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Single-Parent Families

Public Assistance For Single-parent Families

An alternative or supplement to paid employment for U.S. single parents is public assistance in the form of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This means-tested program, established in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, was originally designed to support mothers and children who had lost a male earner in the family, allowing the mother to stay at home. Historically, welfare policy was based on a distinction between worthy women who were dependent through no fault of their own (widows) and undeserving mothers who were divorced or never married. Program regulations were developed in ways that reflected this distinction, along with racist assumptions about the role of immigrant and African-American women within both the family and the paid labor force.

Welfare reform and the resulting TANF program represent a change in societal views about women's roles in the family and at work. The assumption is that mothers can and should work to support their families and that public support should be temporary and supplemental. TANF placed a lifetime limit of five years on welfare eligibility, required that within five years one-half of a state's caseload was to be enrolled in jobs or jobrelated activities, and excluded college education from the list of qualified work and training activities. As a result, the welfare rolls dropped dramatically from 14.2 million in 1994 to 7.6 million in 1998, a decline of more than 40 percent. At the same time the number of children living at the lowest levels of poverty (less than $6,401 in 1997) grew by 400,000 between 1995 and 1997.

Only about half of all mother-only families receive welfare benefits at any given time. In recent years the rate of participation in at least one public assistance program plummeted from 45 percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 1997. Regardless, public assistance, including non-cash transfers, maintains families well below the U.S. poverty line.

Other developed countries, particularly those in Western Europe, have maintained the goal of supporting mothers to stay at home if they wish. In Great Britain, for example, mothers are not pressured to find work outside the home, and child allowances, national health services, and access to public housing are provided. In Norway single parents receive a child allowance, a child care cash benefit, an education benefit, a housing allowance, and transitional and advanced cash benefits. While most single parents (90%) have incomes less than half the median family income, only 9 percent of all children in single-parent families fall below the poverty line. Developing countries are less likely to have formalized assistance programs in place, although there are grassroots efforts such as the AIDS Support Organization in Uganda to aid widows and their children and Dwip Unnayam Sangstha in Bangladesh to help divorced and widowed women and their children.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesSingle-Parent Families - Demographic Trends, Mother-only And Father-only Families, Challenges Of Single-parenting