Austin offers resources to struggling parents

October 18, 2017

In between classes, homework and her other obligations as a student, UT Austin radio-television-film senior Haley Morales has one more responsibility on which she must spend her time: either taking care of her four-month-old son, Hunter, or finding someone to look after him.

Morales doesn’t find balancing school and motherhood to be especially difficult. But because of her busy schedule, the most challenging thing is finding childcare. She added that, although there are plenty of resources in Austin to help her, the problem is finding enough time to access these resources.

“It’s very time-consuming, and I was still going to school while I was pregnant,” she said. “I was going to school and doing homework so I didn’t really have the time. I feel like it would have been helpful if I did have the time.”

Austin and Travis County are rich in resources for parents who are struggling, whether they be low-income, in school or a working single parent. Those who need it can get assistance for necessities ranging from diapers to car seats and even human milk for babies who cannot eat formula due to medical reasons.  Morales said she doesn’t think there’s a lack of resources in Austin, but the problem is finding them.

“It took a lot of research on my part to find those kinds of resources,” Morales said. “I wouldn’t say there’s not enough, maybe if they just had more visibility or were easier to find out about.”

In addition to resources offered at the local level, the federal government has a number of “safety net” programs to help single parents with children get the essential services they need, according to Patrick Wong, a UT Austin public affairs associate professor who studies poverty and welfare issues. These programs include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which offers cash on a temporary basis to low-income families; the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps, which are available for purchasing food for families and individuals living below a certain income level; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, which helps provide food for pregnant women and children up to five years of age.

Wong said one issue holding back the economic well-being of vulnerable parents is education level: more education could lead to finding a higher-paying job.

“But that is not the only issue, because when you have young children at home, obviously you need to have support taking care of the children while you are at work,” Wong said. “Therefore, [the second part] of the fundamental solution must be an infrastructural support for working parents.”

This infrastructural support would include childcare assistance and maternal leave.

“Right now, most low-income parents are in jobs that do not offer paid leave for sick children or for pregnancy,” Wong said. “That is an important dimension that needs to change in order to make it possible for these single parents to get ahead economically.”

Living in a city also makes a difference for this group of people: Wong said that compared to rural areas, an urban setting allows for easier physical access to these resources, such as doctors that accept Medicaid or benefit eligibility offices where low-income parents can apply for food stamps. However, the cost of living is higher in cities such as Austin, while the amount of benefits available are uniform across the state.

“The effective resources that an Austin parent obtains is probably relatively less than the resource level that a rural Texas family can obtain,” Wong said. “From the financial side, it’s probably a little bit worse for Austin families.”

Austin does offer some options for parents unable to afford this high cost of living. An organization called LifeWorks offers housing to young homeless parents between the ages of 16 and 22, according to LifeWorks case manager Morgan Miles.

Miles said that, by helping the young parents at a vulnerable stage, they are also helping impact the lives of their children.

“The desire to have your own place gives you the confidence to be able to raise your child,” Miles said. “It’s huge for someone to tell you, ‘hey, I believe in you, you can do this, we’re going to help.’”

Miles, who studied social work at UT Austin, said she is passionate about helping a group of people that is often ignored.

“I believe every person should have the dignity to be able to live how they would like to,” Miles said, “and to do so with respect from people around them.”

Miles said the Young Parent Program at LifeWorks is there to help these young parents navigate the systems and resources available to them and, if need be, advocate for them in order to get those resources faster.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” Miles said. “There’s a lot of people who care about you who have never even met you. Ask for help and you might be surprised at what you are led to.”

Read the complete project here by Jina Chung, Julianne Hodges, David Sternberg and Alana Hernandez. This project was produce for J321F: Reporting on City and County Government during the fall of 2017.
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