Tough Life for Low-Wage Working Mothers

May 11, 2014

A new brief from the National Women’s Law Center tells us what we already knew, but not in such detail. Tough as it is to be a working mother with young children, it’s ever so much tougher if you’re in a low-wage job.

About 2.1 million — nearly one in five — mothers with children no older than three have jobs that typically pay, at most, $10.10 an hour, i.e., what the minimum wage bill stalled in Congress would require nationwide.

They’re the workers who care for our children and our elderly and/or disabled family members, the workers who clean our houses, prepare and serve our food when we go out to eat, ring up our purchases at the store and pack the products we’re buying.

More than half — 53% — are single or, for other reasons, raising their children without a husband in the house. Presumably many of them are the sole breadwinners, relying on their own earnings and perhaps some safety net benefits to support themselves and at least one child.

Here are some of the other things we learn about the group as a whole.

Just over half the mothers work full time. Most of the rest — 35.7% — work part time for “non-economic reasons.” These can include an inability to afford what child care would cost if they had to rely on it for more than eight hours a day, five days a week.

The mothers are disproportionately black or Hispanic — 50.3% of the group as a whole. By contrast, only 26.6% of all workers belong to these race/ethnicity groups.

The largest portion of the mothers — 42% — have only a high school diploma or the equivalent. Somewhat under than 17% have less formal education. But that leaves 41.4% who have at least some college education and still work in low-wage jobs.

This may be, to some extent, because low-wage industries, e.g., food service and administrative support, have more than recovered from job losses due to the recession, while there’s still a deficit of more than 1.9 million jobs in mid-wage and high-wage industries.

Similarly, 60% of women’s job gains during the first four years after the recession officially ended are of the low-wage sort. And to make matters worse, the real dollar value of wages in the largest low-wage occupations has dropped.

So what could we give these low-wage working moms for Mother’s Day? On the policy front, NWLC has some answers. They’d benefit all lower-income families with children — and some of them childless workers as well.

Top of the list, as you might expect, are increases in both the regular minimum wage and the tip credit wage, i.e., the minimum cash wage employers must pay workers who regularly receive tips.

Two related policies would require employers to provide some specified amount of paid leave so that workers could afford to take time off when they were sick or needed to care for a sick family member. Other family-related reasons would also qualify, e.g., pregnancy and childbirth.

As of last year, only 30% of low-wage workers in non-government jobs could take even a day off with pay when they were sick. And only 5% had any paid family leave benefit. These workers, needless to say, can least afford a pay loss. And they’re highly vulnerable to a job loss if they must take time off anyway.

On related note, NWLC calls for stronger enforcement of stronger legal protections against discrimination based on pregnancy and caregiver responsibilities.

The latter is a growing problem and not expressly prohibited by federal law, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. Nor broadly by any state, except the (non-state) District of Columbia.

The NWLC agenda would also give workers more control over their work schedules, i.e., some say in when they have to show up and when they can leave. And the schedules wouldn’t be so unpredictable from week to week or subject to daily cutbacks and/or required overtime. Both, as I’ve written before, pose a host of problems for low-wage workers.

Child care would be less problematic. There’d be more of it affordable for low-wage workers — both through subsidies to help pay for care by private-sector providers and through expanded pre-K programs.

As things stand now, our low-wage mothers in 19 states would have to pay, on average, at least half their earnings to have their infants or toddlers cared for in a center — assuming they worked full time, year round and had to cover the full cost.

Both child care and early childhood ed programs would be “high-quality” — an iffy matter now, as recent reviews of state licensing rules for childcare centers and state-funded preschool programs indicate.

And policies for both would “respond to families’ diverse circumstances,” which, I suppose, means, among other things, ensuring they’re available when working families need them.

The last item on the NWLC agenda calls for stronger safety net supports, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP (food stamp) benefits — the latter twice-cut in the past year.

To all this, I’ll add one more Mother’s Day gift for the low-wage single moms. A halt to blaming them for all the ills that beset their children because our public policies leave them in poverty — or at best, on the verge.

 


Surprising and Other Facts About Single Mothers and Fathers

September 9, 2013

At least half of today’s children will probably spend part of their childhood in a single-parent family. But we’re seemingly still ignorant about who the parents are and the challenges they face.

Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of rhetoric, of course — and a considerable amount of blame-casting.

But facts are in short supply when policymakers and other opinion-leaders turn their attention to single-parent issues — or more precisely, single-mother issues, since we rarely hear about single dads who’ve taken on the responsibility of raising their kids.

Tim Casey at Legal Momentum seeks to remedy this with a “snapshot” of single parenthood in the U.S. — the first of his annual fact sheets that deals with single parents, rather than single mothers only.

Here’s a summary of what we learn — highly selective and far less data-packed than what Casey has pulled together from the Census Bureau’s latest detailed tables and other sources.

Most single parents, i.e., those with kids in the house, are single mothers — 79% of the total last year. No surprise here.

More surprising perhaps, a majority of single parents were formerly married or still married, but separated from their spouses. Only 44% of children in single-parent families lived with a parent who’d always been single.

Also surprising, I think, is the fact that most single parents have no more than two children — and more than half (56%) only one child. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Children in single-parent families are far more likely to be living in poverty than children in two-parent families. In 2011, they accounted for 53% of all poor children.

Looked at another way, their poverty rate was more than triple the rate for children in two-parent families — 42%, as compared to 13%.

Part of the explanation for this, of course, is that the family has only one breadwinner — and apparently in many cases, little or nothing in child support.

Those breadwinners weren’t faring all that well. Just 54% were employed full-time and another 13% part-time when the 2012 census was taken. By contrast, 85% of fathers and 48% of mothers in two-parent families had full-time jobs.

Some of the working parents earned more than enough to support themselves and their kids. I suppose we all know examples. Perhaps some of you are examples.

Yet single parents are much more likely than other workers to be stuck in low-wage jobs. According to a study Casey cites, 34% of single mothers were both low-wage and low-income* in 2009.

We see the results in more current figures. In 2011, for example, the median annual income for single-mother families was $25,353 — only 32% of the median for two-parent families.

This means that the median for single mothers was well below 200% of the federal poverty line — a common definition of low-income.

The median for single fathers was $12,814, but still only 48% of the median for two-parent families.

We shouldn’t be surprised then to learn that 34% of single-parent families experienced food insecurity, i.e., didn’t always have the resources to buy “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Or altogether surprised that they were more than 80% of all homeless families in shelters in 2010.

And, alas, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that only 11% of single-parent families received cash assistance last year — yet another indicator of what “welfare reform” has done to the safety net.

In an earlier study, Casey and a co-researcher compared the status of single parents in the U.S. with the status of their counterparts in other high-income countries.

They found that single parents here have one of the highest — if not the highest — employment rate, but also the highest relative poverty rate, i.e., incomes below 50% of the country’s median.

One reason is their concentration in low-wage jobs — and what seems to be pay discrimination. Another is our relatively small investment in affordable child care and free education for very young children.

Still another is our paltry income support programs, e.g., our lack of a national paid leave mandate or a monthly cash benefit specifically to help with the costs of raising children.

And then there’s our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Even when combined with SNAP (the food stamp program), it provides, by far and away, the least assistance, as measured by percent of median income.

We purport to be all far families and the well-being of our nation’s children. But our policies say otherwise.

We don’t, I think, need more enlightened policies specifically for single parents. But we do need policies that recognize the realities of family life today, including the fact that a lot of them have — or will have — only one parent present.

* Low-wage here means less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for the state. Low-income, as often, is less than 200% of the federal poverty line.


Extending Unemployment Benefits Won’t Help All Jobless Workers

August 24, 2012

Looking back on my post about the expiring federal unemployment insurance benefits, I realized I’d left out important parts of the picture.

One is the growing number of workers who’ve been jobless more than 99 weeks — longer than the maximum for benefits even when both federal programs were in full force.

The other is that lots of workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can’t get UI benefits at all.

In 2010, for example, only 44% of these workers got any benefits from their state programs, according to a recent brief from the Urban Institute.

The brief documents what we probably would have guessed. A very high percentage of the left-out workers are “disadvantaged,” e.g., blacks and Hispanics, single mothers, teens and young adults.

Both blacks and Hispanics are also unusually likely to be among the long-term unemployed, another Institute brief tells us.

We know from other sources that single mothers were far more likely to be jobless and actively looking for work last year than married mothers — or the labor force as a whole. This was also true for the 16-24 year old age group.

The disadvantaged workers are less likely than others to get UI benefits because states have eligibility rules that tend to exclude them.

These, in some cases, are related to the workers’ disadvantages in the labor market.

Virtually all states, for example, have minimum earnings requirements. The time period they use varies, but the earnings threshold will always disadvantage low-wage workers whose jobs weren’t ongoing and full-time.

Workers who got jobs through temporary agencies are often out of luck — even if they put in a full day, every day.

Only 22 states will provide benefits for workers who have to quit for reasons most of us would find compelling, i.e., domestic violence, the need to care for a sick or disabled family member.*

Not surprisingly, single mothers seem to fall into this group, though the Institute’s report isn’t altogether clear on this.

Many are also left out in the 23 states that won’t provide benefits for workers who are looking for a new job that isn’t full time. We know anecdotally that single mothers may have no alternative because they can’t afford the high costs of child care.

The Recovery Act gave states a financial incentive to eliminate such barriers in their UI programs.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia adopted the first and only partial payment option — or already had it on the books.

But only 34 states and the District took the minimum three actions that netted them the full amount they could receive.

Just one and the District went for the fully battery. Still barriers for disadvantaged workers in both jurisdictions, however.

Some states have since tightened up their requirements — this rather than raise the imprudently low UI taxes they’d decided to collect from employers.

The end result is a patchwork of coverage.

But there are only five states in which more than half of all jobless workers got UI benefits in 2010. And only one — Alaska — where the rate topped 60%.

* Eleven other states will provide benefits for workers who quit because of domestic violence, but not because of a family member’s illness or disability.


How Unaffordable Is Child Care for Low-Income Parents?

May 29, 2012

A bunch of things got me wondering about child care costs. How unaffordable are they for low-income parents who don’t have the benefit of subsidies?

The annual survey reports by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies are the best source of data on affordability I’ve found.

So I pulled figures from the latest report — most of them for 2009. Then did some calculations of my own — or more precisely, told Excel to do them.

Here’s a summary of key results, plus some Google gleanings about impacts.

Single Mothers Earning the Median

Single-mother families have average incomes significantly lower than families with two parents present. So I began my number crunching with them.

Lots of figures to enter. So I stuck with the costs of center-based care. It’s generally more expensive than care in a home setting, but also more frequently used.

NACCRA gives us breakouts for the median income of single-mother families in each state and the District of Columbia. Also the cost of care for infants and for four year olds as a percent of the median income .

Say a single mother needed child care for one of each. In 20 states and the District, she’d have had to pay more than two-thirds of her income if she earned the median.

Even in the lowest-cost states, nearly half her income would have had to go for child care.

In 30 states and the District, child care for only an infant would have consumed at least a third of her income.

Minimum Wage Workers

Things get worse, of course, for minimum wage workers — even if they work full time, year round, as many don’t.

But say we’ve got a minimum wage worker who does. In 26 states and the District, his/her entire pretax income would have been less than the costs of child care for the infant and four year old.*

Costs of care for the infant alone would have consumed more than half the full-time, year round minimum wage in 33 states and the District — and more than two-thirds in 14 states, plus the District.

Child care was unaffordable even for families with two full-time, year round minimum wage workers. For the two kids, they would have had to pay more than half their gross income in 27 states and the District.

In only one state — Mississippi — would they have had as much as two-thirds of their income for everything else a family needs.

So What’s a Poor Parent to Do?

According to the latest (not very recent) figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 39% of poor children eligible for federally-funded child care subsidies received them in 2006.

Eligibility here means that they were under 13, unless they had special needs. And their parents were either working or participating in education or training activities.

An additional 23% of eligible children in families with incomes between 101% and 150% of the federal poverty line also received child care subsidies.

Which leaves us with some 38% of poor and near-poor children whose parents worked — or were working toward work — without subsidized care.

As the National Women’s Law Center observes, some parents can rely on their parents or other relatives for child care. Somewhat more low-income parents than others do. But for a variety of reasons, many can’t.

And, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, many can’t afford child care at market rates. So what do they do?

Some, mostly moms, choose not to work. Better financially to have one parent out there earning and the other at home with the kids.

Others work part-time or in shifts, barely seeing each other awake for days on end.

And single mothers?

Some of them also decide they can’t go on working. They turn — or return — unwillingly to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It’s a stopgap solution because TANF is time-limited. But it solves the child care problem for awhile.

One homeless mother says she worked nights while her kids slept in the car parked where she could keep an eye on them.

Surely we could do better for children, their parents and our economy. To say this would involve some reordering of priorities in Congress is an understatement.

* The federal minimum wage increased by 50 cents an hour in July 2009. This produced minimum wage increases in most states and the District. For my calculations, I used the post-increase rate.


Not Such a Happy Day for Millions of Single Mothers

May 12, 2012

You can find more recent figures on single mothers (and single fathers) here.

An old post of mine on the plight of single mothers gets into my top-10 viewed list week after week. So Mother’s Day seems like a good time to check on how they’re doing.

One thing we know for sure is that there are more of them than there used to be. Much head-shaking — and finger-wagging — from the conservative family values types.

Yet far from all single mothers had their children without benefit of clergy. About 55% are separated, divorced or widowed, according to an update from Legal Momentum.

Still, more women are having children outside of marriage. Some are in committed same-sex relationships who can’t get married in the states they live in. Some are content to live in domestic partnerships with the men they love — at least, for the time being.

Many, I would guess, don’t see marriage as a smart economic move — at any rate, not marriage to the fathers of their children.

Some single mothers are surely doing fine — economically, at least. Juggling household and parental responsibilities with a full-time job is tough, even if income isn’t a problem.

And even if an employer provides generous paid sick and family leave. As of 2010, only 58% of private-sector employees had access to any paid sick leave at all. Whether they could use their leave to stay home with a sick child or thrash out a day care problem is unclear.

The bigger story, I think, is that a large percent of single mothers aren’t doing fine by any economic measure. In 2010, says Legal Momentum:

  • Two-fifths of all single-mother families were poor, according to the very low thresholds the Census Bureau uses.
  • The poverty rate for single-mother families was nearly three times greater than for the population as a whole — 42.4%, as compared to 15.1%.
  • At any given time, about two-thirds of single mothers were employed outside the home, but only two-fifths of them were employed full time, year round. A quarter were jobless the entire year.
  • The median average income for single-mother households was less than $25,000 — actually only $24,487, according to one of the Census Bureau’s many data tables.
  • A third of single mothers spent more than half their income for housing — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standard for a “severe housing cost burden.”
  • Not surprisingly then, three-quarters of homeless families were headed by single mothers.

There’s no simple explanation for these sorry figures.

Legal Momentum mentions delinquent child support payments. Only a third of single mothers received any child support in 2010, and for them, the average was $300 a month.

A number of other factors Legal Momentum cites are work-related. They include scarce employment — still the case now — and occupational segregation in low-wage “women’s work,” e.g., home health aides, restaurant wait staff.

Closely related are our very low minimum wage rates, even in the 18 states that have set rates higher than the federal minimum — still a mere $7.25 an hour and losing purchasing power all the time.

Another work-related factor is unaffordable child care, which can eat up a huge chunk of income — more than many single mothers can earn.

Still another factor is our unemployment insurance system, which tends to exclude people who work part-time or intermittently, especially in low-wage jobs.

All these factors reflect public policies — some more directly than others.

Pride of place, for Legal Momentum, is our “restrictive and stingy welfare program,” a.k.a. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

I’ve frequently vented about problems built into the TANF law and regulations, often drawing on briefs Legal Momentum has issued.

The single-mother poverty brief I’m using here captures one aspect of ending welfare as we knew it. While about two-thirds of single mothers received food stamps in 2010, barely more than a quarter (27.1%) received cash assistance from TANF.

The cash left them and their children desperately poor. Maximum benefits for a family of three were below 30% of the federal poverty line in all but eight states — and above 50% in none.

About half of all mothers today will spend at least some time as the sole custodial parent. If today is typical, nearly a quarter of all mothers are in this situation.

We could make a happier Mother’s Days for millions of them, if the political will were there.

No further comment necessary, I trust.


How Much Does Single-Mother Poverty Cost Our Nation?

February 24, 2011

My posting on the plight of single-mother families prompted commenter Glenda to ask a really good question: “Do you have any data … on our total public costs to continue to support single mothers living in poverty rather than investing in helping them to get educated and become self-sufficient?”

I replied as best I could at the time. But I’ve decided the issue is worth a deeper dive, especially because the whole matter of government spending on programs for low-income people has become a major focus in many states — and, of course, on Capitol Hill as well.

The short answer to the question is that I don’t know of any study that has compared the relative costs of the benefits that, to a limited extent, sustain poor single mothers with the costs that would be involved in enabling them to fully support themselves and their children.

There are, however, some studies that can help us look at one side of the cost question.

For example, we have some data on what the federal government spends to help support single-mother families. Two sociology professors report that, in 2006, federal expenditures due to “father absence” totaled $98.9 billion. A quick look at the expenditures shows that “father absence” is another way of characterizing single-mother families.

As the authors note, the estimate is actually a fraction of total costs. It doesn’t include costs borne by state and local governments, e.g., what states spend on federal-state “partnership” programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and subsidized child care.

Nor do the estimates include the long-term indirect costs due to the negative effects of growing up fatherless. Many, though probably not all of these are the same as the long-term costs of child poverty.

A team of economists produced a report on these in 2008. Basically, they reviewed the research on the relationships between child poverty and three major cost areas — earnings, propensity to crime and quality of health in adulthood. They put these together with estimated costs of the latter two and projected all the figures out over the total number of poor children in the U.S.

Bottom line was an estimated $500 billion per year cost — nearly 4% of what was then our entire gross domestic product, i.e., the total value of all the goods and services produced in the U.S. This too was explicitly a conservative estimate.

Though the team didn’t assess the cost-effectiveness of specific anti-poverty policies, they did conclude that “investing significant resources in poverty reduction might be more cost-effective over time than [they] previously thought.”

Note the use of the term “investing” here. The same word Glenda used. The thought behind the word seems to me clear and appropriate. Pay some money now because you expect it will yield returns beyond what you spent.

In this case, you put funds into programs that will lift as many children as possible out of poverty — thus, in the long run, increase productivity and reduce public costs.

I flag the word because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) preemptively trashed on the President’s use of it in his recent State of the Union address. “With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment,” he told the anchor on Sunday Fox News.

Seems to me that it’s possible to distinguish smart investments from spending that won’t be offset by benefits to our economy and the well-being of the American people. I should think that policymakers of all stripes would concur on some of the basics.

A review of the spending cuts proposed by the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee suggests otherwise. One seems especially relevant here — the large cut in funding for state and local employment training programs. This, along with the other major cuts, passed in the House last Saturday.

Under the just-passed bill, total funding for these programs would be just 53% of what Congress approved for Fiscal Year 2010 — and again as part of the current continuing resolution. It would be just 49% of the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 because he requested an increase.

So we would “save” about $1.4 billion or $1.6 billion, depending on which measure you want to use. (The former is more accurate, though Republicans understandably prefer the latter.)

The National Skills Coalition says we should factor in appropriations customarily made in advance of the new fiscal year. These would bring the total cut to somewhat over $2.97 billion. Some smaller, more narrowly-targeted workforce development programs would be totally defunded — or nearly so.

Consider what McConnell favors instead of these investments — a permanent extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts. This, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, would cost an estimated $3,402 billion for the first 10 years.

The permanent extension bill just proposed by self-proclaimed deficit hawks Mike Pence (R-IN) and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) would presumably cost even more because it would wholly eliminate the estate tax.

You can pay for a lot of job training and education for all those billions — and have plenty left over for other endangered programs that would also help single moms become fully self-sufficient.


Harder Times For Single Mothers And Their Children

January 29, 2011

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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