Coping in the shadows of welfare reform
Breedlove, Ottive Loretta
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The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 reformed the American social welfare system and established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. PRWORA put into effect a federal maximum lifetime eligibility cap of five years on receipt of benefits. The purpose of this qualitative inquiry was to understand the perspectives of single mothers residing in Georgia who exhausted their lifetime eligibility for TANF. Specifically: (1) What common characteristics identify single mothers who exhaust their lifetime eligibility for TANF? (2) How, if at all, does the level of hardship and resulting quality of life differ since leaving TANF? and, (3) What coping strategies do single mothers use to make ends meet in the absence of TANF? A maximum variation sample consisting of 15 single mothers permanently removed from welfare was purposefully selected to participate in one-on-one, face-to-face semi-structured interviews. Findings revealed that single mothers who exhausted TANF eligibility mutually share a defiance of social stereotypes, chronic health problems, sporadic employment, and material hardships. The vast majority of study participants were not economically self-sufficient prior to TANF, and had not become economically self-sufficient since losing TANF. However, they reported a difference in their level of hardship after leaving welfare. Most reported less financial stability, therefore, greater difficulty paying bills because they no longer have constant, reliable income. Perceptions concerning quality of life since losing TANF were about equally mixed. Some participants perceived a renewed sense of hopefulness; others experienced a decline, or did not perceive any change whatsoever. Collectively, they experienced diverse states of emotional well-being. Primarily, participants made ends meet by relying on a combination of internal resources such as money management skills, and external sources consisting of social networks of family members and friends, along with assistance from public and private organizations. Overall, participants in this study remained destitute and vulnerable. Social work professionals and legislators will be challenged to successfully confront the service requirements and policy decisions necessitated by the reality that transitioning from welfare to economic self-sufficiency may not be possible for all low-income mothers who exhaust TANF eligibility.