Single mothers on welfare face barriers to employment

October 27, 1998

Single mothers on welfare face barriers to employment

ANN ARBOR—While the number of people on welfare has declined since the mid-1990s, especially since the federal government ended guaranteed cash assistance to needy families in 1996, many of those remaining on the welfare rolls face multiple barriers to employment, according to a University of Michigan study.

With the implementation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program and the continuing strong economy, welfare caseloads nationally have decreased 32 percent between

“Currently, most state programs emphasize job-search assistance to move recipients quickly into jobs,” says Sheldon Danziger, U-M professor of social work and public policy. “They do not systematically assess whether undiagnosed barriers to employment, such as lack of basic work skills and experience, transportation problems, health and mental problems, substance abuse, and domestic violence, limit recipients’ capacities to work regularly.”

The study uses data from a random sample of about 750 single mothers who received welfare in an urban Michigan county in February 1997, and who were interviewed between September and December last year. At the time of the interview, about 60 percent of the respondents were working at least 20 hours per week and about 25 percent were no longer receiving cash welfare-assistance.

Danziger and colleagues at the U-M School of Social Work‘s Poverty Research and Training Center found that 85 percent of the women had at least one of the 14 employment barriers analyzed. About two-thirds had two or more potential barriers to work, nearly half had at least three, and more than a quarter had four or more.

These barriers include: no high school education; little work experience; few job skills; little knowledge of work-place norms; perceived discrimination; lack of access to a car and/or no driver’s license; major depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; alcohol dependence; drug dependence; physical health problem; child has a health problem; and severe abuse from domestic partner.

According to the study, welfare recipients were less likely to have graduated from high school and more likely to have experienced mental and physical health problems and severe domestic abuse than women in the general population.

Nearly a third of the respondents in the study had not finished high school (compared with about 18 percent of women nationally), more than a quarter had experienced a major depression within the past year (compared with 13 percent of women nationally), and 29 percent met criteria for a lifetime experience of a post-traumatic stress disorder (compared with 10 percent of women nationally).

Further, about 20 percent of the respondents had health problems and were twice as likely to report physical limitations and three to five times as likely to report their general health as poor or fair compared with women nationally.

About 15 percent reported being severely physically abused by a husband or partner in the last year (four to five times the national average) and about half had suffered severe physical abuse by partners at some point in their lives. Those who experienced severe domestic violence in the past 12 months had higher levels of physical and mental health problems than other respondents.

“The most compelling explanation is that these problems represent the traumatic effects of violence on well-being,” says co-researcher Richard Tolman, U-M associate professor of social work. “The finding that former victims have fewer mental health diagnoses than recent victims supports the interpretation that traumatic mental health effects diminish with time if women are not re-abused.”

On the positive side, most of the respondents in the study knew most work-place norms, had had at least some past work experience and were no more likely to be drug- or alcohol-dependent than women in the general population—despite the popular view that many women on welfare abuse alcohol and drugs.

“Given the high prevalence of many of the individual barriers, it is not surprising that multiple barriers to employment are common,” says co-researcher Sandra Danziger, U-M associate professor of social work. “Most current recipients have a combination of these characteristics, which could compound disadvantages in the labor market. The more barriers a woman has, the less likely she is to be working.”

For example, 70 percent of women with only one barrier, but just one-third of women with four to six barriers and less than 5 percent of those with seven or more barriers, worked at least 20 hours per week—the number required for a recipient to be in compliance with Michigan’s welfare rules in 1997.

“Because unemployment rates are low, most recipients with few barriers are now able to comply with work requirements,” says co-researcher Mary Corcoran, U-M professor of political science, public policy and social work. “But we expect that the women who remain on welfare over the next few years will, like current long-term recipients, have a greater number of barriers and, hence, an even more difficult time securing employment.”

According to the researchers, their findings that physical and mental health problems and domestic abuse are common in today’s welfare population have implications for service, as well as employment, programs. More, better and/or more accessible health care, mental health counseling and other service programs might improve the quality of life for welfare families, as well as further their transition from welfare to work.

Papers from the study, the first to examine how welfare reform is affecting single mothers, will be presented Oct. 30 at the annual meetings of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. These and other project-related papers can be found at the U-M Poverty Research Center’s Web site at

The project team also includes Kristine Siefert, U-M professor of social work, and researchers Colleen Heflin, Ariel Kalil, Judith Levine, Daniel Rosen and Kristin Seefeldt. The research was supported by grants from the Charles S. Mott Foudation and Joyce Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health and the U-M Office of the Vice President for Research.


U-M News and Information Services University of Michigan

Temporary Assistance for Needy FamiliesSheldon DanzigerSchool of Social WorkSandra DanzigerMary CorcoranAssociation for Public Policy Analysis and ManagementKristine Siefert