‘I don’t call it safety net any more. There’s no safety.’
“You’d think they want us to fail,” said Marta, a young mother in a Boston parents’ meeting. She was rocking a sleeping toddler as she explained that she couldn’t cover her bills working just one job. So she added house cleaning on weekends, but the small pay increase led to her subsidized rent being doubled and she was now facing eviction. “How am I supposed to make this work?” she asked the other parents who were shaking their heads with an understanding that can only come from having gone through it. Over the next two hours, we kept coming back to that question and heard the same response. The women agreed, people who make policy “just don’t get it.”
At a meeting in Georgia, Alysha, a mother of two, called it “…my own Bermuda triangle,” a policy sinkhole caused by low wage jobs and a safety net in shreds. She went on to describe how every time you turn around, something disrupts family stability. First, your child care subsidy is reduced because you worked a little overtime. Then your boss changes your work schedule to evenings because it’s better for the store — but you only have child care during the day. Next, the city eliminates your bus route to cut costs. Cliff effects, public program cutbacks and labor market “efficiencies” constantly destabilize families. Alysha raised a question that has profound policy implications, “what do you think this does to children, all this craziness?”
Low-income moms know a lot about the absurdities of these policies. We asked 100 low-income parents, mostly mothers, in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Georgia to share some of their hard-won lessons. They told us about caring for children while working low-wage jobs and about state assistance programs and safety nets. They told us about trying to pursue higher education to build towards an economically stable future. What we heard — across diverse ages, races and ethnicities — is that it always goes back to the children. An older mother in Boston said that in the midst of the instability caused by poverty, “we always put children first.”
That value certainly seems missing in the nation’s policy priorities. And what better time to revisit policy priorities, as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program gets ready to mark its 20th anniversary this month?
Almost half of all young children in the US live in poor or near-poor families, and most of these families include a working parent. Most new job creation doesn’t come close to providing a family income. More than 80% of income eligible children don’t have access to child care. Programs that do provide important aid, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are constantly under threat of cuts. Other programs that once provided stable —if small — income support are now so full of hurdles and penalties that many parents think they are designed to make you give up. “I don’t call it safety net any more. There’s no safety,” said a Denver mother.
Low-income moms have lots of ideas about how to make better policy. We listened as they analyzed the low-wage labor market and the effects of their work schedules, wages, benefits and careers ladders. Jobs could be designed to encourage people to stay employed and encourage children to see work as a promise to a decent life. We heard again and again that, “Most people want to work – I don’t want to live off the state.”
Parents talked about state programs more focused on cutting families off benefits than assisting them in moving up and out of poverty. They pointed to incoherent regulations that sap parents’ time and waste taxpayer money. You spend days doing everything required to get some “little bit of assistance” only to lose another critical resource like housing, child care, food, education assistance or health care. Then your family goes into crisis and you need much more help. Moms talked about the complex web of cliff effects that amount to “giving with this hand while grabbing with another” and that make no sense at all.
Dana in Boston gave an example, explaining that when her work hours were cut, “I lost my child care because (suddenly) I was only working 20 hours.” She hurried to find other work but lost her child care subsidy; “the (wait) list is a year long.” Losing child care meant losing her job, which meant losing housing and then the family unravels. “How does that make sense?”
Frances, a Boston grandmother, said the rules punish you for helping family. She took in her homeless granddaughter Elena, and encouraged her to get an afterschool job, to teach her “to be responsible.” But when Elena started to receive the small paycheck, Frances lost far more in food aid because household income had increased.
Jeannine in Denver said policies should, “stop punishing people for trying to do better.” She and other parents argued that there are ways to combine jobs, more education and assistance so social mobility is actually possible. Then you wouldn’t need public assistance. “They don’t take into account anything—even things that would be steps towards your self-sufficiency.”
Parents shared a vision of investing in children and families and, through them, lifting the whole society. They also had practical advice about improving jobs, child care, help for children with disabilities, and family supports. But to start, as Jan in Georgia put it, “don’t make policy without us… all policy development should include women who experience this life.”
Low-income moms know the truth of how policies fail, and their knowledge is critical to change them.