Commentary | Inequality and Poverty

Welfare Reform Has to Work for Moms


Welfare reform has to work for moms 

by Heather Boushey

Sometimes in Washington the hardest answers to find are the ones that are the most obvious. So it is with welfare reform.

Judging from the debate on Capitol Hill, one would think that figuring out what’s wrong with welfare is exceedingly complex. In fact, it’s quite simple. Welfare mothers, like mothers everywhere, need jobs that enable them to provide for their families and they need someone to look after their children while they’re at work. For welfare reform to work, it has to work for mothers, whose families constitute the vast majority of the welfare caseload. And for their transition to work to last, mothers must have access to affordable child care and good jobs with decent wages and needed benefits, such as health insurance.

The only hard question is whether or not Congress will do enough to help mothers meet these needs when it reauthorizes the welfare reform legislation of 1996 (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — or TANF). The latest research on the subject strongly suggests that we need to do more than what is contained in the bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee.

Although it pays lip service to child care and good jobs, that bill contains too little carrot and too much stick to succeed. It offers child care funding that is inadequate and work requirements that are too onerous.

In welfare reform, as in life, the devil is in the details, as new research shows.

Giving child-care subsidies to former welfare mothers nearly doubles the likelihood that they will still be working two years later. And the best child care for working mothers is child care they can really count on. The mothers who are most successful at staying in the labor market tend to be the ones who use more formal day care arrangements — day-care centers, rather than informal networks of relatives or neighbors. These arrangements provide more stability for children and have regular hours and routines that help mothers to maintain their work schedules. Not surprisingly, former welfare mothers who put their children in formal day care centers are nearly three times as likely to stay employed for at least two years.

Between 1995 and 2000, child-care funds available for welfare and poor working families increased threefold. Yet the original base was so small that the level of child-care funding remains woefully inadequate.

Growing demand for child care has outstripped the availability of funding for child-care programs. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, by 1999 only one out of every eight federally eligible families was actually receiving assistance through the Child Care and Development Fund. With plans to increase the work requirements, the need for child care is sure to rise even faster. The bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee only increases spending on child care by $5.5 billion. That’s less than half of what researchers say is minimally necessary to meet demand.

If child care is half of the recipe for a mother’s successful transition from welfare to work, the other key ingredient is the job itself. Finding a good job — in particular, one with employer-provided health insurance — is an important factor in keeping mothers employed. Former welfare recipients who land jobs that have employer-provided health insurance are over two and a half times as likely as those who do not to still be employed after two years.

Working mothers — no matter what kind of work they do — face a difficult balancing act.

Work brings the reward of a paycheck, but it also carries costs. Besides the cost of child care, there is also the added stress of juggling the competing demands of family and work. While it takes good, reliable and affordable child care to make going to work possible, it takes decent pay and health care benefits to make it worth it to shoulder the additional pressures and stresses over the longer haul.

The long-term success of welfare reform hinges on whether or not women can pull themselves and their families out of poverty through employment. But this goal will remain elusive if the request for individual responsibility is not matched with access to affordable child care and good quality jobs.

Heather Boushey is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.