Harder Times For Single Mothers And Their Children

I’ve got a more recent post on this issue, with new figures from Legal Momentum and more on factors that help explain them. You can find it here. Even more recent figures and additional factors are here.

Single-mother families are worse off than any other type of household by just about any measure you can imagine. And their bad situation has gotten worse since the recession set in.

This we learn in detail from a new report by Legal Momentum, tellingly entitled Single Mothers Since 2000: Falling Further.

Here’s some of what the report tells us about the one in four U.S. families headed by a single mother, supplemented a bit by what I’ve found elsewhere.

In 2009:

  • The median average income for all single-mother families was just $25,172 — down by more than $2,000 since 2000. The median average income for married couples with children was three times greater and, for the relatively few single-father families, nearly one and a half times greater.
  • Well over a third (38.5%) of single-mother families lived below the poverty threshold. This is more than four and a half times the rate for married couples with children and also considerably higher than the rate for single-father families.
  • About half the single-mother families below the poverty threshold were in “extreme poverty,” i.e., had incomes below 50% of the threshold.
  • Women were a large majority (79.6%) of the adults with children who were in emergency shelters.
  • About 20% of single-mother families were living doubled up with friends or relatives — often a precursor to literal homelessness.
  • Though a high percentage of single-mother families received food stamps, 36.6% of them experienced food insecurity, i.e., at least sometimes didn’t have the resource for everyone to have enough food.

To some extent, these dismal stats reflect the job losses and cutbacks in 2009. But other figures indicate they’re not solely results of the Great Recession. Even in 2000, when jobs were plentiful, only 76% of single mothers were employed in an average month — and not, I infer, necessarily full time.

As Legal Momentum shows, many single mothers who want to work face two major related challenges — high child care costs and low wages. As proof, it cites the results of a recent state-by-state study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

NACCRRA found that the average cost for an infant care center ranged from 26.3% to 26.9% of the median income for single-mother families. With a second preschool child in care, the average cost was less than half of their median income in only four states and more than 70% in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

Subsidized child care would obviously help many single mothers out of poverty. Yet, as a National Women’s Law Center director recently testified, the major federal child care and early education programs reach only a fraction of those in need — and that’s with the increases that were part of the economic recovery act.

President Obama proposed $2 billion to extend these through the current fiscal year, thus providing for about 300,000 children and their low-income parents. You can be pretty damn certain Congress won’t go along.

What about the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program? Surely the 3.8 million single-mother families below the poverty threshold are needy. And TANF is often a source of subsidized child care too.

According to Legal Momentum, just 10% of single-mother families received TANF benefits in 2010. This continues a long downward slide dating back to “welfare reform” and largely attributable to a combination of the policies and inadequate federal funding.

The poor single-mother families who did get TANF benefits received far less than the minimum they’d need to stave off hardship. As another Legal Momentum report tells us, in mid-July 2008,  the median monthly benefit for a family of three was $426 and far below the federal poverty line even in states that paid more.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that three states cut TANF benefits in 2009, despite temporary infusions from the now-expired TANF Emergency Contingency Fund. Others, it says, may consider cuts to balance their Fiscal Year 2012 budgets. The District, as we know, is already engaged in its own forms of benefits trimming.

Though a small percentage of single-mother families are on TANF, they represent more than 90% of all TANF families.

Legal Momentum has done an important service in highlighting their economic distress — and the distress of all those families who’ve been kept out or pushed out of the TANF program.

But, as it notes, those of us who care will face “daunting challenges,” especially in the new Congress. It’s referring here to securing better policies and more funding.

Sad to say, we may need to expend all the resources we can muster just to protect the existing programs single-mother families need from sheer devastation.

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4 Responses to Harder Times For Single Mothers And Their Children

  1. Glenda says:

    Thank you for this great information! Do you have any data or can you refer me to anything re: our total public costs to continue to support single mothers living in poverty rather than investing in helping them get educated and become self-sufficient?

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    You’ve asked a really good question, Glenda. The short answer is that I don’t know of anyone who’s looked at the relative costs of supporting poor single-mother families versus investing in the education, training and support services needed to enable them to become self-sufficient.

    However, two academics came up with an estimate of the total federal costs of “father absence,” which seems to be the same thing as single-mother families. They put the figure for 2006 at nearly $99.8 billion. This, they said, was a conservative estimate.

    You can find the executive summary for their report at http://www.fatherhood.org/Document.Doc?id=136

    These are only direct spending costs on public benefits. There are also large, long-term costs to the economy. Again, I don’t know of anyone who’s estimated them for poor single-mother families. However, also in 2006, a team of economists estimated the total costs of having children grow up in poverty. They put the figure (again, conservative) at $500 billion a year.

    You can find a summary, the full report and related testimony at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2007/01/poverty_report.html

    Hope this helps.

  3. [...] posting on the plight of single-mother families prompted commenter Glenda to ask a really good question: [...]

  4. [...] old post of mine on the plight of single mothers gets into my top-10 viewed list week after week. So [...]

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