TANF Work First Helps Perpetuate Single Mother Poverty

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March 2010
  • Workplace Equality and Economic Empowerment
  • Archival Material
  • Publication

Federal TANF policy continues to place barriers in the way of the single mothers receiving TANF who wish to go to school even though 40% of TANF recipients have not completed high school and only 5% have attended college even for a day. This denial of educational opportunity helps perpetuate the high poverty rates for single mother families that have prevailed for decades. The poverty rate is now about 50% for single mothers who lack a high school degree, compared with about 30% for single mothesr with a high school degree, about 20% for single mothers with an Associate's degree, and about 10% for single mothers with a Bachelor's degree.

Since TANF's creation in 1996 federal policy has embraced a "work first" approach, meaning an approach that stresses immediate employment in any available job. States are penalized unless a specified percentage of recipients participate in federally countable activities. High school attendance generally counts as full participation only if the parent is under age 20, and college attendance as full participation only if the program of study qualifies as "vocational education" and then only for 12 months. In 2008, fewer than 2% of adult recipients were counted as participating based on high school/GED attendance, and only about 4% were counted as participating based on attendance in vocational education.