Methods: We used the 2008 panel (waves 1-9) of the Survey of Income and Program Participation. The sample included low-income single mothers aged 18-64 who experienced employment instability, lived with at least one related child under the age of 18, and had a family income below 200% of the federal poverty line at the baseline. Weighted descriptive statistics were used to examine patterns of multiple program participation and four types of material hardship: unmet basic needs and food, housing, and medical hardship. Sequence analysis was employed to examine sequences of combinations of five types of program participation: TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, housing assistance, and unemployment insurance. Cluster analysis was used to identify cluster groups of multiple program participation sequences. Finally, we used these cluster groups and logistic regression modeling to examine the association between multiple program participation and material hardships, controlling for sociodemographic characteristics.
Results: Very few respondents benefited from three or more income support programs during the study period. Among those participating in two programs, the most common pattern was SNAP plus one other. The sequence analysis indicated that among mothers who were employed then unemployed, the most common sequences were receipt of SNAP plus Medicaid or housing assistance (26.2%), no program participation (21.7%), and SNAP only (15.2%). About 65% of single mothers experienced at least one of four types of material hardship. Medical hardship was the least common, but still affected almost a fifth (19.72%), and unmet basic needs was the most common (43.84%). However, we found that such hardships were less common among those who participated in multiple programs. For example, participants in SNAP plus Medicaid or housing assistance were less likely to experience overall material hardship, food hardship, and medical hardships.
Conclusion and Implications: Using nationally representative longitudinal data, this study finds that many single-mother families rely on more than one program to support their material hardship. While previous research has focused more on a single program’s effect on material hardship, this study provides a detailed picture of the multiple program participation patterns of single mother families and examines their relationship with material hardship. We expect that the distinct trajectories of program participation captured by this study will inform policy development to consider different combinations of programs. This study also highlights welfare programs’ role as a buffer against income shock, and thus their crucial role during economic downturns with high unemployment.