“Fits & Starts: The Difficult Path for Working Single Parents”
Q + A
Who published “Fits & Starts: The Difficult Path for Working Single Parents”?
The report is a collaboration between Crittenton Women’s Union and The Center for Social Policy at the
McCormack School at UMass Boston.
What do these two organizations do?
Crittenton Women’s Union’s mission is to help low-income women achieve economic self-sufficiency. The Center for Social Policy seeks to positively impact the public, private and nonprofit policies that
affect the lives of those with the lowest incomes in Massachusetts through research and outreach.
What does the “Fits & Starts” research reveal about the impact of government support programs
on low-income families?
We found that, because government support programs phase out quickly and at earnings levels that are
far below the amount a family needs to meet its basic needs, the road to economic security for many low-
income families is uneven.
Specifically, a single parent with two children working fulltime in Greater Boston who is earning $8 an
hour or $16,000 a year, which is minimum wage, and who is receiving all the public work supports she’s
eligible for can better support her household than she could earning $16 an hour.
When you say all eligible work supports what are you talking about?
We looked at seven major work support programs:
? Child care assistance
? Child Tax Credit (CTC)
? Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
? Food Stamps
? Section 8 rental housing assistance
? Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
Do most eligible families receive all the major work supports available?
No, previous research from the Center for Social Policy found that two-thirds of eligible families do not
receive housing or child care assistance, primarily because of lack of available funding to meet the
demand (www.umb.edu/bridgingthegaps). In fact, a single parent not receiving housing and child care
assistance will actually find herself running a $1,666 deficit every month when making the $8 an hour
minimum wage. And, she will stay in the red, unable to meet all her family’s living expenses, until she
earns $29 an hour or $58,000 a year.
So, how can a single parent getting all major work supports be better off earning $8 an hour than
at $16 an hour?
We found that if you add up the value of the work supports she’s receiving and her earnings after taxes
and then subtract her basic living costs, she ends up with $439 at the end of the month. However, at $16
an hour or $32,000 a year, she loses her Food Stamp and WIC benefits, and she experiences steep
reductions in her child care, Section 8 housing allowance and her state and federal Earned Income Tax
Credits. With reduced supports, she ends up at the end of the month with just $391, instead of the $439
she had at $8 an hour. So, she’s taken a step backward financially, not forward.
Can you tell us what the study includes in basic living costs?
? Health care (employer-sponsored)
? Child care
? Household supplies
Basic living costs do not include such expenses as uncovered medical expenses, home or vehicle
repairs, savings, debt repayment, emergency expenses, children’s school supplies, tuition and fees for
education and training, or recreation.
Is it true a work support recipient is worse off every time she gets a wage increase?
We computed what we term the “net monthly resources,” which is the value of the work supports being
received plus earnings after taxes less basic living costs, for workers earning between $11 and $29 an
hour. What we found is the net monthly resources do not rise in step with wage increases. Instead, it’s a
series of “fits and starts.”
o At $11 per hour ($22,000/yr), she’s left with $538.
o At $16 per hour ($32,000/yr), she’s left with $391.
o At $21 per hour ($42,000/yr), she’s left with $440.
o At $26 per hour ($52,000/yr), she’s left with $293.
o At $29 per hour ($58,000/yr), she’s left with $556.
How does this impact families working and receiving public assistance?
You would assume someone’s cash on hand would increase as their wages rise. However, because of the inconsistent eligibility requirements and limited coordination between programs, recipients can lose
portions of several work supports at the same time with devastating financial consequences.
For example, for every additional dollar earned, a family could lose about 33 cents in Food Stamps and
see rent increase by about 22 cents. If that family also receives a child care subsidy, as earnings go up
so does the co-payment. As a result for some range of earnings, a family could actually find that the
amount of supports they lose as a result of higher wages is larger than their after tax earnings increase.
How many families in Massachusetts face these problems?
It is hard to say because we only know the number of families that receive each individual public support.
We don’t know how many receive all of these. However, according to the latest figures available, about a
quarter of a million Baystaters receive Food Stamps and just under 800,000 receive MassHealth
standard coverage. Child care subsidies impact 59,000 children, and just under 95,000 households
receive federal housing assistance.
Your study includes a wage as high as $29 an hour or $58,000 a year. That seems like a good
wage for a family of 3. Would someone still be receiving public assistance at that wage?
At that wage, a working parent is still getting a Child Tax Credit but nothing else. However, to keep it in
perspective, Crittenton Women’s Union publishes a Massachusetts Family Economic Self-Sufficiency
Standard, which tracks the real cost of living in Massachusetts (www.liveworkthrive.org/calculator.php).
According to our most recent survey, a single parent with two children in Greater Boston needs to earn
$58,000 a year to break even. That means just to meet basic living costs. That does not include being
able to pay for emergency expenses, home or car repairs, children’s school supplies, debt repayment,
tuition for education and training or putting money aside for savings.
Why do low-income families face this series of “fits and starts” on their path to economic self-
First, many government support programs were not originally designed to supplement earnings from a
job. Second, support programs were not designed to complement one another as a cohesive whole.
Instead, we have a fragmented system of state and federal work supports with varying eligibility criteria
and funding shortfalls. Further, the federal poverty level, which most programs use as a criterion, does
not accurately reflect real living costs in Massachusetts. Here, a family of three needs to earn about 300
percent of the federal poverty level to make ends meet.
What actions does the study recommend to address these issues?
First, we recommend the expansion of child care and housing supports for low-income parents. Second,
it’s imperative to restructure work support programs and eligibility rules to make benefits indexed to cost of living and benefit loss more graduated. And, third, we recommend providing financial aid and
expanded work supports to low-income working parents as they pursue the education and training
necessary to get jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and remove them from public assistance