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The Growing Problem of Disconnected Single Mothers.

November 2007

Rebecca Blank, Brian Kovak.

Download 'working_paper07-28.pdf'.


A key issue in designing public safety net programs is the inherent tension between broad coverage and incentives to move toward economic self-sufficiency. Broader coverage and more generous benefits will provide more assistance in the shortterm to needy families and individuals. But this creates incentives for persons to utilize government assistance rather than moving into employment. Over the past 15 years, the United States has increased the incentives for low-income adults to work more, reducing the availability and generosity of benefits for non-working (and non-disabled) individuals. While these policy changes have been connected to substantial increases in work and earnings, particularly among low-income, single-mother families, they have made assistance less available to those who find themselves out of work and destitute. This paper looks at the extent to which economic need has changed following the reforms of the 1990s. The evidence suggests that the average single mother increased her income significantly, with increased earnings more than offsetting declining welfare benefits. Yet, there is a growing group of single mothers who report that they are not working and do not have access to public assistance benefits; we refer to these as “disconnected” families. As we show, this group is very poor. The majority of them live without other adults in their household. Given rising numbers of disconnected single mothers, we believe it is valuable to assess possible changes in the safety net that might provide greater support to this group of women and their children. The first section of the paper looks at shifts in economic need, particularly among those well below the poverty line, for whom safety net programs might be most important. The second section focuses on the evidence showing growth in the number of disconnected single mothers who are neither working nor receiving cash welfare support.

We discuss the characteristics of these families and investigate spells of disconnectedness to see how long these women remain without welfare or wage support. The third section looks at the availability of alternative sources of support for these women. The fourth section discusses the pros and cons of possible policy responses that would strengthen safety net support for this population. The last section concludes.

Employment, Unemployment, and the Labor Market, Marriage, Family Formation and Reproductive Issues, Social Welfare Programs and Policies