The Transformation in Who Is Expected to Work in the United States and How it Changed the Lives of Single Mothers and People with Disabilities

In the 1990s, social expectations of single mothers shifted towards the notion that most should, could, and would work, if given the proper incentives. This shift in expectations culminated in the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, commonly known as welfare reform. As a result, ADFC/TANF caseloads fell along with cash transfers to single mothers who did not work. A decade later the earnings and household income of single mothers are significantly higher and moving more in synch with the U.S. economy.

In stark contrast and despite espoused goals to the contrary, public policies toward working age men and women with disabilities have remained imbued with the notion that most cannot and thus, would not work, no matter what incentives they faced. As a result, SSDI/SSI expenditures and caseloads have increased and the earnings and household income of working age men and women with disabilities have fallen, leaving them even further behind the average working age American than they were a decade ago.

Using data from the Current Population Survey we follow the economic well-being and employment of single mothers and working age men and women with disabilities over the past two major United States business cycles (1982-1993 and 1993-2004) and show that despite the dramatic decline in AFDC/TANF funding, single mothers' economic well-being, labor earnings and employment all have risen substantially. In contrast, despite the dramatic increase in SSDI/SSI funding, the economic wellbeing of working age men and women with disabilities remained stagnant, as their labor earnings and employment plummeted. . . .

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Richard Burkhauser is a visiting scholar at AEI. Mary C. Daly is the Dean and professor of law and ethics at St. John's University. Jeff Larrimore is a research assistant at Cornell University. Joyce Kwok works in the economic research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

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