The preceding vignettes demonstrate that each family confronts a unique set of problems upon the termination of its FIP cash assistance and responds with a unique set of coping strategies. However, certain themes do cut across the lives of all or most of the subject families. This section highlights three such themes: (1) meeting basic needs, (2) shifting dependency from public assistance to family and friends, and (3) linkages with noncustodial parents. Our development of these themes is based on information provided by all 12 of the case-study subjects, not just the 6 that were highlighted in the vignettes.
1. Meeting Basic Needs
Most, but not all, of the case-study families responded to the loss of cash assistance by adjusting their expectations about and strategies for meeting basic needs. The need for food is perhaps most fundamental. Many of the case-study families adjusted their strategies for obtaining food upon the termination of their cash assistance. More than in the past, they economized by purchasing bulk quantities of food, in addition to relying on Food Stamps, gratefully accepting gifts of groceries from relatives, participating in the government commodity distribution program, and visiting food pantries. One case-study parent commented:
Now I buy food differently. One week I might buy a case of canned vegetables and then the next week I will get a meat order. It is different how I shop and how we eat. We eat stuff bought in bulk to last more days. Also, when the kids were in school, they were on the free breakfast and lunch program. Now, in the summer, it's even harder to get by.
Another parent reported:
We go to the food bank once each month. We would like to go more. But there is a rule about not going more than once each month. We try to go in the middle of the month so it feels we are doing our best for the first two weeks when we use our food stamps. But, it is hard.
Other parents mentioned that they had gone to churches, food pantries, and government commodity distribution sites to obtain food during the six-month period of ineligibility for cash assistance. Many of these organizations strictly limit the amount or frequency of assistance.
The case-study parents are also struggling to pay bills on time, and they have taken two main approaches to doing this. One approach is to pay bills in the order of the importance of the service or product, with the rent bill typically being paid first. Some parents paid their rent out of their employment earnings, while others relied on financial support (for example, mortgage payment by an estranged spouse) or in-kind support (for example, provision of space for a mobile home by parents) from friends or family, or bartered with landlords to reduce their rent in return for their cleaning vacant apartments. A second approach is to pay a small set of absolutely necessary bills each month (such as rent, electricity, and water) and then to alternate from month to month which bills of secondary importance are paid. Of course, a downside to this strategy is that access to a service or product that falls into the latter category may be lost due to lapses in payment. One case-study family lost its telephone service for this reason.
FIP cash benefits were terminated shortly before Christmas for many of the case-study families, making it difficult for parents to give presents to their children, as they had before going on the LBP. This was hard on both the children and the parents. One parent stated, "I could not afford any new toys for my boys. I felt bad about it. We went over to my brother's house for Christmas dinner and he had some gifts for my kids. That was a great surprise for the boys."
For two of the case-study families, the loss of cash benefits had little effect on their strategies for meeting basic needs. These families had greater economic resources than the others. In one family, the parent's partner paid all of the bills; in the other, the parent had secured full-time employment and was earning more each month than the amount of her former FIP cash benefits. For these two families, the loss of cash benefits affected the frequency with which the family bought special items for the children and engaged in leisure activities.
2. Shifting Dependency from Public Assistance to Family and Friends
Extended family members and friends played key roles in helping many of the case-study families cope with the loss of FIP cash benefits. They provided emotional support, financial assistance, and in-kind assistance, such as groceries and child care. In some cases, this support was so extensive that the family can be characterized as having shifted its dependency from public assistance to extended family members and friends.
The case-study parents who received assistance from extended family members and friends expressed varying levels of comfort in asking others for help, but they requested assistance because they put the needs of their children over their own embarrassment, loss of independence, lower self-esteem, and sense of guilt. One parent expressed the essence of this dilemma: "Well, I had to depend on other people to pay my bills, instead of me paying them myself. It is really hard trying to ask somebody for money. I did it because I had to. I had no choice. I am thankful that I have friends like that." As one parent noted, "I would do anything for my kids." Another parent said, "It does not matter how I feel about moving in with my folks. It is the best thing for my kids right now."
Many parents who relied on others for assistance expressed their sense of guilt at having imposed financial and other burdens on their family and friends. One parent said:
We lived with my mother for about four months. That was really hard. She is on Social Security and does not have a lot of money anyway. It was hard to ask her for help. I knew that she would say "yes," but I knew she could not afford it. We had no choice. I had been to the shelter already, and it was not safe there.
Another parent told us, "My friends will help me until I get on FIP again. My friends will help with groceries or help watch the kids if I need to go to a job interview." Nonetheless, she noted that this ongoing support had strained their friendship. "My friends told me that they cannot continue helping like this. They cannot afford it."
Case-study parents also struggled with the idea of returning to live in their parents' homes after being out on their own. They believed that it was a step backward for them emotionally. As one case-study parent said, "I had to go back and be under the same roof as my parents. I had to live by their rules again. I have a different way of parenting than they did when I was growing up, so there was a lot of stress at the beginning." Most of the case-study parents were willing to make these sacrifices when they expected them to be short-term. One explained, "I really appreciated their help and I knew I would be finding my own place. So, I just did the best I could."
A few case-study parents did not rely on extended family members or friends for support, choosing instead to manage on their own. They considered the loss of benefits a private issue, and the necessary adjustments were made within the immediate family. One such parent said, "I did it all on my own. I really did not want to go to anyone for help."
3. Linkages with Noncustodial Parents
All of the case-study parents commented on the roles of noncustodial parents in the lives of their families. Most reported that their LBP status had not affected the frequency or type of contact they had with their former partners. Three of the noncustodial parents had been and remained fairly active in the lives of their children, helping out financially or providing child care and transportation. Four of the case-study parents indicated that they began to pursue child support more earnestly following the termination of FIP cash benefits. This entailed working with the DHS Child Support Recovery Unit and, in some cases, with the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa.
Irregular or nonexistent child support payments are the norm among the case-study families, creating strain for many custodial parents. For example, irregular child support payments were a major source of disagreement between one case-study parent and her former husband. She told us that she was at the mercy of her former husband to make his court-ordered payments and had little control over the situation. Other parents made similar observations.
Some of the case-study parents remarked that their only tie to the fathers of their children was through the fathers' health insurance. These parents indicated that their children were covered under the noncustodial fathers' employer-provided health insurance policies. This coverage was greatly valued by these parents, especially those whose children had health problems that required expensive treatment. For example, one case-study parent had an asthmatic child who also suffered from allergies. The $165 monthly cost of medication and a breathing machine to treat those ailments was covered by the noncustodial father's health insurance policy.