In 2010, nearly 30% of food stamp recipients worked outside the home, and 41% lived in a household with earnings.1 For TANF recipients, those numbers are slightly smaller but more detailed: 24% of adults receiving aid were employed, 47% were unemployed but actively looking for work, and 29% were not in the labor force, defined as “not looking for work (includes discouraged workers).”2 In other words, 71% of people receiving TANF benefits were either employed or actively looking for work outside the home.
But what about the 29% of TANF recipients who neither have a job nor are looking for one? 13% of these recipients were exempt from the workforce because of disabilities. That leaves 16%.3 The inclusion of “discouraged workers” sheds additional light. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, discouraged workers are “Persons not in the labor force who want and are available for a job and who have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months), but who are not currently looking because they believe there are no jobs available or there are none for which they would qualify.”4
In other words, the number of people receiving aid who want to work in the wage labor market is probably much closer to 90%. That still leaves 10%. High costs of childcare, the lack of a living wage and the lack of transportation help explain this final 10%, as we see below.
Finding a Job is tough…finding a job that pay the bills is even tougher
While many aid recipients are working outside the home, many others are looking for work. The current recession has made finding a job particularly difficult (with unemployment rates in the U.S. in 2012 at 8.1 nationally, and 9.3% in Alamance County), but there are a number of other obstacles to work that make it hard to get and maintain a job. Transportation is one of the biggest, particularly in rural counties such as Alamance that has virtually no public transportation. Lack of job skills is another, with the cost of additional schooling and training often being cost prohibitive.
These realities are discouraging. But as many aid recipients describe, it is even more discouraging to work a job that doesn’t pay the bills. There is a vast gap between the minimum wage and a living wage (as discussed in Truth #1). In Alamance County, a living wage for 1 adult with 2 children is $24.10/hour, but the minimum wage is only $7.25. To reach even the poverty line, the hourly wage would have to be $8.80.5
For a single parent, minimum wage can rarely support a family, especially with the added costs of childcare, costs that can mean people actually lose money to go to work. For many of these families, especially those without parents nearby who might be able to help care for the children, childcare vouchers and subsidized childcare programs are a necessity.
Much of the discussion about “family values” in the United States over the past few decades has focused on the importance of having a parent at home to raise the children. But this may be a luxury reserved for married couples and the middle and upper classes. Single parents who cannot rely on a spouse for income are often expected to forfeit staying at home with their children and instead work in the paid labor force. However, even if jobs are available, even if those jobs pay a decent wage, the cost of childcare often makes it impossible to support one’s family. The belief that it is more important for women to be economically self-sufficient than to raise their children has not always been assumed so widely. During the Progressive Era of the first few decades of the twentieth century, caring for children was viewed as more important than wage labor for women.6 Coupled with this philosophy were assumptions about gender and the women’s “proper” place in the home. Today, some reformers have argued in favor of a society where raising children—whether by women or men—is valued as both a short and long-term contribution to society worthy of support.7