The “Cliff Effect” Experience: Voices of Women on the Path to Economic Independence
Published April 2009 by EMPath
Seventy-two percent of Massachusetts families (with children under age 18) who live below the federal poverty line are headed by single mothers.iii According to CWU’s Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard (FESS), a single parent with two children in Massachusetts needs to earn between $44,000 and $58,000 per year (depending on location), or $22 to $28 per hour of full-time work, to provide for her family’s most basic needs without public assistance.
However, in the Commonwealth, more than half of employed women work in traditionally female occupations, which are low-paid and require minimal education or training, such as retail, service, and administration. These jobs typically pay $15,000 to $29,000 per year for full-time work, considerably less than the amount needed for self-sufficiency. Further, as these single working mothers begin to climb the economic ladder, they often find themselves worse off than they were before their income increased. As depicted in Chart 1, a worker can hit unexpected economic potholes, large drops in net monthly resources, as she progresses from earning $8 per hour to $32 per hour. These drops, or cliffs, are the result of a decrease or loss in government work supports that is greater than the increase in wages that precipitated the loss. The worker can find herself financially better off earning minimum wage than making $18 per hour. This can, and often does, create the feeling of never getting ahead regardless of increased work or earnings.