It is important to examine the benefits that people receive from the government once they become single parents in America. There is a monumental difference between the treatment of the mother and the father, this is specifically contingent on which becomes the residential or custodial parent after the birth of a child to unmarried parents. The custodial parent means much more than which parent the child resides with on a primary basis. It can determine how the parent and child are provided for in cases where the parent falls within the poverty guidelines regulated by the U.S. government. There are several federal and state programs that operate solely to provide people that are living in poverty basic necessities such as cash, food, healthcare, and housing. Statistically, mothers are the victors in custody disputes and are awarded sole custody. In fact, according to Timothy Grall of The United States Census Bureau (2013), the majority of custodial parents, (81.7 percent) were mothers and 18.3 percent were fathers. Couple this reality with the fact that, as of 2011, the poverty rate of custodial-mother families equated approximately 38.1 percent, the chances of these mothers applying for public assistance is almost inevitable. Given that mothers can receive public assistance from the government, this leaves the majority of low-income fathers to fend for themselves and carry the stigma of being labeled as a ‘deadbeat’ once mandated child support payments become delinquent.
To begin the comparison of how differently poor moms are treated in contrast to poor dads the government’s cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), must be examined. There are more than half of the United States and Washington DC that offers some type of relief to low-income people. Liz Schott and Clare Cho of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities or CBPP (2011) explains that state general assistance programs provide a safety net of last resort for those who are very poor and do not qualify for other public assistance. Over the years, this form of financial relief has declined in both the amount of grant awarded and the number of states that offer some sort of program to relieve non-residential parents. According to Schott, et al. (2011), thirty states have General Assistance (GA) programs, which generally serve very poor individuals who:
Depending on the payment amount, the custodial parent may collect a considerable amount of money for doing nothing more than having and gaining custody of children. The poor noncustodial parent not only receives quite a bit less in financial assistant than the other parent, the time limits for receiving any benefits from the government differ considerably. Take for instance the state of Illinois and how it distributes any public assistance to its citizens. Illinois offers a $100 monthly general assistance benefit for unemployable individuals with no dependents. An unemployable individual is characterized as a person over 65, in a substance abuse center, or needed at home to care for a young child or disabled family mentor, (Schott, et al, 2011). It must be mentioned that only a handful of states, Illinois excluded, provide general assistance to individuals who are considered employable and have become incapacitated for whatever reason and cannot work. If an extremely poor person qualifies for GA, the time limits for receiving the hundred dollars are unlimited. This is, unless the person is homeless.
According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (2009), there are no time limits except for homeless individuals who have a six-month time limit. Since housing is a basic necessity, it is unfathomable to imagine that severely poor citizens who are sleeping on the street, should be restricted to such a limited amount of cash assistance. In contrast, a custodial parent, with two children, in the same state can receive a monthly TANF grant of $432 a month. To put this information into perspective, people that are low-income receive very different benefits based on having and living with children. A poor father, who may be homeless, stands to receive $600 in a six month span while a mother can receive up to $2,592 during the same six months. If a family is allowed to receive benefits for the entire five years allotted in Illinois for TANF benefits, the total amount of possible benefits may equal $25,920. It would definitely seem that it is not only profitable to have children, but it is even more profitable to gain sole custody of the children after the separation.
Since studies prove that women are most often granted custody of the children, the mother is the only parent that can truly benefit financially in situations where the parents and children are living in poverty. Another source of public aid for the down-on-their-luck American citizen, is the receiving of food vouchers provided by the federal government. While many politicians and citizens alike exuberantly condemn the food stamp program, it cannot be disputed that food is necessary in order to sustain life. Even with this fact, the states severely limit who and for how long a person can receive this food subsidy. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, as one that offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities. Unfortunately, the individuals are not always provided for in the way that families are often times provided for in this country.
For example, time limits for SNAP benefits differ greatly between individuals and families. The CBPP (2014), reports that unemployed childless adults who do not have disabilities are limited to three months of SNAP benefit every three years in many areas of the country. The percentage of custodial mothers that were receiving SNAP benefits had increased from 23.5 percent in 2007 to 34.3 percent for custodial mothers in 2011, (Grall, 2013). This increase could be accredited to the slumping economy or the increase in unemployment across the country. If these factors are considered, the same economic hardship and unemployment problems will, more than likely, affect people without any dependents but SNAP benefits are not readily, or abundantly, available these individuals. According to the USDA (2015), on average a poor person with no qualifying dependents can expect to be awarded $125.35 per month in SNAP benefits. On the other hand, a custodial parent with three children can receive, on average, $511 a month and up. This while a custodial parent with seven dependents can be awarded up to $1,169 per month.
A custodial parent can expect an increase of, at least, $146 in monthly SNAP benefits for each additional qualifying person, (CBPP, 2014). This means that on average, a low-income parent that has not been granted custody of his children may be awarded $375 in food stamp assistance during a limited three year span, while a mother of two can receive up to $18,396 in food subsidies within that same time period. To further compare the extreme differences in the assistance that custodial versus noncustodial parents receive in SNAP benefits, consider the singer mother with seven children. That household stands to receive a whopping $42,084 in SNAP benefits after three years. This is, of course, barring any sanctions or life changing circumstances that could increase or decrease the monthly benefit amount. This is further evidence that the profitability that motherhood holds when accompanied with the title of residential or custodial parent. It is important to note that several reports specify significant reductions to both amounts and time limits in GA and SNAP programs to childless individuals across the nation. Without these limited, but vital, programs to help the most vulnerable, the end result will be more people without dependents sinking deeper into poverty.
Cash assistance and SNAP benefits are not the only awards that a custodial parent may receive from the government. Healthcare is, and has been for what seems like forever, a controversial topic in the US. With the passing of the Affordable Care Act under the President Barack Obama, more American citizens are obtaining medical insurance. However, low-income, or people with no income, are often left without any insurance. Even with the new reforms, the most vulnerable are often left with no means to purchase even the most inexpensive healthcare. Medicaid.gov reported that Medicaid provides health coverage to 11 million non-elderly, low-income parents, other caretaker relatives, pregnant women, and other non-disabled adults. As per usual, the non-disabled adults are not adequately provided for by the states that may offer some form of Medicaid. Even after the enactment of the ACA, there are 22 states that are refusing to implement or are challenging the federal mandate.
For some, the elected officials may be acting on the best interest of the people, but for poor people without custody of their children, the stall tactics mean denial of yet another government funded program. According to Benefits.gov, an Alabama resident applying for Medicaid must be either:
Last, but certainly not least, the topic of shelter must be discussed. The manner in which housing programs for low-income people are largely based on who holds primary custody of the children. As aforementioned, Illinois limits its homeless adults to six months of general relief assistance and this, only, if all other qualifications are met. There are several low-income housing assistance programs offered by the government, but Section 8 and low-income apartments are two more common to families and certain individuals who are living in poverty. According to United States Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, or Section 8, is the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. The custodial parent automatically qualifies for this program due to having custody of a child and being a low-income head of household.
The federal government determines how much money is to be paid which differs by state. The law at the New York City Housing Authority or NYCHA, the voucher payment standard (VPS) is the maximum monthly housing assistant payment for the family (before deducting the total tenant payment by the family). Currently in New York City, the VPS paid on behalf of a family in need of three bedroom living quarters is $1,999 a month, (NYCHA, 2015). But the payments do not end there for residential parents. The agency will pay utility allowances based on the source used for cooking, heating, and heating water. For example, a family residing in a dwelling with three bedrooms that uses oil heat to heat water will receive an allowance of $179 per month, (NYCHA, 2015). If a family uses electric heat to heat water and has a three bedroom house or apartment, the government will pay a voucher of almost $450 per month. Essentially, a single mother with custody of two children that qualifies for Section 8, can receive over $2,400 in housing benefits per month.
Unfortunately, these same benefits do not apply to the low-income father. He may qualify for public housing but the dwelling will not be private nor will he receive any cash assistance for the duration of his residency. The housing accommodations with be in one of New York’s jails or prisons. In the state of New York, a parent that owes a child support debt can, and will, be charged with either 1st degree nonsupport or 2nd degree nonsupport as a repeat offender. Statistically, the people that are charged for nonsupport are poor. Elaine Sorenson, Liliana Sousa, and Simon Schaner of The Urban Institute conducted a study of nine states for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2007 which found that, 70% of the arrears were owed by obligors who had either no reported income or reported income of $10,000 a year or less. This comparison of how poor custodial parent (usually mothers) are treated versus how poor fathers are treated brings to the forefront how extremely biased and unfair the government can be toward noncustodial fathers who are in need of housing. Prison or a Section 8 voucher is a considerable difference in treatment towards poor people who happen to be parents.
Public housing is another subsidy program offered to a specific group of low-income Americans. The public housing program was established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. Again, a program is supposed to assist poor people but, instead, is discriminating against individuals that cannot claim sole custody of their own children. One of these groups of individuals are homeless veterans. One of the biggest issues that homeless veterans report experiencing is owing child support debt. According to the Office of Child Support Enforcement or OCSE (2012), about half of the states have more than 100,000 veterans in their child support caseload. Due to the strict classification restrictions mandated by the federal government, public housing is not even available to people that have sacrificed life and limb for this country. Shannon Welton, of the San Diego County Department of Child Support Services, reported that 12% of the homeless population in the county are veterans and 20% of the male population. However, these dismal statistics have not forced the government to open the public housing program to these most vulnerable veterans.
Again, public housing is only available to residential parents. HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs or the VA do offer homeless veterans assistance when finding a place to call home, but the veteran must meet strict criteria in order to qualify. One of the requirements that must be met in order to receive assistance is the need of a VA case manager from the veteran. The VA explains that the veteran who needs case management services must have a serious mental illness, substance and disorder history, or physical disability. In other words, individual veterans without serious ailments need not apply for housing assistance. The veteran housing program is one that will only cater to a disabled veteran and a veteran with a family. This leaves the single veteran with no dependents to claim, literally, out in the cold.
There are statistics and numerous examples of how the government essentially rewards poor mothers with benefits as long as she retains full custody of the children. On the other hand, a poor father is deserted with no resources. After the recent recession accompanied with the slow economic recovery, employment opportunities are scattered and unobtainable for certain individuals. By simply giving birth, a woman living in poverty will be provided for by the government, while the father living in poverty is expected to pay child support and arrears when those payments are, often, unaffordable. A mother, retaining full custody of children will receive cash, food stamp vouchers, medical insurance and housing for, in some cases, an undetermined amount of time. The father receives no assistance and can have all licenses revoked, be labeled a ‘deadbeat’ rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, be arrested, and sentenced to prison. There is a clear double standard when it relates to parenthood. There needs to be equality when deciding how responsibility for parenthood is decided and, once decided, who will be awarded full custody of the children. We must, as a country, dramatically alter how we deal with low-income parents, regardless of gender.
By implementing fair legislation, such as shared parenting and equal benefits if necessary, the children will benefit from being raised by both parents. Low-income women should not be guaranteed a profit when making the decision to become a parent. Even more importantly, people should not be denied basic necessities, such as food, housing, and health care based on gender and the ability to give birth to a child. If a person is low-income, they need assistance even more so, through difficult times regardless of their parental and custodial status. The government has vilified poor fathers while denying any of the same programs that are offered to poor mothers. This is not only unfair and biased, it is yet another, example of the violation of equal protections under the current child support laws. We, as a country, must strive to right the wrong that has been executed upon poor fathers by way of the unconstitutional child support system. By implementing the reform of the child support system under Former President Clinton, we, as a country, have made our vulnerable male citizens second class citizens. Since abolishment of the child support system is likely impossible, significant reform is the only option left for the U.S. to rectify the injustice that has been brought against poor fathers.
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A parent and an author who has survived adverse situations and lived to write about it..