Bridging Disciplinary Boundaries (January 11 - 14, 2007)

Pacific M (Hyatt Regency San Francisco)

Policy Lessons from Low-Income Mothers with Disabilities: A Primer on Inadequate Incomes, Work Disincentives and Bureaucratic Insensitivity

Susan L. Parish, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sandra Magaña, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Shawn A. Cassiman, MSW, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Purpose – This study evaluated the implementation of a disability-related welfare program from recipients' perspectives – mothers with disabilities. Two research questions were addressed: (1) how well do income transfer programs support low-income mothers with disabilities who manage to care for their children? and 2) what policy changes would enhance these mothers' caregiving capacities?

Methods – Six focus groups were held with 35 mothers with disabilities in three regions of Wisconsin. The study sample was recruited using state administrative files on an income transfer program specifically for parents with disabilities raising minor children. Four focus groups were conducted in English and two were in Spanish by bicultural and bilingual focus group leaders. The sample was racially and ethnically diverse. Participants had a range of physical and mental impairments. A professional translator with expertise in using language that is generic to different Spanish-speaking regions translated all study materials. Accuracy of English and Spanish audiotapes was verified. Data were coded and themes were identified.

Results – Three major themes were identified from the data related to (1) material hardship, (2) work disincentives, (3) program implementation. Despite receiving more generous cash assistance than what is provided by any other state (two disability-related income transfers, SSI and a Wisconsin Caretaker Supplement program), all of the women and their families experienced chronic material deprivation; all mothers concurred that benefits were inadequate. The greatest financial challenges were housing costs, utility costs, and the costs of raising children.

Most women expressed a desire to work, but reported severe work penalties in the welfare program rules, including the loss of health insurance and difficulty reinstating income benefits if they were unable to work. Participants reported numerous problems with the administration of the program, including frustration with the bureaucracies, caseworker discretion and errors, and lack of knowledge, clarity and consistency in program rules. A number of mothers had experienced benefit cuts that were due to caseworkers' errors. Even when the system failed the women through no fault of their own, the caseworkers were typically unable or unwilling to rectify the problem. The women recounted caseworkers who misplaced paperwork, ignored written notifications that families moved, failed to adhere to deadlines, did not explain program rules, and offered different rule interpretations from other caseworkers

Implications for policy - Five main policy recommendations emerge from this analysis: 1) Benefit levels should be increased to ensure adequate resources to families headed by a parent with disabilities. 2) The information and education provided to recipients about the programs rules and their rights should be increased. 3) Caseworker training should be expanded to achieve greater sensitivity and consistency in program administration. 4) States should coordinate with the federal Social Security Administration on work and earnings related rules to ensure consistency in how much recipients can earn, and provide greater education about work rules and work related programs. 5) Health insurance coverage should be expanded to all low income and uninsured families, similar to the recent Massachusetts initiative, which would enable more mothers with disabilities to work.