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Chapter 6: Working Around Family Breakdown and Welfare Dependence

The most significant demographic transformation in the U.S. over the past five decades has been the revolution in family structure. It has also been one of the most detrimental for the welfare of children and the economic well-being of parents. In this chapter, we examine responses to the difficulties that single parents—most of them mothers—face in balancing custody of young children with the responsibilities of earning a family income. We then review some effective philanthropies that help Americans avoid single parenthood and organizations that strengthen fatherhood and male economic provision.

It is impossible to understand the struggles of single-parent homes without understanding a bit about how government welfare programs operate. The federal government spent around half a trillion dollars in 2013 on the top five welfare programs: Medicaid grants to the states ($267 billion), food stamps ($83 billion), the Earned Income Tax Credit ($55 billion), Supplemental Security Income ($51 billion), housing assistance ($50 billion), and payments to the states for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ($21 billion). These numbers don’t include other federal entitlements such as child nutrition subsidies, nor do they factor in the state portion of welfare payments, which are very large.

Even after the “workfare” reforms of the mid-1990s that reduced enrollments on America’s traditional cash welfare program, dependence on government supports stands at historically high levels today. As economist Nicholas Eberstadt writes in A Nation of Takers:

The habituation of Americans to life on entitlement benefits has already progressed much further than many of us might realize. As of 2009, an estimated 45 percent of all American children under 18 years were receiving at least one form of means-tested government aid.... An outright majority of Hispanic and African Americans of all ages were living in households reportedly using such programs, as well as almost 30 percent of Asian Americans and over 20 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

The influence of welfare payments on shifting norms of family has been profound. Most Americans agree that a social safety net is needed, but when benefits are ill-formulated or carelessly administered they can actually perpetuate problems. A priority for private philanthropists today is to build paths to individual responsibility and self-sufficiency that can counterbalance destructive effects of dependence on welfare transfers.

Considerable research has demonstrated that a growing marriage chasm, fueled by welfare dependence, is the leading factor separating strugglers and their children from economic and social success. “The United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households,” while “unstable, unhappy, and unworkable” family structures are the pattern among the poor, summarizes Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “The primary way that those with low incomes can advance in the market economy is to get married, stay married, and work—but welfare programs have created incentives to do the opposite,” conclude Michael Tanner and Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute.

In addition to emphasizing the vital importance of marriage as the foundation for social success, philanthropists might put new emphasis on wealth accumulation by strugglers, suggest the authors of When Helping Hurts. “While public policy has historically encouraged wealth accumulation for middle-to-upper-class people, it has often discouraged wealth accumulation for the poor.” Perverse incentives like the disability payments described earlier that penalize work would be an example.

The aspect of poverty that most concerns Americans is the way it crimps the horizons of innocent children. But one cannot effectively aid children without getting their parents involved. Even philanthropic investments in education, for instance, can be diluted and even cancelled, notes Donn Weinberg of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, if the child is coming home to a chaotic environment.

“If you truly want to help children, you must help the adults live in more sustainable ways,” he suggests. This also sets a healthy model for the child. “When the kids see that their parent works, they think, ‘When I grow up, I will work, because that’s what mom does.’ Philanthropic investments are muted unless we acknowledge this reality.”

The problems of single-parent life

There are few domestic situations that produce more stress than raising young children alone. Yet there are far more single-parent families today than ever before.

  • In 2013, 44 percent of all births in the U.S. took place out of wedlock; in 1963 that figure was just 7 percent.
  • The median annual income for families headed by a single mother was $25,493 in 2012; the median income for all households was double that at $51,017.
  • Two thirds of single mothers receive no child support from the fathers of their children.
  • Nearly half of all single-parent families live below the poverty line; 42 percent of kids in single-parent households receive food stamps.
  • One third of families maintained by women with no spouse present were unemployed in 2013, compared to less than 4 percent of married-couple families with children.

Raising children in two-parent families is challenging enough; demands are magnified in single-parent families enjoying fewer economic and emotional resources. We surveyed donors, charitable providers, and experts in moving strugglers from dependence to work, asking them what the biggest obstacles to self-support are among single parent families. This is what they told us:

  • Having only a single income, which sometimes requires working multiple jobs.
  • The necessity of paying for child care during the workday, and the difficulty of matching child care and work schedules.
  • Having no help in completing household chores.
  • Handling child nurture, discipline, homework, etc. alone.
  • Lack of down time to recuperate, and economic margin to cover unexpected contingencies.
  • Lack of time to pursue educational options that would help speed advancement.
  • Social isolation due to a harried schedule and lack of time for either friendships or career networking.

A comprehensive approach to helping single mothers work

Due to the pressures on single parents, it can be easy for philanthropists to fall into the trap of simply providing short-term help rather than the hand up that will bring longer-term success. Including a clear path to gainful employment within the mix of assistance offered to ­single-parent strugglers is vital. Pressing needs like housing, utility payments, transportation costs, and groceries must be met to keep homes running. But skill building, work, and living patterns that foster work are most important overall.

A nonprofit that has managed to lead single mothers from debilitating dependence on public entitlements to rewarding independence is the Jeremiah Program based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the mid-1990s, when he was rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis, Michael O’Connell brought together a team of community leaders to seek solutions for low-income single parents. A donation of land by the company now known as Xcel Energy, and then a $5 million fundraising campaign, allowed the group to open its first residential building in 1998. By 2002, they had 39 housing units for single mothers and space for 66 children in a child-development center.

The Jeremiah Program serves low-income single mothers 18 and over who have graduated from high school or hold a GED. These women are often living without hope on public assistance, frequently with a history of neglect or abuse from the men in their lives. The goal of the program is to radically change these women’s perceptions of themselves and their situations.

“To break out of poverty, there has to be a basic level of ­self-confidence,” says Gloria Perez, who has led the Jeremiah Program since 1998. “If you are poor, there is a familiar safety net that you’ve known. It’s hard to take risks and venture into new territory aimed at advancing yourself while clinging to that comfortable safety net. But when women see other women with the same kinds of barriers going through the same effort to break out of poverty, that is hugely beneficial. And when children see their mothers going to work, doing homework, and actively engaging in the community, the kids change.”

It’s hard to take risks and venture into new territory aimed at advancing yourself while clinging to that comfortable safety net.

Before becoming residents in the Jeremiah Program, single mothers must take an eight-week personal empowerment class. Once they move in, an additional eight weeks of the class follow. The campus-style housing is safe and fully furnished—but it isn’t free. Women are required to pay 30 percent of their income for rent (averaging around $135 a month). In addition to their apartments they get playgrounds for their children, laundry facilities, and 24-hour security.

During their time as residents, mothers are required to attend weekly life-training that teaches parenting skills, health and wellness, personal financial literacy, and household independence. The program has on-site centers where children ages six weeks through preschool receive care while their mothers pursue education and career opportunities.

Career development is emphasized. Jeremiah Works! connects the women directly with area companies offering jobs, and women also enroll in local college programs. Residents get basic career counseling and steady encouragement to graduate out of the program. The average length of stay is three years.

Today, the Jeremiah Program serves 300 women and children annually at two sites in the Twin Cities area. Sister efforts recently opened in Austin, Texas, and in Boston. Donors in Fargo, North Dakota, are planning another site. The Frey Family Foundation of Minneapolis has been a cornerstone supporter, providing more than $2 million of general and expansion support, much of it in the form of matching challenge grants. “We give the highest possible marks to the Jeremiah Program in what they’re doing,” says president Jim Frey.

This campus-based, multifaceted, multiyear effort is costly. The ­Jeremiah Program’s 2012 budget of $4.2 million translates to nearly $11,000 per family served each year. But by carefully selecting applicants who are ready to change their lives, and then offering strong programming, the effort has produced impressive results.

Data on women who graduated from the Jeremiah Program in 2012 and 2013 show that 40 percent earned a bachelor’s degree, 54 percent completed an associate degree, and 6 percent completed an occupational certificate. When they came into the program these women were unemployed in 61 percent of the cases; the 39 percent who had some work were earning a little more than $9 per hour. After graduating, 77 percent were employed, at an average wage of $16.25 per hour; another 14 percent were finishing their education.

Working with welfare programs

In places where a comprehensive model like we’ve just examined is not practical or desirable, a donor might instead work with existing nonprofits that offer certain needed services. Donors might even get some of the comprehensive effect by investing in alliances between nonprofits that have distinct focuses—one on housing assistance, another on childcare, and a third on transportation. Mixing these with a solid workforce-training curriculum could yield powerful programming for helping single mothers.

Or donors might just want to keep a tight focus on work. The ­Center for Work Education and Employment in Denver may offer lessons. CWEE was founded in 1982 to help women transition to employment from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (the precursor to today’s TANF welfare program). The passage of welfare reform in 1996 placed a lifetime limit of five years on the new TANF benefits, giving additional relevance to support for transitions to work. CWEE made it their mission to train recipients and help them find jobs.

Unlike other nonprofits in this chapter, CWEE works closely with the existing welfare system. Mothers are admitted to CWEE as a step in their process of transitioning off TANF. Like traditional work-boosting organizations, CWEE has three main planks: preparing for employment, finding employment, and keeping employment. Women attend classes for 30 hours per week—first a general orientation and then a ten-week career-readiness program that fills weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Because over 50 percent of those who attend have no high-school diploma or GED, literacy skills are a cornerstone of the program. Depending on their skill level, participants might be placed in a GED-prep track or an adult basic-education track. Women learn foundational tech skills, including Internet use and word processing. Each applicant is required to give presentations to other students, CWEE staff, and guests to boost confidence and public speaking ability. Along the way, participants learn soft skills as well, get personalized counseling, and two years of follow-on help to improve job retention.

Being a welfare-to-work program, CWEE receives 60 percent of its funding from TANF funds that are tied to each woman who comes through. Remaining costs are covered by individual donors and foundations. In its early days, CWEE received linchpin backing from Colorado National Bank (now U.S. Bank), Excel Energy Company, and the Coors Foundation.

Manufacturing independence: the Women’s Bean Project

Social enterprise—running a business with a moral mission—is a strategy that has also been used to help single mothers. Visitors to the Women’s Bean Project warehouse in Denver will discover a nonprofit run like a mom-and-pop firm. On the warehouse’s ground floor, there is a production line turning out packaged bean soups, baking mixes, coffees and teas, salsas and dips. Boxes of food line the walls, ready for sale.

The women who make and pack these products are mostly welfare mothers, former homeless, or individuals with addiction or criminal histories. “The women who come here have never experienced success,” says project head Tamra Ryan. “The most significant change we see is that a woman who graduates from here leaves believing that she is worthy of a better life.”

Jossy Eyre was a volunteer at a women’s homeless shelter who noticed that the facility had many repeat customers who kept coming back. If women could be taught to work through actual on-the-job experience they would have a much better chance of a sustained life change, she ­reasoned, than if they were simply offered compensations for their poverty. She founded the Women’s Bean Project in 1989, investing $500 of her own money and enlisting two homeless women to help create and sell Toni’s Ten Bean Soup, WBP’s first product.

From those humble origins, WBP’s inventory has bloomed to three dozen food products produced and shipped from the Denver warehouse. These generate $1.2 million in annual revenue and employ about 70 troubled women per year. WBP merchandise is offered in 500 stores and 40 states across the country. Every Safeway and Kroger grocery store in ­Colorado carries their wares, as do online retailers Amazon, ­­­Overstock.com, and Walmart.com.

For a woman to get hired by the project, she can’t have been employed for longer than a year at any point during her life. Yet she has to be at a point where she is now willing to sacrifice and work toward lasting life change. A multistep interview process helps to weed out unserious applicants. By the time a woman is hired, she has been required to show up four different times—punctually, and dressed appropriately. For every woman who is hired, four more apply and are turned down due to lack of readiness or capacity limitations in the program.

Once employed, the women work full-time for 38 hours per week for a total of nine months. Employees start on the production line. Later, they might transition to the reception desk or the shipping-and-receiving department. A maximum of 30 percent of paid time is allowed for classroom instruction or program activities. This includes technical training in computer use and finance. The emphasis is on actual work experience.

“You have to come to work every day on time, take direction, pay attention to detail, and communicate with your supervisor appropriately,” says Ryan. “We hire people who, by definition, don’t do these things well. They have all these barriers. But we get them to the point where they become good at what they do. And then it’s time for them to leave, and we start all over again.”

Unlike the Jeremiah Program, WBP doesn’t directly provide services like housing and child care. The business does, however, link women with other resources that can help them meet those needs. Like CWEE, the Women’s Bean Project helps fill a gap for women coming off TANF’s five-year lifetime limit—a transition where not enough is being done to help women break away from harmful habits of dependence.

When a woman has achieved all of the competencies that WBP searches for, she is ready for graduation. On average, this happens ­nine to 12 months after a typical woman begins the program. One-hundred percent of graduates go on to other jobs, and six months after graduation, 85 percent are still employed.

Ryan has expanded the organization’s base of donors from 45 in 2003 to over 5,000 by 2014. The Fox Family, Rose Community, and Denver foundations have been instrumental funders. Recently, contributed income has grown at a faster clip than sales, thanks to impressed donors. Nonetheless, WBP’s database of 20,000 customers remains its most important long-term revenue base.

“We’re appealing to both sides of the political aisle,” Ryan notes. “If you’re about social justice, we’ve got that. If you’re about self-support and getting people off welfare, we’re about that as well.”

Bolstering marriage, fathering, and family functioning

A 2009 analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution concluded that adult Americans who followed “three elementary norms of growing up in modern society” can minimize their chances of falling into poverty to just 2 percent and increase their odds of landing in the middle class to a robust 74 percent. All they have to do is “finish high school, get a ­full-time job, and wait until age 21 and get married before having children.” A solid marriage “remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon,” notes a report from the Heritage Foundation that finds that simply being married is enough to reduce by 82 percent the probability that your child will live in poverty.

A major difference between economically successful Americans and weak earners is that the successful tend to get married and work, while weak earners lag on both fronts. “Today, more than ever in the past, poor adults have children [before marrying], work only irregularly, and seldom marry at all,” notes economist Lawrence Mead in From Prophecy to Charity. “Usually, the father disappears without paying child support, often due to failure to work. If the mother also fails to work, the family will end up on welfare.”

A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and ­Prevention concluded that children in two-parent families are less likely than single-parent counterparts to experience a wide array hardships. These include poor health, learning disabilities, attention deficit and ­hyperactivity disorder, inadequate health-care coverage, dental problems, and anti-social or disruptive behavioral.

Supporting organizations that help young people form stable marital unions, and that help preserve and strengthen marriages already made, is worthy philanthropy. Most such groups operate at a local level. One of the most successful is called First Things First.

First Things First was created in 1997 when leaders in Chattanooga, ­Tennessee, pooled their collective wisdom to fight what they saw as the greatest threat to their county: the breakdown of the family. The group has two primary goals: The first is to provide proven training and classes on how to succeed in marriage, parenting, and family life. Giving area residents the tools and skills they need to avoid problems in marriage, and nip them with effective interventions if they pop up, is at the heart of the nonprofit’s work. A second goal is to build a more positive view of marriage in media, opinion, and culture. Young people are now often gun-shy about marriage and avoid it out of fear of divorce, says First Things First president Julie Baumgardner, sometimes because they were hurt by their own parents’ breakup.

Simply being married is enough to reduce by 82 percent the probability that your child will live in poverty.

First Things First wouldn’t have been possible without financial support and leadership from the Maclellan Family Foundation. “We realized that the city’s biggest problem was the breakdown of families, and that every part of Chattanooga was being affected by it,” president Hugh Maclellan, Jr. told Philanthropy magazine in 2003. Local leaders came to realize that “we could really make a difference in Chattanooga” by helping to reinforce families.

The group got nonprofits, churches, and government agencies working together. It convinced religious congregations to increase premarital preparation. It launched parenting classes for fathers and mothers. It went into city schools and publicized the advantages of family intactness for children and adults alike. It set up “lunch and learn” seminars inside workplaces. The group retrained local mental-health professionals on how to help endangered marriages. It partnered with hospitals on a Boot Camp for New Dads, and helped Head Start programs work material on the importance of fathering into their curricula. It assisted the county divorce court in establishing a divorce mediation project—requiring couples with small children to take a class where they learn about the effects of divorce on kids and requiring them to develop a post-divorce parenting plan.

Within a decade, the Chattanooga area had seen a 29 percent drop in divorce filings. Those that still take place are now far less likely to involve conflicts over custody and child support. Teen out-of-wedlock births have decreased 62 percent.

Sometimes informed and inspired by the success of First Things First and sometimes acting on their own, a number of other cities and funders have launched similar efforts. Interested funders including the ­WinShape Foundation (funded by the Cathy family), Terry and Mary Kohler (who have given more than $5 million in this area), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the DeVos family, the Johnson Foundation, and others have promoted marriage preparation, pre-divorce intervention, parenting education, and fatherhood reinforcement regionally and nationally. A National Healthy Marriage Resource Center has arisen to coordinate efforts by such groups. Many of these organizations have very limited budgets, and there is a large upside for donors willing to invest. A somewhat dated but still useful resource on this subject is Reviving Marriage in America: Strategies for Donors by William Doherty, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.

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