should We Care?

Low-income mothers and children who have have no documented cash income of their own may be eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, yet many do not get those benefits. This is a cause concern, because families suffer when they have no cash at all. And we can also ask whether these programs are sufficiently accessible to those in most need. Available data show that “take-up rates,” that is, use of benefits, fell to about 30 percent in 2009 for eligible families. In 1990, moreover, studies found that about ten percent of low-income women subsisted without any cash; but the proportion rose to more than 20 percent by 2010.

Such “disconnected mothers” with little or no income are among America’s most economically vulnerable people. They are more likely than other low-income single mothers to live in public housing as opposed to apartments, and they experience severe hardships, sometimes even going without food. Prior studies have identified a number of reasons why certain poor women become so cut off from both work and public cash assistance. Many find it hard to get or keep jobs, because they lack childcare or transportation, or because they have to care for an ill family member. Many of these women also suffer physical and mental health problems that prevent them from working; or they have few opportunities due to limited work experience, learning disabilities, and low levels of educational attainment. more...

“Welfare” as it now exists in the United States aims to provide a short-term safety net for very needy families with children and prepare adults to get jobs. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law passed by Congress in 1996 said that cash assistance should be limited to no more than five years (sixty months) over a lifetime. But states were allowed some flexibility to extend this limit for up to one-fifth of their welfare recipients who face unusual problems.

Until last year, the state of Maine took advantage of this flexibility to provide extended help to less than 15% of its caseload. Some people could continue to get benefits if they complied with all welfare rules, including the rule about seeking or preparing for employment. But in 2011, the Maine legislature voted to make the sixty-month limit virtually absolute. Exceptions would be granted only if people were awarded a special hardship extension due to coping with disability, domestic violence, or the need to care for a disabled family member.

When the new law took effect in 2012, more than 2,000 Maine families were affected. About 44% requested hardship extensions, but only a quarter of all people scheduled for termination got the exception. Since January 1, 2012, more than 1,500 Maine families, including 2,700 children have lost cash benefits. Who are these families and what are their circumstances? To answer this question and consider whether welfare has adequate protections for the most vulnerable, I surveyed a sample of 54 Maine families whose benefits were stopped and did some additional in-depth personal interviews to probe people’s experiences more deeply. more...