Making Ends Meet
Have you prayed, clipped coupons and saved, only to find yourself sinking under a weight of worry and debt as you write that "big book?" Making Ends Meet: 7. It's Not Like I'm Poor How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-Welfare World. by Sarah Halpern-Meekin . About the Book. The world of welfare has. Making Ends Meet offers dramatic evidence toward a different conclusion: In the with menial, off-the-books work and intermittent contributions from family.
But, as we've indicated, the ultimate question this chapter raises is much larger: What bundle of goods and services is "enough" for those on the front lines of this revolutionary new approach to alleviating poverty, parents who are working but poor?
Is it merely about financial need, or should our standard for what is enough be based on American notions of what workers "deserve"?
In short, given the fact that these household heads all play by the rules-working, many full time and full year-do they need the EITC, and are they worthy of it? We devote a later chapter chapter 3 to comparing the new work-based safety net to the old welfare entitlement system that existed prior to the reforms, and to the time-limited welfare system that remains.
Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work
Thus we will not engage in a full discussion of those differences here. Note, however, that the old system, which entitled a family to a certain level of resources based on their need, never came close to pulling families above the poverty line. Today, not one state in our nation offers enough in TANF benefits to raise a family much above even half of the official poverty threshold; in fact, in the majority of states, TANF benefits are limited to less than a third of the poverty line, although TANF beneficiaries usually are also able to claim SNAP formerly known as food stamps and Medicaid.
Nonetheless, the monthly TANF benefit for a family of three won't even pay the rent: This shortfall is meaningful given the fact that nationally only a quarter of eligible families get any form of subsidized housing, and families with substantial assets are barred from the welfare rolls.
Clearly, what remains of the traditional need-based safety net is not-and never was-truly about helping families meet all of their needs. Yet few politicians worry in public, and perhaps few even worry in private, that TANF benefits are too low.
What standard of living, then, did Bill Clinton envision ensuring when he proposed a massive expansion of the EITC so that working Americans-at least those with kids-would not be poor?
Was it bare-bones survival or something more-some notion of a "decent" standard of living that exceeded subsistence? The narratives we present in this chapter raise the question of what kind of reward American workers ought to get from their labor. We first turn to Ashlee Reed, whose household financial situation is quite typical of that of other households in our study. Ashlee grew up in the South Boston housing projects watching her mother struggle financially while raising three kids on her own.
A high school dropout, Ashlee's mom had to take whatever work she could find. Certification as a home health aide translated into long hours taking care of the elderly for little more than minimum wage. Perhaps as a result, she frequently lectured Ashlee and her siblings about the importance of education in the hopes that her children might rise above bottom-of-the-barrel jobs like hers and escape "Southie," the troubled neighborhood in which they lived.
Ashlee bought into this message wholeheartedly; she excelled in high school and took out loans so that she could go to college. Four years later, she left with her bachelor of arts degree in hand, becoming the only college graduate in her family. But life has fallen short of the comfortable living promised by her mother's stay-in-school mantra.
Now, seven years after graduation, this twenty-nine-year-old white mother lives with her boyfriend, Adrian-who used to work as a cook in her college cafeteria-and their three young children on a run-down block that's just a stone's throw from the one that she was raised on. But the job hasn't left her much better off than her mother. We first meet this family of five in their small, two-bedroom apartment directly across from a convenience store on a busy street in Dorchester.
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This mostly black neighborhood borders South Boston, the largely white enclave to the east where Ashlee was raised. Nearly three decades of stagnant wages, ineffective child support enforcement, and dwindling welfare benefits have made single mothers and their children America's poorest demographic group.
Because 60 percent of all children born during the s will spend part of their childhood in a mother-only family, and because current trends suggest that an even higher proportion of children born during the current decade will be raised by single mothers, we believe the economic well-being of mother-only families should be of concern to every American Martin and Bumpass ; Sweet and Bumpass Welfare, Work, and Motherhood in Four U. Cities Even before welfare was time-limited, a substantial majority of those who collected welfare got off the rolls within two years, and hardly any stayed on the rolls continuously for more than eight years Harris ; Pavetti Just about all of those who received any welfare spent three times as many of their adult years off the rolls as on it Harrisand only about one-fifth of the daughters of highly dependent mothers became highly dependent themselves two-thirds of these daughters never even used welfare Duncan, Hill, and Hoffman Despite these realities, taxpayers have generally viewed welfare recipients as wastrels who were willing to spend their adult years living off the hard work of others while raising children who were likely to do the same Bobo and Smith In the s, even the relatively sympathetic renderings of many liberals portrayed welfare mothers as trapped in a vicious cycle of dependency from which many of them could not escape.
Lawmakers of both parties and a Democratic president used these claims to justify their support of the Republican welfare reform bill of They reasoned that the only way to rid society of current and future generations of dependent women and children was to toughen up the rules regarding welfare.
As the government got tough, they believed poor women would behave more responsibly.
They defined "responsible" behavior on the part of parents rather narrowly as the willingness to engage in wage-earning labor and on the part of nonparents as the willingness to forgo childbearing until they could support their children on their earnings. This book is about low-income single mothers who, in future years, will likely be affected in some way by changes in federal and state welfare policies.
When we interviewed them, their lives were somewhat similar to Mary Ann Moore's. Most were similarly skilled and had a good deal of experience with the world of low-wage work.
Most also had personal experience with welfare. None of the single mothers we spoke to, however, earned as much as Moore. Nor did most have housing and day care subsidies plus a supportive relative with enough free time to take a major role in parenting their children.
Our conversations with these mothers show that low-income single mothers have a much broader view of what constitutes responsible behavior than policymakers do.
Not only must mothers ensure that their children are sheltered, fed, and clothed, they must also see that they are supervised, educated, disciplined, and loved. As any parent knows, these goals often conflict. Few affluent Americans realize the depth of this conflict for poor or near-poor single mothers. The mothers we interviewed had to choose between a welfare system that paid far too little to provide for their basic needs and a labor market that offered them little more than they could have gotten by staying home.
Since neither affordable health insurance nor child care was available to most low-wage workers, mothers who chose work over welfare often had to trust their family's medical care to county hospital emergency rooms and their children's upbringing to the streets.
The lack of affordable housing for low-income families meant that many low-wage working mothers particularly African Americans and Latinas had to raise their children in some of the country's most dangerous neighborhoods--neighborhoods many Americans are afraid even to drive through. The women we interviewed were fairly evenly divided between those who received cash benefits from welfare and those who did not.
We refer to those who were receiving cash welfare benefits as welfare-reliant, and to those who were not receiving cash welfare but had low-wage jobs as wage-reliant. Yet like their counterparts nationwide, most of the welfare-reliant mothers had substantial work experience, and most of the wage-reliant mothers had received cash welfare in the past. This reflects the fact that over the last few decades, many unskilled and semiskilled single mothers have cycled between welfare and work Edin and Harris forthcoming; Harris ; Harris and Edin ; Pavetti We have chosen the term "reliant" over the more commonly used "dependent" because neither welfare nor work provided enough income for families to live on.
Because of this, all but one of the mothers we spoke with engaged in other income-generating strategies to supplement their income and ensure their economic survival. The one mother who did not, a publicly housed Boston-area resident, provided the quintessential exception that proves the rule. Her child went without food and adequate clothing on a regular basis, and she was in danger of losing custody of the child due to "neglect. None of the cities we studied provided mothers nearly enough in welfare benefits to cover their expenditures.
Yet because of state differences in welfare payments, mothers' benefits varied broadly across our four sites, and these variations had real consequences for the women and children we studied.
Welfare-reliant mothers living in cities in low-benefit states the Charleston and San Antonio mothers experienced significantly more material hardship than those either in Chicago, a city in an average-benefit state, or in the Boston area, which offered higher-than-average benefits see chapter 2. Overall, the welfare-reliant mothers covered only three-fifths of their expenditures with their welfare benefits.
The working mothers covered about two-thirds of their monthly expenses with wages from their main jobs. Yet in dollar terms, the wage-reliant mothers faced the largest gap between their income and expenses.
Their material hardship rates reflected this large gap: Because of their constant budget shortfall, mothers in both groups had to generate additional revenue to make ends meet. Welfare-reliant mothers had to keep these activities hidden from their welfare caseworkers and other government bureaucrats. The federal rules that applied to these mothers required them to report any cash income to their welfare caseworker, who then would have reduced their welfare checks by nearly the same amount.
Making Ends Meet: For Better or For Worse 3rd Treasury
In most states, these rules still apply. Therefore, in order to supplement their welfare income, recipients concealed the extra money. Although the federal tax rate on income is far less punitive than the penalties of most welfare departments, many of the wage-reliant mothers we interviewed also hid their side-income. This was because many received means tested food stamps, housing subsidies, or other benefits that would have been reduced or eliminated if program officials knew about their supplementary income.
The Dual Demands on Single Mothers It is virtually impossible to understand the economic behavior of the mothers we interviewed without considering the overall context within which this behavior occurred--that of single motherhood. Our mothers' accounts show that all over America, unskilled and semiskilled single mothers face desperate economic and personal situations that they can seldom resolve satisfactorily. Most want to be good providers and good mothers.
For these parents, good mothering means, at minimum, keeping their children out of danger--off the streets, off drugs, out of gangs, not pregnant, and in school. Most of us would endorse these goals, but few realize just how difficult they are to achieve for mothers who must support their children on low-wage employment.
These widely shared social definitions of good mothering affected how our respondents spent their money. Good mothers, they believed, should treat their children on occasion. Consequently, some mothers would occasionally forgo necessities to pay for a basic cable television subscription, a movie rental, a trip to a fast food restaurant, new clothes for the first day of school, or name brand sneakers. Although these items are not essential for a child's material well-being, a cable television subscription is a relatively inexpensive way for mothers to keep their children off the streets and away from undesirable peers.
Likewise, buying a pair of expensive sneakers is insurance against the possibility that children will be tempted to steal them or sell drugs to get them.
The importance of being a good mother also limited women's access to the more financially lucrative survival strategies available to them. Although a few mothers sold sex, drugs, or stolen goods when other strategies failed, almost all believed that good mothering and routine criminal activity were incompatible. Thus, few mothers engaged in well-paid side-work like prostitution. Instead, they opted for cleaning houses, maintaining apartment buildings, mowing lawns, babysitting, collecting bottles and aluminum cans, or other poorly paid work.
Finally, concerns about good mothering profoundly affected the way that mothers thought about the advantages of welfare and low-wage work. The regular jobs open to unskilled and semiskilled women were precisely those jobs that are least compatible with mothering.
The jobs our mothers held seldom provided health benefits, so mothers who chose them often had to forgo medical care for themselves or their children.
Many of these jobs offered unpredictable or limited hours, required workers to take shifts at odd or irregular times, provided few if any paid vacation or sick days, and did not allow mothers to take or make personal calls to check on children left home alone. In sum, the nature of their jobs often made it difficult for mothers to fulfill their parenting roles satisfactorily.
Because virtually all the women we interviewed were at least as concerned with parenting as with providing, many chose not to work for a time. As low-income single mothers' option to withdraw from the labor market and rely on welfare is increasingly restricted, it is hard to gauge what impact this may have on their ability to parent their children effectively.
We believe that this will largely depend on the type of jobs and the kinds of long-term support services states will be able to provide unskilled and semiskilled single mothers who work. The survey showed that nearly half of the families with incomes below the official poverty threshold reported that their expenditures on food, housing, and medical care exceeded their entire incomes Mayer and Jencks This finding led Edin to ask how poor families--particularly poor mother-only families--make ends meet.
Her first attempt to find the answer to this question involved reinterviewing poor single mothers who had participated in the survey, first by telephone and then in person. While a few of those she contacted were forthcoming, most were unwilling to offer information about how they made ends meet. Their hesitancy arose because they had no personal introduction to her and therefore suspected she was "checking up" on them in some official capacity.
Edin concluded that she could not get accurate responses from low-income single mothers using survey research methods.
She therefore took a different tack, contacting a wide variety of individuals who knew welfare mothers in various capacities and asking them for personal introductions to potential respondents. She then arranged a series of informal semistructured interviews with each respondent. Edin's initial interviews took place in Chicago, a city with average welfare benefits and living costs.
For the most part, Chicago welfare recipients lived bleak lives, often in dangerous neighborhoods, and spent little or nothing for extras. Their welfare checks and food stamps often did not cover rent and food, much less the rest of the items their families needed each month. If the mothers had tried to live on their welfare benefits alone, most would have exposed their children to serious material hardship. To avoid this, the mothers devised a set of survival strategies to supplement their welfare benefits and pay their bills.
Virtually none of the mothers reported any of this supplementary income to their caseworkers. Though no mother Edin contacted in Chicago went without such supplemental income, many people doubted that the patterns one had observed in Chicago--a city with a reputation for vice and corruption--occurred with equal frequency elsewhere. At about this time, Laura Lein was conducting similar research among Mexican American welfare recipients in a San Antonio public housing project.
These families could not make ends meet on their welfare checks either. In order to get the goods and services their families needed each month, the San Antonio families garnered assistance from as many as twenty-five different public and private service agencies each year.
Each agency had different regulatory requirements, eligibility criteria, and routines for service delivery. Thus, using agencies as a survival strategy took a lot of time, energy, and know-how. Yet even when parents undertook such efforts, they barely raised their families above destitution.
Edin and Lein pooled their data from Chicago and San Antonio welfare recipients and extended their work to two additional cities: Boston and Charleston, South Carolina. Two of the cities Charleston and San Antonio offered very little in cash welfare benefits, whereas the other cities offered average Chicago or above-average Boston welfare payments.
Edin and Lein also extended the study to include a sample of low-wage working single mothers in each site, since Edin's Chicago research had suggested that low-wage workers were in a financial bind similar to that of welfare-reliant mothers. One of the low-benefit cities offered these single mothers a tight labor market Charlestonwhile the other was slack San Antonio. Similar labor-market differences were evident in the higher-benefit cities Chicago's was average whereas Boston's was slack.
In addition, there were substantial variations in living costs between the sites. Thus, extending our work in these ways allowed us to observe the effects of welfare benefit levels, labor-market conditions, and living costs on low-income single mothers' economic situations and survival strategies. When Edin conducted her Chicago interviews, Illinois mothers received cash welfare benefits approximating the national average, and they faced a moderate cost of living and a relatively tight labor market unemployment ranged from 5.
When Lein collected her data in San Antonio, cash benefits were among the lowest in the nation though the cost of living was also low and unemployment rates were quite high ranging from 6.
Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work by Kathryn Edin
Charleston, South Carolina, also offered very low welfare benefits, but the cost of living in Charleston was much higher than in San Antonio and the labor market there was quite tight unemployment ranged between 4. Finally, the Boston area provided relatively high welfare benefits, matched by a high cost of living.
Unemployment was also well above the national average ranging from 7. We also stratified our sample by two additional criteria: We looked primarily at African Americans and whites, not because we expected to find substantial racial differences, but because we wanted to ensure adequate representation of both groups.
We also stratified by whether a mother paid market rent or had some level of rent subsidy, on the grounds that mothers in subsidized housing have a better chance than others of making ends meet on their welfare benefits or wages alone. We allowed one deviation from this design. San Antonio, like most Southwestern cities, has a large Mexican American community with large numbers of mother-only families, so we added Mexican Americans who were U.
We included this group because Lein's previous research indicated that San Antonio's Mexican American mother-only families had little access to the kind of income-generating strategies that Edin's Chicago mothers had used, and we wanted to see how these constraints affected these mothers' budgeting strategies and material well-being.
Gathering accurate budget information from a large group of single mothers living in a variety of places proved to be a huge task.
Mothers who are used to keeping their survival strategies a secret from caseworkers, housing authorities, the Internal Revenue Service IRSand unfriendly neighbors who might turn them in hesitate before trusting anyone outside of their personal networks. In our initial fieldwork, we both learned that a stranger had almost no chance of getting an accurate accounting of these mothers' income-generating strategies see Edin ; Lein Data from large nationally representative surveys were consistent with our experiences.
Poor or near-poor persons who participate in such surveys typically report incomes that are far below their expenditures. In analyzing the results of the Consumer Expenditure Survey CESEdin and Jencks found that mothers who received something from public assistance which includes welfare typically reported enough income to cover only three-fifths of their expenditures.
Since these mothers were unlikely to have any savings to fall back on, Edin and Jencks concluded that welfare-reliant CES respondents were as likely to hide their side-income from survey researchers as from welfare officials. Because reliable data on survival strategies proved so hard to obtain, we recruited mothers with the assistance of a wide variety of trusted community residents, including members of neighborhood block groups, housing authority residents' councils, churches, local community organizations, and local charities that the community held in high regard.
These personal introductions were crucial to our ability to gain the mothers' trust. To guard against interviewing only those mothers who were well connected to community leaders, organizations, and charities, we asked the mothers we interviewed to refer us to one or two friends whom they thought we would not be able to contact through other channels.
In this way, we were able to get to less-connected mothers.