COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As the government debates the details of welfare reform, a national research project sheds light on how rural low-income families fare in the world of work.
Sharon Seiling, associate professor of consumer and textile sciences in the College of Human Ecology at Ohio State University, has joined researchers from 14 other land-grant universities to interview 433 rural mothers with incomes low enough to either receive or qualify for food stamps or the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) program. The researchers are about mid-way through the three-year study, "Rural Low-Income Families: Tracking Their Well-Being in the Context of Welfare Reform," in which they are interviewing mothers with at least one child under age 12.
The purpose of the qualitative study is to present a picture of how low-income families in rural areas face challenges related to employment, transportation, child-care and other issues related to their well-being, said Seiling, who is also a family resource management specialist for Ohio State University Extension and researcher with the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
"An important point we're finding is that in many rural counties, jobs with benefits and full-time hours are not always available, much less abundant," Seiling said.
Still, Seiling said the study shows a large number of low-income parents are already in the workforce.
"By and large, our participants are working," Seiling said. "They average less than 40 hours a week, but many want to work full-time. They just can't get full-time hours -- many employers don't seem to be offering that."
Among the study's findings:
- Half of the mothers in the study work from one to three jobs, averaging 32 hours per week. They earn anywhere from $1.11 to $18.40 per hour. Their median income is $791 a month.
- About 60 percent of the participants are either married or living with a partner. Of those families, 82 percent of the husbands or partners are employed.
- Only about 20 percent of the families receive cash assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
- Sixty percent of the mothers in the study have a child support court-order, but only about one-third of those mothers (37 percent) are actually receiving child support.
- More highly educated mothers are more likely to work less than 40 hours per week; those with less education are more likely to be working more than 40 hours.
- Less than one-fifth of the mothers are working in jobs with health insurance or sick leave.
- A mother's education appears to be related to her job benefits: four out of five who have a job with benefits have completed high school, while less than 20 percent of those who have not completed high school have a job with health insurance or sick leave.
- Fourteen percent of mothers who have jobs with benefits also have partners who had jobs with benefits. On the other hand, more than 20 percent of mothers who did not have health insurance or sick leave have partners who have those benefits. The largest proportion of families do not have job-related benefits of health insurance or sick leave.
- Not surprisingly, job-related benefits are associated with more hours of work per week. About half (48 percent) of the mothers who work 40 hours or more per week had job-related benefits, while less than one quarter (23 percent) of those who work fewer hours have those benefits.
"What really strikes out at me is that so many of these parents are working but just aren't making much money, and they can't get more hours from their employers," Seiling said. "We have a lot of people saying, 'My hours are variable,' and 'I don't know how many hours I'll be working from week to week.' That can be hard on any family, but it's especially so for low-income families."
The study has also uncovered challenges associated with child care. "Center-based childcare is often unaffordable for working families, especially for single mothers," Seiling said. In some instances, the cost of placing all of the children under age 12 in childcare at the average rates for their county of residence was more than the mother's take-home pay, she said.
"When those costs are coupled with the variability of work hours experienced by many of the mothers and the likelihood that jobs available to them are in second or third shifts or on weekends, non-family childcare is impossible for them to get," Seiling said. Some families solve this dilemma by making sure the mother and her husband or partner work opposite shifts. Another answer is often provided by other family members who care for the children for a small fee or at no charge. In those cases, the caregivers often watch the children at the end of a full day's work of their own, Seiling said.
Still other families solve the problem by finding babysitters who are available at odd hours for a small fee. However, their unreliability can put the working mother's job in jeopardy.
"Because many of these mothers have jobs with no sick leave, one day away from work because of illness for themselves or their child can mean the end of the job," Seiling said. "At best, it leaves the mother without pay for that day."
Another factor affecting these families is the lack of affordable health care, Seiling said. Often, the employees themselves will be covered, but find that the cost to add family coverage is too high. In Ohio, Seiling suggests that employers have the proper paperwork available to new employees to make it easy to sign up for Ohio's "Healthy Start, Healthy Families" or SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) Medicaid programs for low-income families.
"Employers who employ low-wage workers may not be able to pay them high wages or to offer low-cost health plans, but they can help them with the paperwork to enroll in state programs," Seiling said. The application for Ohio's "Healthy Start, Healthy Families" programs is available on-line at http://www.state.oh.us/odjfs/ohp/bcps/hshf/cpa/cpa_packet.pdf.
Other states involved in this study are California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon and Wyoming. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative and, in Ohio, the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.