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Making Ends Meet

Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work

Kathryn Edin
Laura Lein
Foreword by Christopher Jencks
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    Making Ends Meet
    Book Description:

    Welfare mothers are popularly viewed as passively dependent on their checks and averse to work. Reformers across the political spectrum advocate moving these women off the welfare rolls and into the labor force as the solution to their problems.Making Ends Meetoffers dramatic evidence toward a different conclusion: In the present labor market, unskilled single mothers who hold jobs are frequently worse off than those on welfare, and neither welfare nor low-wage employment alone will support a family at subsistence levels.

    Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein interviewed nearly four hundred welfare and low-income single mothers from cities in Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, and South Carolina over a six year period. They learned the reality of these mothers' struggles to provide for their families: where their money comes from, what they spend it on, how they cope with their children's needs, and what hardships they suffer. Edin and Lein's careful budgetary analyses reveal that even a full range of welfare benefits-AFDC payments, food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies-typically meet only three-fifths of a family's needs, and that funds for adequate food, clothing and other necessities are often lacking. Leaving welfare for work offers little hope for improvement, and in many cases threatens even greater hardship. Jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled women provide meager salaries, irregular or uncertain hours, frequent layoffs, and no promise of advancement. Mothers who work not only assume extra child care, medical, and transportation expenses but are also deprived of many of the housing and educational subsidies available to those on welfare. Regardless of whether they are on welfare or employed, virtually all these single mothers need to supplement their income with menial, off-the-books work and intermittent contributions from family, live-in boyfriends, their children's fathers, and local charities. In doing so, they pay a heavy price. Welfare mothers must work covertly to avoid losing benefits, while working mothers are forced to sacrifice even more time with their children.

    Making Ends Meetdemonstrates compellingly why the choice between welfare and work is more complex and risky than is commonly recognized by politicians, the media, or the public. Almost all the welfare-reliant women interviewed by Edin and Lein made repeated efforts to leave welfare for work, only to be forced to return when they lost their jobs, a child became ill, or they could not cover their bills with their wages. Mothers who managed more stable employment usually benefited from a variety of mitigating circumstances such as having a relative willing to watch their children for free, regular child support payments, or very low housing, medical, or commuting costs.

    With first hand accounts and detailed financial data,Making Ends Meettells the real story of the challenges, hardships, and survival strategies of America's poorest families. If this country's efforts to improve the self-sufficiency of female-headed families is to succeed, reformers will need to move beyond the myths of welfare dependency and deal with the hard realities of an unrewarding American labor market, the lack of affordable health insurance and child care for single mothers who work, and the true cost of subsistence living.Making Ends Meetis a realistic look at a world that so many would change and so few understand.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-175-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xxviii)
    Christopher Jencks

    Ever since Lyndon Johnson first asked his Council of Economic Advisors to estimate how many Americans were poor, public officials, policy analysts, and journalists have relied on the Census Bureau for information about poverty. When the bureau reports that poverty has become less common among the elderly, as it has over the past generation, we congratulate ourselves. When the bureau reports that poverty has become more common among children, we wring our hands.

    InMaking Ends Meet,Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein present powerful evidence that the Census Bureau’s measures of poverty are often quite misleading. The good news is...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxix-xxxii)
    Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein
  5. Chapter 1 Single Mothers, Welfare, and Low-Wage Work
    (pp. 1-19)

    On December 18, 1994, the cover of theNew York Times Magazinefeatured an African American single mother of four. In the photograph, Mary Ann Moore stands in an apron and sanitary cap in front of an industrial-sized stove, ready to start her ten-hour work day as a cook in a Chicago soup kitchen. WhenNew York Timesjournalist Jason DeParle interviewed Moore in the fall of that year, she had been working at this job for almost twelve months.

    As the article revealed, thirty-three-year-old Moore had held at least two dozen service-sector jobs since leaving high school. Between these...

  6. Chapter 2 Making Ends Meet on a Welfare Check
    (pp. 20-59)

    Along Minnesota’s Highway 72—which runs between the Canadian border town of Rainy River and Bemidji, Minnesota—a large, crudely lettered billboard greets the southbound traveler:


    LAND OF 10,000 TAXES


    Antiwelfare sentiment is common among Minnesotans, who live in a state with high personal income taxes and cash welfare benefits substantially above the national median (see chapter 8). But even in southern states, where cash welfare benefits are very low and taxes modest, citizens are likely to denigrate welfare. In 1990, about 40 percent of respondents in each region told interviewers from the...

  7. Chapter 3 Why Don’t Welfare-Reliant Mothers Go to Work?
    (pp. 60-87)

    In 1990, Brianna Kerry had graduated from high school and was earning $4.55 an hour as a clerk in a large discount chain store. Because she could not get full-time hours (only twenty-six to thirty-four hours a week), she grossed about $600 a month. She had looked for better jobs, but the San Antonio economy was depressed, and she could find none. When Kerry learned she was pregnant, she called several day care centers for information and learned that the fee for full-time infant care equaled her paycheck. Because she did not see her economic situation improving any time soon...

  8. Chapter 4 Making Ends Meet at a Low-Wage Job
    (pp. 88-119)

    In 1992, Alexandria Gonzalez—a white woman of twenty-three who lived in San Antonio with her three preschool-aged children—had been off welfare and working for over a year. Of her job as a receptionist she said,

    I really like my work, but the money is not enough. People work me really hard, and there’s nowhere to be promoted to unless I get more school. So sometimes it’s depressing. I feel like I do a good job though. and I like to have contact with all these people.

    Gonzalez’s budget was tight. Although she made more from working than she...

  9. Chapter 5 Why Some Single Mothers Choose to Work
    (pp. 120-142)

    Terri Blackwell, a twenty-four-year-old African American mother with one child, had worked steadily since she graduated from high school. In the year between high school graduation and her daughter’s birth, she combined part-time work with full-time training at a local community college. Just before the birth, Blackwell left her job and applied for Medicaid and welfare. Medicaid covered the cost of her daughter’s birth, for which she had been uninsured. Receiving welfare made her eligible for an apartment in a housing project. After securing this apartment, she left welfare for full-time work as a cashier at a convenience store. Her...

  10. Chapter 6 Survival Strategies
    (pp. 143-191)

    In prior chapters, we have focused on how the unskilled and semiskilled mothers we interviewed chose between welfare and work. Their choices were partly shaped by another set of decisions: each mother also had to choose among a range of survival strategies to scratch together enough supplementary income. These survival “choices” were not entirely up to the mother, since other factors, including her personal characteristics and the characteristics of the neighborhood and city she lived in, often limited the range of options available to her. Despite these constraints, however, most mothers said they still had a range of strategies to...

  11. Chapter 7 Differences Among Mothers
    (pp. 192-217)

    The reader may wonder whether the spending patterns, hardships, and survival strategies we have observed are similar across different groups of low-income mothers, or whether these behaviors vary Significantly by race and ethnicity, neighborhood, family background, or other factors. Public discourse about welfare often refers to the supposedly distinctive value systems shared by minorities, residents of inner-city ghettos, never-married mothers, or second-generation welfare mothers. According to these arguments, destructive subcultural norms, which destigmatize welfare use, criminal activity, and out-of-wedlock childbirth, are supposed to explain why such groups ignore mainstream mores about work and obeying the law.

    Because our sample consists...

  12. Chapter 8 The Choice Between Welfare and Work
    (pp. 218-235)

    This book tells the story of single mothers all over America who face a desperate situation recognized by neither politicians nor the media: neither welfare nor low-wage work provides enough income to cover basic needs.

    The federal welfare rules present welfare-reliant mothers with a stark choice: follow the rules—which disallow supplemental income—and subject their families to severe hardship, or break the rules. Virtually all welfare-reliant mothers with whom we spoke during the course of our research chose their family’s welfare. In Chicago and Boston, many welfare-reliant mothers coped by taking off-the-books work. Many San Antonio mothers subsisted by...

  13. Appendix A Interview Topics
    (pp. 236-249)
  14. Appendix B Regression Results
    (pp. 250-270)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 271-287)
  16. References
    (pp. 288-295)
  17. Index
    (pp. 296-305)