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For more than two decades, a portion of Utah marriage license fees has been dedicated to helping women who have stayed home to care for family re-enter the workforce after losing support from their husbands after a divorce, death, loss of job or a disability.
But the usefulness of the program is now being questioned because of its small impact an apparent result of stringent requirements, no public outreach and changing social norms that have resulted in more women working after they marry and have children.
Also at play: a fiscally conservative bent of some lawmakers unconvinced there's a need for the Displaced Homemakers Program or that it should be supported by state-sanctioned fees. A motion to reauthorize the program for five years failed in a legislative interim committee meeting on June 15 and, unless there is further action, the program offering individualized career counseling and access to a network of other state services will expire in 2012.
"I wasn't sure if I completely understood the difference between what services are being proposed and what regular services are offered," said Rep. Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, who wasn't comfortable with the motion to extend the program five years without a review. Wilson said he wants "to be convinced that government can do [job placement services] as well as private entities are doing this."
Among those pushing to see the program continued: Rep. David Litvak, D-Salt Lake City.
"I think the program has tremendous value," he said. "Families are still feeling the impact of the recession and more individuals who have been out of the workplace are finding themselves with the need to go back to work. … Anything we can do to help people find and keep working we should be doing."
The Utah Legislature passed a Displaced Homemaker Act in 1986 to more squarely focus resources on helping women ages 35 to 64 who found themselves in need of a job after spending years at home caring for their children and husbands. The act requires $20 from each marriage license issued in the state to go to the displaced homemaker program, now administered by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Displaced homemakers' needs are unique. Women who have been homemakers are not eligible for unemployment insurance. For mothers who are separated or divorced, alimony or child support is unlikely to provide sufficient support; a woman with grown children might get no financial support from her former husband. And women whose husbands are disabled or deceased may not qualify for assistance because of previous income or current assets.
To help them become employable, Utah's program offers career counseling, assistance with résumé writing and job interviewing, educational support, and guidance on how to network to find a job. It also links clients into other state services, such as child care support, food stamps and health care coverage. The program has no staff, instead relying on employment counselors to identify eligible participants from among those who apply for traditional job support services.
In 1990, one nationally sponsored report estimated some 76,000 women in Utah qualified as displaced homemakers, but there are apparently no estimates on those numbers today. During the past seven years, the program has benefited approximately 1,000 women annually which means a sizable portion of the displaced homemaker fund goes unused. In fiscal year 2011, the fund received $520,000 and used approximately $340,000 of that helping about 1,100 women, leaving a balance of $179,000.
Karla Aguirre, an associate director at Workforce Services, said program requirements are partly to blame. To be eligible, a woman has to have been a homemaker for at least eight years without engaging in any significant paid employment a requirement hard to meet given that, even in a state where the dominant Mormon faith encourages married women to stay home with their children, 53 percent of mothers of preschool and school-age children are employed; also, 59 percent of married women work.
"Eight years is quite a significant time for someone to be out of the workplace," Aguirre told the legislative interim committee. "Our recommendation would be to lower that to two years or four years."
Aguirre also concedes that the department doesn't market the program and probably isn't reaching all those who might qualify for its help. She couldn't say how many women potentially need such help, but notes that Utah's divorce rate is consistently higher, albeit slightly, than the national average. And Aguirre argues the program is just as relevant today because of high unemployment rates and rapidly changing job skills.
"More and more families are being confronted with challenging times," Aguirre said. "The displaced homemaker really gets lost in all that. If we didn't have this program, there would be services we would still provide under the umbrella of DWS but we wouldn't be able to provide as many individualized services that we do."
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, agrees.
"I think that class of women who either because of divorce or death, who have spent their entire adult lives being mothers and housewives, really do need the additional support to get back into the workplace," he said. "With that support, they can be very, very productive because in most cases they've been very productive members of their community and family."
But Wilson, the Kaysville senator, said Aquirre's admission that displaced homemakers might have a hard time finding information about the program underscored his reluctance to continue it.
"I don't think the first place these folks would think to go is Workforce Services," said Wilson, who added he employs several women who might qualify for such a program at his homebuilding company.
And he wasn't the only lawmaker confused about what the program does or whom it is serving. Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, also was reluctant to lock in the program for another five years without more information.
"We need a little bit more information about the program and how well it is working," she said.
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said reducing the out-of-workplace time frame might increase the numbers of those eligible to the point of overwhelming the program.
"Sure, we'd love to have enough money to help everybody with everything," he said. "But there is not enough money to reduce that thing down to two years."
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The origins of displaced homemaker programs
Interest in earmarking funds to help displaced homemakers began in the 1970s, tracking the rise in the divorce rate.
One federal study estimated that in 1975 there were 1.7 million women ages 35 to 64 who, after years as stay-at-home moms, found themselves without financial support because of separation, divorce, widowhood or because of a husband's disability or unemployment. By 1983, that number had increased 28 percent to 2.2 million women, half of whom were in or close to poverty. More recent numbers are not available.
Congress first acted to address the needs of displaced homemakers in the Vocational Education Act of 1976 and again in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act of 1984.