Methods: This study used the Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three City Study (Cherlin et al., 2003), a longitudinal study of approximately 2,400 predominantly low-income, unmarried mothers of children ages 0 to 4 or 10 to 14. To provide insight into the lives of low-income families post-welfare reform, the stratified, random sampling design targeted Black, Hispanic, and White households living in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 20% or more. This study uses baseline data collected through in-home interviews in 1999. We constructed an 8-point perceived support scale and a 4-point burden scale based on whether mothers reported access to or excess burden in each of the following areas: emotional support, favors, childcare, and loans. Linear regression models measured (1) how burden relates to available support net of demographic, socioeconomic, and neighborhood covariates, and (2) if (and how) the relationship changes depending upon race, ethnicity, and nativity.
Findings: Descriptive findings showed the vulnerability of low-income mothers: only 22% perceived they had enough people to provide emotional support, favors, childcare, and money in an emergency. Support burden was inversely related to support access such that those with full demands averaged 1.2 points lower access than those experiencing no burdens (5.42 versus 4.12). Linear regression models indicated that the strength and significance of the relationship persisted net of demographic, socioeconomic, and neighborhood covariates. Although the inverse relationship characterized mothers generally, a significant interaction between nativity status and burden illustrated that, for immigrant mothers, higher burden levels were related to higher support levels.
Implications: The negative relationship between support burden and access suggests that informal support networks cannot substitute for social welfare assistance. Instead, networks may compound mothers' vulnerabilities by increasing their responsibilities while providing little safety net. Immigrant networks, however, may operate differently such that support provision may translate into access when needed. We discuss support access and burden inequalities in light of welfare reform and present implications for social work practice, policy, and research.